, Gloucester, MA

December 24, 2012

The Sox have a new lineup, but success is far from certain

On Pro Baseball
Christopher Smith

---- — Toronto Blue Jays starting pitchers ranked 25th in ERA (4.82) in 2012 and GM Alex Anthopoulos has tried to resolve the issue, acquiring NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, durable Mark Buehrle and talented Josh Johnson via trades.

Boston Red Sox starters ranked 27th in ERA (5.19), but GM Ben Cherington has added just one starter, Ryan Dempster, whose statistics against American League teams are unimpressive.

The Red Sox have been busy this offseason. They re-signed designated hitter David Ortiz to a two-year deal. They signed five positional free agents (including Mike Napoli, whose contract still must be completed) to deals of three or fewer years. They signed Dempster to two years and right-handed reliever Koji Uehara for one year.

So what exactly is Cherington’s plan?

By offering short contracts and not adding a legitimate slugger (such as Josh Hamilton) or frontline starter (Zack Greinke or someone via trade like Dickey), the Red Sox essentially have told us they believe in the core of position players and pitchers with the team or in the minors.

They believe these players can lead them to the playoffs in the coming years.

Boston is building a bridge to 2014. Heck, maybe it’s a two-year bridge. The length of the bridge isn’t the most interesting unanswered question so far.

The more relevant question is what are the Red Sox bridging to? Do they have enough combined talent in the majors and minors to compete for a World Series in two or three years? Will Boston’s plan work or fail miserably?

It’s debatable.

Farrell promises improvement

When I say the Red Sox believe in their major league core of talent, I’m specifically referring to Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Dustin Pedroia, Will Middlebrooks and Felix Doubront.

As I’ve written many times, championship teams are centered on strong starting pitching. Obviously, Lester’s and Buchholz’s ability to regain their pre-2012 form is crucial.

New manager John Farrell already has said he saw obvious flaws in Lester’s delivery last year that could have affected his consistency. Presumably, these flaws can be fixed fairly easily.

If I was a betting man, I would put my money on Lester to rebound because he is young (turns 29 in January), supposedly healthy, a workhorse (hurled more than 200 innings four of the past five seasons) and posted a 3.33 ERA from 2008-11.

Buchholz, meanwhile, arguably has the best stuff of anyone on the staff. The only concern with him is if can remain healthy enough to be a 200-inning-per-year pitcher.

But the Red Sox need more than Lester’s and Buchholz’s best. They need either a true ace or someone close to it.

Maybe Buchholz is that guy. He has shown glimpses of greatness.

Or maybe it will end up being 22-year-old right-hander Matt Barnes. In my opinion, he has the most potential of any Sox minor leaguer to turn into an ace.

Barnes went 7-5 with a 2.86 ERA in 25 starts combined between Single-A Greenville and Single-A (high) Salem in ‘12, his first full professional season. Beyond that, he is extremely intelligent, prepares well, is open to suggestions and already knows a great deal about himself as a pitcher.

The 6-4, 210-pounder is working hard to put muscle to maintain his strength throughout the ‘13 season, which he likely will begin in Double-A Portland.

Make Tazawa a starter

The Red Sox also might be wise to convert Junichi Tazawa from a reliever to a starter.

The 26-year-old Tazawa posted a 1.43 ERA, 0.955 WHIP, 45 strikeouts and just five walks in 44 innings last year out of Boston’s bullpen. Remember, Tazawa was an effective starter in the minors before undergoing Tommy John surgery in ‘10.

The 40-man roster consists of several relievers (Craig Breslow, Mark Melancon, Andrew Miller, Franklin Morales, Clayton Mortensen) who are out of options.

Tazawa still has one option remaining. So despite how effective a setup man he likely would be, maybe Boston should option him to Pawtucket to start games at the beginning of the season. Why not see what he can do?

Hard-throwing 23-year-old Rubby De La Rosa, who the Red Sox acquired in their mega-deal with the Dodgers, is someone nobody talks about much. He has the potential to be an effective starter, although he likely will spend ‘13 as a reliever to limit his innings because he had Tommy John surgery late in ‘11.

And then there is 22-year-old right-hander Allen Webster, who the Red Sox also received from the Dodgers.

Webster is very shy — maybe not the best trait in this market — but he projects to be either a second or third starter in the majors and has great sinking action. Added to the 40-man roster this offseason, he has the potential for a promotion to Boston next year if he pitches well in the minors. Expect him to start with Double-A Portland.

The Red Sox also have 20-year-old left-hander Henry Owens, who just finished his first pro season and who some scouts believe has the potential to be a No. 2 starter someday.

Talent on the farm

Cherington and his staff also are relying on the core of positional talent in the minors, including shortstop Xander Bogaerts, catcher Blake Swihart and third baseman Garin Cecchini as well outfielders Jackie Bradley Jr. and Bryce Brentz.

Bradley and Brentz could make their major league debuts at some point this coming season, but both probably will be more ready for full-time jobs come 2014.

Relying on minor league talent obviously isn’t a sure bet. Too many highly-rated minor leagues have failed to reach their potential.

That said, the more minor league talent the Red Sox can stock, the better chance they have of the bridge not collapsing. Boston, therefore, should be actively shopping Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and others for young talent.

So far, many who I have spoken with look unfavorably on the job Cherington has done this offseason. But don’t be too quick to judge. The team will be better in 2012 — especially if Lester and Buchholz rebound. Heck, they might even make things exciting in the playoff race if those two pitch to their capabilities

Yes, the Sox plan is more focused on 2014 and beyond. Still, Cherington will be judged tremendously on this offseason. As I’ve written before, decisions he already has made will go a long way in defining his tenure as Red Sox GM.