|Depth charge: How Red Sox starting depth is shaping up||12.22.11 at 2:04 pm ET|
Most of the curiosity surrounding the Red Sox rotation this offseason has focused on which high-end pitchers the team might pursue (whether trading for someone like Gio Gonzalez, Matt Garza or Gavin Floyd or a free-agent such as Hiroki Kuroda or Roy Oswalt) or the two pitchers (Daniel Bard, Alfredo Aceves) who were key bullpen contributors for the Sox last year but who will be stretched out as starters in spring training.
However, the Sox’ efforts this offseason stretch well beyond just the top five starters whom they will feature, at least on paper, at the start of the season. Teams typically need at least seven or eight quality starters to make it through the shifting fortunes of the season and to withstand injuries and performances that fall short of expectations.
Last year, the Sox used 10 starters. They’re not alone. In the last 10 seasons, the Sox have averaged 10.2 starters per year. Since 2005, about 61 percent of teams in baseball have required 10 or more starters to make it through a year (led by a 2006 Royals team that used a shocking 17 starters in their season).
That being the case, the Sox are looking not just at high-end options (such as the free agent and trade candidates listed above), but also depth options that will give the team some stability when injuries inevitably enter the picture.
As the team continues that undertaking, here is a look at pitchers who are currently viewed as depth options in the organization:
GIVENS — the three starters who are certain (barring injury) to enter the year in the rotation, and require little explanation:
Josh Beckett (13-7, 2.89 ERA, 193 IP)
Jon Lester (15-9, 3.47, 191 2/3 IP)
Clay Buchholz (6-3, 3.48, 82 2/3 IP)
BUBBLE — entering spring training, the pitchers who are currently slated to compete for starting jobs:
Alfredo Aceves (10-2, 2.61, 114 IP in the majors): Aceves made four big league starts and two more in the minors. He has a four-pitch mix that suggests the stuff to be a starter, although he was also a remarkably impactful reliever given his unique ability to work several innings at a time.
Daniel Bard (2-9, 3.33, 73 IP): Bard hasn’t started a game since 2007, but his three-pitch fastball/slider/changeup mix makes him the highest-ceiling Sox pitcher in just about any role in which he pitches. That said, there is a great unknown about managing the sort of innings bump that he’d face.
Felix Doubront (0-0, 6.10, 10 1/3 IP in the majors; 3-5, 3.96, 77 1/3 IP in the minors): 2011 was a disappointing year for Doubront, who is now out of options. He dealt with a series of minor injuries — his elbow in spring training, his groin and hamstring during the season — that interrupted what had been a very promising career arc. When he is healthy, Doubront is a left-hander with three solid average big league pitchers and the build and delivery to be durable. But he wasn’t healthy in 2011 after ending the 2010 season unable to pitch in September due to an upper back injury, and now it remains to be seen what shape his Sox career takes.
He is, in the words of one person in the organization, the biggest wild card for the 2012 team. He could win a rotation job out of spring training. He could be an impact bullpen arm (a role for which he was projected for 2011 after showing promising glimpses of being able to help in that capacity in 2010). He could be traded either this winter (indeed, if the Sox do acquire a starter in a trade, Doubront is among the likeliest players in the organization to be moved, since he’d have value as a potential big league starter but no clear track to the Sox roster). He could be traded in a roster crunch at the end of the spring.
Nothing is certain with the left-hander. But multiple members of the organization have talked with the 24-year-old this offseason about the importance of remaining committed to his offseason conditioning so that he can come into spring training in top shape and give himself the best chance to compete.
Andrew Miller (6-3, 5.54, 65 IP in the majors; 3-3, 2.47, 65 2/3 IP in the minors): Miller is a wild card in the same mold of Doubront. Like Doubront, he’s out of options, and will compete for a job in the Sox rotation in the spring. He would have less trade value than Doubront, in part because there’s been greater inconsistency to his performances in six pro seasons. He shows phenomenal flashes, as with his ability to dominate the Rangers in August. If he can harness that in spring training, he could win a rotation spot or a meaningful bullpen role (ex-Sox manager Terry Francona referred to Miller’s fastball/curveball combination as being like a left-handed version of Bard last spring). If not, he could be a candidate for a late-spring trade.
NON-ROSTER DEPTH OPTIONS
Brandon Duckworth (8-6, 3.97, 118 IP in the minors): Duckworth, who turns 36 in January, recently re-signed on a minor league deal with the Sox. He pitched well enough last year in Triple-A Pawtucket that he was in the conversation as a potential depth option at multiple junctures. However, with Miller and Kyle Weiland (traded to the Astros earlier this month) in the system and pitching very well in the minors at times when the Sox needed to add an arm, Duckworth didn’t get a big league shot. He was then unhealthy down the stretch, unable to start after Aug. 15, thus taking him out of consideration in September when the Sox were desperate for starting depth.
Even so, he is viewed as a veteran whom the Sox would trust in case of injury-induced need.
Alex Wilson (10-4, 3.11, 133 IP in the minors): Wilson, a 2009 second-round pick of the Sox, is expected to impact the Sox at some point this year. There is a likelihood that it will be as a starter, since his mid-90s fastball and swing-and-miss slider point to someone with a late-innings repertoire. At the same time, he’s made significant strides as a starter, showing that he could hold his velocity deeper into games in 2011 than before, and also showing the ability to work down in the zone to get more groundballs and improve his pitch efficiency.
That being the case, multiple Sox officials said that Wilson has reached a point where there would be comfort using him as at least a spot starter, even if relief is his likeliest destination. In that vein, it is worth remembering that Jonathan Papelbon made his debut with three starts in 2005 before shifting — as it turned out, permanently — to the bullpen that season.
UNLIKELY TO BE IN THE PICTURE
–Though both right-hander Stolmy Pimentel and left-hander Drake Britton are on the 40-man roster, both — after struggling in 2011 — are unlikely to see the big leagues in 2012. Instead, both with open the year competing for rotation spots in Double-A Portland. The two hurlers have the stuff to give them high ceilings, but they will need to make significant strides forward to put themselves in position to impact the Sox in 2013.
–Junichi Tazawa made his big league debut as starter in 2009, but in his return from Tommy John surgery last year, he was limited to short stints, primarily out of the bullpen. Nothing has been decided formally about Tazawa’s future, but the power of his stuff in short stints last year was impressive, to the point where it would not be surprising if he became a reliever going forward. The right-hander, who underwent surgery in April 2010, does not face any workload restrictions going forward.
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