The second of a five-part series looking at the biggest questions facing the Red Sox leading into spring training:
2. How good (or bad) will the starting rotation be?
The most persistent questions raised about Red Sox starting pitchers last spring revolved around their character, fueled by tales of frat-boy hijinks while the clubhouse walls crumbled around them. That image, regardless of how exaggerated it may have been, left a stain that could not be removed.
It was predicted in this space a year ago that a chastened and apologetic Jon Lester and an unrepentant and defiant Josh Beckett would “bring anger, passion and excellence” to their efforts, combining for 32 to 36 wins as a powerful response to the blame hurled their way for the previous September’s collapse.
That’s not the way it played out. Lester won just nine games, and Beckett just five before the Red Sox escaped from under what had become an onerous contract by shipping him to the Dodgers in August. Beckett leaves a legacy that should be framed by memories of his Gibson-esque performance in the 2007 postseason, but will be marred instead by the pigheadedness, both on the mound and off, that led to underachieving and unlikability.
Lester, however, though his stature as one of the game’s top left-handed pitchers has taken some big hits, has a chance to remake himself as the new leader of the staff, buttressed by the return of John Farrell, who helped mold Lester as Red Sox pitching coach and now as manager is charged with rebuilding his confidence.
On the positive side, Lester pitched 200 or more innings for the fourth time in the last five seasons, and at 29 is at a stage of physical, emotional and mental maturation that should augur great things in 2013.
Yes, there were alarming indicators last season -- he gave up 110 earned runs (33 more than his previous high), allowed a career-high 25 home runs, and struck out just 166 batters, far below the 225 he whiffed in both 2009 and 2010. A pitcher in decline? The numbers would argue that case, but the stuff is still there -- even during a down year, Lester made 17 quality starts, and among the first things Farrell said after being hired was that he’d seen things in Lester that he thought were eminently correctable.
Beyond Lester, the Sox will not come to camp staging auditions for starters, as they did last spring, when Daniel Bard’s conversion was the team’s grand experiment, one that not only failed to invent a new starter but destroyed the confidence of a superior setup man.
Clay Buchholz projects as the No. 2 starter. The 28-year-old right-hander got off to a dreadful start last season (9.09 ERA after six starts), then appeared to right himself (5-1, 3.35 ERA) before an adverse reaction brought on by the drug Toradol sidelined him in midseason. He, too, should benefit from Farrell’s presence and is at a point where he must deliver if he wants to be recognized as a dependable starter, if not an ace in waiting.
Felix Doubront, the left-hander who made significant strides in a coming-out party the Sox had expected a year earlier, will have to show he can do so in back-to-back years.
Ryan Dempster, a 36-year-old innings-eater who thrived in the National League but delivered uneven results for Texas, getting knocked out early in the start that could have returned the Rangers to the playoffs, was signed to a two-year deal in hopes that he can bring stability while some younger arms still develop.
And the wild card is John Lackey, who was miserable here in 2011, injured in 2012 after Tommy John surgery, but now is in the best condition he has been in in years, according to the eyewitness testimony of those who have seen him this spring. If Lackey can take the ball every fifth day, that will be a big boost to a staff that has young pitchers Rubby de la Rosa, Allen Webster, Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo and Drake Britton in the wings, along with knuckleballer Steven Wright.
NEXT UP: How well did the Sox spend all that money?