BOSTON -- It's hard to imagine John W. Henry making multiple house calls in the future to keep any of the current members of the Red Sox starting rotation, the way he did last fall with Jon Lester. Skeptics abound who maintain that general manager Ben Cherington has not done enough to compensate for the loss of Lester -- that without an established ace, the Sox cannot expect to be a legitimate contender.
The statistical evaluators at Baseball Prospectus send a mixed message regarding the rotation. The good news for Boston fans is that the BP folks project the Sox will win the division, even without an ace, and they project all five starters to post a winning record in 2015.
The bad news? After a season in which the average ERA for American League starters was 3.92, BP projects only right-hander Clay Buchholz (3.84) to beat that number, while Joe Kelly, in his first full season in the American League, is predicted to have an ERA barely under 5 (4.77).
Always useful to remember, of course, is that these are only projections, that newcomer Wade Miley has never pitched in the American League, newcomer Justin Masterson is coming back from significant injuries, newcomer Rick Porcello is coming off a career-best season, and Kelly has yet to have a chance to demonstrate what he can do over a full season. Not to mention Buchholz showed signs by the end of last season that his schizophrenic days are behind him.
The talent evaluators in the Sox baseball operations department like playing the numbers, but they also trust their eyes, and Cherington said he is quite comfortable with the composition of the rotation, which is why there was no late bid for James Shields, for example, before he signed with the San Diego Padres.
The Red Sox traded away some of their young pitching prospects, including Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster and Anthony Ranaudo, all of whom were given auditions at the big league level. But they're confident the pipeline remains adequately stocked with Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriguez, Matt Barnes and Brian Johnson, among others. You can reasonably expect that all four of them may see some action at some point in 2015, along with knuckleballer Steven Wright, who remains an intriguing wild card.
But here, ranked by their WAR (Wins Above Replacement), is how the Sox rotation is assessed by BP entering the 2015 season, followed by comments from yours truly:
Joe Kelly, -0.6
That's a jarring number for Kelly, the 27-year-old right-hander who probably has the best raw stuff among all Sox starters. What it means is that BP projects Kelly will do worse than a typical replacement player in the minor leagues, a long way from Kelly's prediction last month that he would win the Cy Young Award, even if made tongue-in-cheek. BP cites Kelly's command issues, especially in the strike zone; the forecast here is that Kelly makes this prediction look foolish.
Steven Wright, -0.3
Wright turned 30 last August, which means he's in the late stages of gestation for a knuckleballer. He missed spring training and the season's first two months with a sports hernia in 2014, and will begin this season in Triple-A Pawtucket; but after three call-ups last season, he'll get another chance this go-round.
Eduardo Rodriguez, 0.0
Acquiring Rodriguez cost the Sox the services of lefty reliever Andrew Miller, but the Orioles may well rue the day they gave up Rodriguez, who turns 22 in April and posted a 0.96 ERA in six starts with Double-A Portland. The left-hander likely will open the season in Pawtucket, but scouts love his power package.
Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, 0.1; Brian Johnson, 0.2
Left-handers Johnson and Owens and right-hander Barnes all will join Rodriguez in the Pawtucket rotation, and depending on the health of the veteran starters, should expect to be cycled through the big league roster at some point this season. They will be watched closely in spring, but Barnes, because of his advanced status, figures to be the leading candidate for a call-up.
Wade Miley, 0.1
The Sox showed their confidence in Miley by signing him to a three-year, $19.25 million contract extension after acquiring him from Arizona, a testament in part to Miley's three straight seasons of 194-plus innings. The left-hander's walk rate doubled (from 1.7 per 9 IP to 3.4) since 2012, but with a ground ball rate of 52 percent, he should benefit from strong Sox infield defense.
Justin Masterson, 0.4
Masterson, who originally came up with the Red Sox, never was right last season, the result of an oblique injury that made scouts question whether he also hurt his shoulder, due to the dramatic drop-off in velocity and quality of stuff. Masterson, an early arrival in spring training, insists he is healthy again, but remains one of the big question marks of the spring. He's a ground ball machine (59 percent in '14).
Rick Porcello, 0.7
The former No. 1 draft choice, still only 26, eclipsed 200 innings for the first time last season, led the league with three shutouts and had a career-best 1.8 per 9 walk rate, which he attributed in part to throwing first-pitch strikes (just under 60 percent in 2014). Entering his free-agent year, he has no lack of incentive to have a big year.
Clay Buchholz, 1.2
Buchholz turned 30 last August, and after parts of eight seasons in Boston, the Sox should have a clear idea what they have. The opposite, of course, is true, other than an awareness that Buchholz has been unable to match his elite stuff with consistent performance. He still hasn't pitched 200 innings in a season, he needed to be shut down for a mental recess at the end of May, and while he pitched better at the end of the season, it's an unknown whether that will carry over to this spring. Best-case scenario is he seizes command of this rotation. Worst case? We've seen much of that already.