Don't count out Red Sox rotation yet

BALTIMORE -- For all the changes that are coming in the offseason, the chances are strong that the Red Sox will begin the 2011 season with the same five pitchers in the starting rotation whom they expected would carry them this season.

Oh, maybe there's an outside chance that Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has no-trade protection, might accept a deal to, say, Seattle, if the Sox were so inclined. But of the five, Matsuzaka has the shortest contractual life left with the Sox, having signed through the 2012 season, by which time Casey Kelly, if all goes as planned, should be banging on the door. Jon Lester is signed through 2013, Josh Beckett and John Lackey are signed through 2014, and Clay Buchholz is not eligible for free agency until after 2014.

Matsuzaka cracks the $10 million level in salary next season, so he wouldn't come cheap for any potential suitor. Lester doesn't get there until 2013, while Lackey ($15.95 million in the next four seasons) and Beckett ($17 million) are pitchers in their early 30s not going anywhere at those dollars.

So, then the question: Would you take your chances with the same five starting pitchers next season?

"Absolutely,'' Lester said Wednesday night after the Sox rallied from a three-run deficit to beat the Baltimore Orioles 9-6 and keep his record perfect (13-0) against the O's. "I think that was the mindset going into this season. Obviously we've had some bumps and bruises along the way, but I think if all five guys are healthy and perform the way we all know we can, I think it's definitely in our favor.

"We're not done this year. We've still got a little bit of a chance. We'll keep grinding away, see what happens. But next year, if we line up the same five guys up with this team, and whoever else is or isn't here, we'll strap it on and see what happens.''

A few lockers down from Lester's, Josh Beckett had responded with the same resounding conviction when the question was posed to him, hours earlier.

"Absolutely,'' Beckett said. "I'm still counting Wake [Tim Wakefield]. I'll take those six guys, I really would. I've been fortunate enough to play with some really good pitchers. I'll take any of these guys in my foxhole any day. I really do believe in all of them.''

Pause for a moment to let the skeptics roll their eyes and post their comments at the bottom of the page. What else could Lester and Beckett have been expected to say?

There is some truth in that, of course, but there also are grounds to believe that this rotation will rise to greater heights next season.

Buchholz has emerged as a Cy Young Award candidate.

"He's legitimately given us a chance to win every game he's pitched,'' Beckett said. "A special, special year.''

Lester, who won his 15th game Wednesday, has an outside shot at 20 wins.

Beckett isn't likely to miss 56 games again next season with a back problem that essentially sent him back to square one in his preparation for a season that he expected would be one of his best.

"At least if you're healthy, you can work on things,'' Beckett said. "When I was down those six weeks, I couldn't do anything. It was hard for me to ride the bike.

"You do the things you can do, but you don't really feel part of the team. Not because your teammates don't make you feel that way, but you're not helping. You're like a seat on the plane. That's all you are.''

So then, Beckett said, you try to come back and make up for lost time -- "it's almost impossible to catch up" -- and end up hurting something else.

But what matters going forward, he said, is that he still has the repertoire that has made him one of the decade's more successful pitchers.

"The stuff is still there,'' he said. "I've always been a 92 to 96 [mph] guy. Every once in a while, maybe on an 0-and-2 pitch on days I'm feeling really good, I'll throw a little harder. You look at any of my velocity charts from [Class] A ball on, I've always been the same guy.

"Don't get me wrong, you definitely have to make adjustments, but I don't think age has anything to do with it yet. I've started mixing in my cutter a little bit more, even getting to where I'm comfortable turning it into a slider to throw as a strikeout pitch. There are constantly things you're still working on.''

And he still has what the veteran pitchers learn along the way: the ability to win when he doesn't have his best stuff. Maybe Beckett doesn't win 20 again, like he did in 2007, but it's a safe wager that he'll win more than the four W's that are currently posted beside his name.

Lackey has had a year to adjust to life in the American League East, and as one who pitches to contact, should benefit most from the return to health of a lineup that did not perform defensively as planned. His teammates, who aren't caught up in judging him against his paycheck to the degree outsiders do, acknowledge that he has had his struggles, but his season has not been the total loss some would have you believe.

"I don't think Lackey would tell you he needed a transition year,'' Beckett said. "He hasn't had a bad year. I think, if anything, maybe he's been a little unlucky sometimes.''

Blaming bad luck doesn't hold water for a New England audience, so Lackey will face pressure next season to prove he's better than the numbers (4.60 ERA, 201 hits against, .289 batting average against). But the good news is that there have been no hints of the elbow trouble that sidelined him for six weeks in each of his past two seasons for the Angels.

Matsuzaka, meanwhile, is at a stage that he may never be more than a tease, capable of bursts of brilliance but maddeningly inconsistent. But as a No. 5 starter, he is more than adequate, if overpaid.

The challenge is competing in a division in which the Rays have a mature but young rotation, the Orioles and Jays have shown off promising young pitching and there's a good chance the Yankees will go out and add Cliff Lee to their rotation.

"I don't know who the hell the Orioles have been losing all their games to, because they have good players,'' Beckett said. "And put Toronto in another division, they might have a playoff team.''

The Sox have cast their lot with what they've got. It fell short of expectations in 2010, but that's hardly reason to write them off in 2011.

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.