Can a team contend without a true No. 1 starter? That's what the Red Sox will attempt this season, and there's reason to believe they can pull off the trick.
FORT MYERS, Fla.—One of the sloppiest narratives of the spring is that the Red Sox' rotation is suspect because it lacks an ace. It has inspired the leaky faucet of ceaseless Cole Hamels trade rumors, though there has not been a major spring training trade in more than a decade. Count me with Boston manager John Farrell in considering the team's rotation as underrated.
“The way I look at it,” Farrell says, “we will send a bona fide, established major league starter to the mound every night. I like our starting rotation a lot. People say, ‘You don’t have one guy who can overpower hitters consistently with stuff,’ but I think we have multiple guys who can do that from time to time. At any one time, it could be one of five guys who pitches like that.”
The woe-is-the-team-without-an-ace theory is as outdated as complete games and scorecard pencils. It ignores these current circumstances:
• The role of the starter, while still important, never has been as diminished as it is today because of the supply and usage of hard-throwing relievers. The Pirates have made the playoffs two straight years without anybody throwing 200 innings in a season. None of the past 26 Cy Young Award winners have led their team to a World Series title in the year they won the award. Everybody still would prefer the Nationals model, with five starters who all have received Cy Young Award votes. That’s the exception.
• The Red Sox have five starters 30 and younger who are athletic and already accomplished in the big leagues. There have been nine teams with five starters no older than 30 who made at least 28 starts each; seven of them made the playoffs.
• The entire AL East is a barren wasteland when it comes to “proven aces.” The 25 pitchers who will comprise the division’s Opening Day rotations have received exactly zero of the 450 AL Cy Young Award votes cast over the past three years.
• Boston has a strong reserve of young pitchers with pure stuff who could step into the rotation if needed. Righthander Matt Barnes, 24, has been so impressive this spring—hitting 97 mph and showing a wipeout breaking ball—that Farrell said he is considering carrying him as a bullpen piece. Lefthander Henry Owens, 22, has seven strikeouts in seven innings this spring and has allowed only three hits. Lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez, 21, is such an obvious talent that when I asked special advisor Pedro Martinez to name the most impressive arm in camp, he immediately responded, “Rodriguez. When you see a kid throw the ball easily from one foul pole to the other, you know he’s something special. The only thing he needs is experience. He said to me, ‘If I make the team…’ and I stopped him and said, ‘No. Right now, you are on the team. You are here. It’s up to you to stay.”’
“There’s no doubt,” says righthander Rick Porcello, “that all the talk about us not having an ace has put a chip on our shoulder. It’s helped us really create a bond among the five of us.”
Says righthander Justin Masterson, “The reason I’m excited about this group, and I’m not just saying it because I’m here, is because this is more than about just potential. This is about pitchers who already have done some special things in the big leagues.”
Here’s what the five Red Sox starters have done:
Joe Kelly, 26: Last year, he averaged 94.7 mph with his fastball. Only five AL starters (min. 60 innings) threw harder: Yordano Ventura, Garrett Richards, Carlos Carrasco, James Paxton and Kevin Gausman. Kelly had to leave his start Monday with pain in his right biceps, an ominous sign that bears watching.
Masterson, 29: The slingshot sinkerballer is the third toughest pitcher against righthanded batters among all active pitchers with at least 150 starts. Righthanded batters have hit .220 against him. Only Kershaw (.214) and Chris Young (.218) are tougher to hit.
Buchholz is the key member of the staff because he is the longest tenured Red Sox starter, though he’s not the most experienced. (Porcello has more wins, starts and innings.) Because of Buchholz’s thin frame and the way he throws—with body and head fade toward his glove side rather than the plate—he’s unlikely to be a 200-inning pitcher. What Boston needs is for someone who once flashed one of the best two-seam/changeup combinations in the game to regain his confidence and trust his stuff.
“I think a lot of them have a chance to be the leader, but Buchholz especially,” Martinez says. “He looks like he’s ready for that. He’s got that quiet look, like ‘I’m going to shut you down.’ I think he wants to lead. He looks different to me this spring, like he knows he can be the leader.
“Kelly, he is the one with the stuff. All he needs is the knowledge. He’s still a kid.”
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Each starter has room to improve. Porcello, for instance, who brought back his curveball in 2013, has added a “secret” pitch this spring, the better to put away hitters. “Too many times I’d get to two-strike counts and didn’t finish off the at-bat,” says Porcello, who has allowed a .208 career average on two-strike counts, 28 points above the league average last year. “You always have to adjust in this game.”
Miley was working out of the stretch in a bullpen session recently when Martinez noticed a mechanical flaw. Because Miley is bow-legged, he had trouble directing his back knee inward in the set position, which allows for better balance. Miley’s natural stance, coupled with the slope of the mound, caused him to lean his weight forward slightly, onto the lefthander’s right leg. Early weight shift forward can create balance issues in the delivery, causing the arm to drag. Miley has been better out of the windup in his career (.702 OPS) than he has been with runners on (.771).
“It’s something I’m aware of,” Miley says. “Even if I just stand here on flat ground [in the clubhouse], it feels like I’m leaning forward. As soon as he made an adjustment with me, I felt quicker, smoother. When a guy like that talks, you listen.”
Masterson was a shell of himself last year because of physical issues. An imbalance in his right hip led to multiple compensations in his kinetic chain, which eventually caused knee problems and a noticeable drop in velocity. He spent the offseason working with a physical therapist three times a week.
Make no mistake: This is not a top-three rotation in the league. But it doesn’t have to be. The Red Sox figure to score more runs than any other AL team. Their defense has the potential to be outstanding, with superior defenders at catcher (Christian Vazquez), first base (Mike Napoli), second base (Dustin Pedroia), third base (Pablo Sandoval), centerfield (Mookie Betts) and rightfield (Shane Victorino). Shortstop Xander Bogaerts could join that group someday, but without Sandoval’s defensive instincts, he will need repetitions and a longer learning curve to get there. Hanley Ramirez, the former plus-runner who added at least 10 pounds and weighs about 240, could have growing pains in leftfield.
“He’s an NFL linebacker,” Farrell says. “He’s been great this spring. Works hard, great attitude, and he’s attached to David [Ortiz] the entire time. If you see David, you see Hanley right next to his back pocket.”
The bullpen will be a work in progress as far as defined roles, especially if closer Koji Uehara—who turns 40 in April and needs regular rest even when he is going well—is nearing the end of his run of fooling hitters with 89-mph four-seamers and 81-mph splitters. An emphasis this spring on a seldom-used cutter could be a tip-off to that transition.
When Farrell was asked about his backup plan behind Uehara at the end of games, he said, “[Edward] Mujica. You know he has the experience, and he is going to throw strikes.” But a pitch-to-contact pitcher who allowed hitters to bat .294 last year is not the preferred definition of even a potential closer.
No team is perfect, not even the Nationals, so you have to expect flaws. But to think the biggest flaw about Boston is its rotation just because it lacks a marketable ace undersells how this team is built and how the modern game is played. With their offense and defense, the Red Sox can field a middle-of-the-pack rotation and be just fine.
You don’t need to look too far for confirmation. Yes, half of the Giants’ 12 postseason wins last year came with Bumgarner on the mound. But remember how their rotation performed in the regular season: 56-60 with a 3.74 ERA, ranking 10th in a 15-team league.