Decision 2013: Starting rotation

On each weekday until baseball’s GM meetings Nov. 7, we will spotlight one key decision the Red Sox need to make this offseason that will help determine the success or failure of the 2013 team.

Today’s topic: How do the Red Sox improve their starting rotation?

Red Sox starters ranked 27th in major league baseball with a 5.19 ERA, with only the Indians, Twins and Rockies worse, three teams that lost even more games than the Sox in 2012. Franklin Morales was the only Boston starter with a sub-4.50 ERA, and he made just nine starts.

Defining the decision: Do the Sox have the pieces internally to improve or are big changes needed?

The Sox already have made one change, and it is a significant one, bringing back former pitching coach John Farrell as the team’s manager. When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2007, Farrell’s first season as pitching coach, they had the fourth best ERA in baseball, 4.21, and a year later lowered that to 4.02, eighth best. That ERA was 4.17 in Farrell’s last season, 2010.

On the day he was introduced as Sox manager, Farrell insisted that the team has a strong core to build around in Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront and John Lackey, who will be returning next season after missing the 2012 season with Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. Skeptics abound, especially with Lester coming off the worst season of his big-league career and Lackey having shown little in his first two seasons in a Boston uniform, though it’s possible he has never been healthy here. Lackey looked to be in very good shape by the end of the summer, though, and impressed the Sox with his throwing sessions.

Lester and Buchholz are healthy, Doubront made impressive strides in his first full season in the big leagues, and Lester already has expressed great enthusiasm at being reunited with Farrell, who he credits for molding him during his successful run as one of the most consistent left-handers in the American League.

Still, the Sox will need much more than these four going forward, a fact recognized by both GM Ben Cherington and Farrell when they spoke of acquiring additional pieces.

Option A: Add from within

The Sox could promote Franklin Morales and Alfredo Aceves to full-time starters, convert Junichi Tazawa from reliever to starter, and give long looks to the two pitchers who came in the Dodgers megadeal, Allen Webster and Rubby de la Rosa.

Morales was brought along slowly in spring training because of shoulder weakness, then was shut down for the season’s final five weeks with a “tired” shoulder, so he comes with questions heading into next season.

On performance alone, Aceves probably should have won a starting job coming out of camp, but Daniel Bard got the nod and when Andrew Bailey went down, Aceves became the closer. He also clashed openly with manager Bobby Valentine and was suspended, leading to suggestions he would be persona non grata going forward. That doesn’t appear to be the case. Aceves’ versatility still holds great appeal to the Sox, and Farrell appears on board with the notion of keeping him. But because of his ability to pitch multiple innings out of the 'pen, the Sox may be inclined to keep him there.

The most intriguing candidate may be Tazawa, who returned from Tommy John surgery to make a sensational impact on the bullpen, posting a 1.43 ERA while striking out 45 and walking just five in 44 innings. Of the last 46 batters he faced over a span of 15 appearances, Tazawa allowed just four to reach, on three hits and a walk. He allowed just one home run all season, to Adrian Beltre of the Rangers.

Tazawa, 26, has all the makings of a dominant setup man/potential closer. But he began his career with the Sox as a starter and has a three-pitch mix (fastball, splitter, slider) that would lend itself to returning in that role, although he questioned whether he has enough arm strength to maintain his velocity as a starter.

What the Sox do with Tazawa may be impacted by their plans for de la Rosa, who touched 100 miles an hour before undergoing Tommy John surgery last year. De la Rosa’s velocity appeared back upon his return to the Dodgers, but there is some debate over whether his future is as a starter or closer type.

The other pitcher acquired from the Dodgers is Webster, who probably needs more time in the minors but like homegrown prospect Matt Barnes figures to help the Sox by 2014 at the latest, if not by the end of next season.

Option B: Look for help in the free-agent market and through trades

The Red Sox are not expected to be players for the high-end starters on the free-agent market, which include Zack Greinke, Anibal Sanchez, Kyle Lohse, Jake Peavy and Edwin Jackson. Dan Haren and Ervin Santana could join that list if the Angels don’t exercise their options. All are expected to command multiyear deals beyond what the Red Sox are willing to give, though Sanchez, who originally belonged to the Sox before being part of the trade with the Marlins that brought back Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, might be tempting.

The Sox would prefer to acquire pitchers that would require a shorter-term commitment, and thus may be more active on the lower end of the free-agent market. That could mean pitchers such as Francisco Liriano (elbow issues), Brandon McCarthy (shoulder), Jeremy Guthrie or Carlos Villanueva (who Farrell knows from Toronto).

The Sox also will look into the trade market while not wanting to part with top prospects. Matt Garza, Wandy Rodriguez, Josh Johnson, Paul Maholm and Mark Buehrle could be names worth exploring.

Long shot: Lee or Lincecum

Cliff Lee or Tim Lincecum? Both are in the $20-million-plus range, Lee for three more seasons, Lincecum for one more before becoming a free agent. Neither the Phillies nor Giants are likely to move Lee or Lincecum, respectively, but they’re both worth asking about.

Your turn: What's the best option for the Red Sox?

We’ve outlined the possibilities, now tell us what you would do if you were in Ben’s shoes. Vote in the poll above and leave your more detailed thoughts in the comments section.