In the aftermath of a disastrous 2012 campaign, the Red Sox pitching staff was characterized by fried chicken, beer, and a whole lot of question marks. Well one year and one Duckboat parade later, can we now say the Sox staff is characterized by consistency and depth? Perhaps we can. After seasons of perpetual upheaval, the Red Sox have turned over more sideline reporters the past 4 months than Starting pitchers (we’ll miss you Jenny). There’s no true ace on the staff, but all five of their starters figure to carry some fantasy value and their bullpen figures to be a strong suit once again. Let’s take a look at the contributors one by one.
The Starting Rotation
While no longer a Cy Young candidate, Jon Lester appears to have settled in as a reliable innings eating workhorse capable of helping fantasy owners in stat categories across the board. Following a down year in 2012 (at least according to his surface stats) Lester rebounded with a 15 win, 177 strikeout, sub 4 era campaign in 2013. His strikeout rate has declined from the mid 20% early in his career but he’s also brought his walk rate below 8% (9.5% between 2010 / 2011) and managed to keep his FIP (defense independent ERA) in the high 3s. As someone that hasn't thrown less than 193 innings in his last 6 seasons, he’s about as safe an option as you can find at the starting pitching position. Pitching behind one of the best offenses in baseball, I’d target Lester as a #2 or 3 option on my fantasy staff.
Clay Buchholz has pitched in the majors for the better part of six seasons and no two of those seasons look alike. You don’t believe me? here’s a look at his ERAs from 2008 to 2013: 6.75, 4.21, 2.33, 3.48, 4.56, 1.74. Clay gives new meaning to the term inconsistent. Unfortunately, the only real constant in his career has been injuries. He’s never crossed the 200 inning plateau and has made his way onto the disabled list in each of his 6 seasons (including major stretches in 4 of the 6). In short, Clay’s a tough one to figure out. Even when he finished 2nd in the league in ERA in 2010 his results (Wins / ERA) didn't match up with his peripherals (xFIP 4.07, less than 2/1 K/BB). But as a guy who has the proverbial “great stuff” (mid 90s fastball, hammer curve, swing and miss changeup), scouts have long wondered why those peripherals didn't catch up with the “stuff”. Well 2014 was finally the year that Clay appeared to put it all together as his strikeout rate ballooned to 23% after hovering around 18% for his career. Is the improved performance sustainable? I wouldn't expect a sub 2 ERA but there is reason for optimism. Buchholz appears to have finally mastered the cut fastball he’d been toying with for years and now boasts a legitimate 4 pitch repertoire. The question then becomes, where does one target Buchholz given his injury history? I think that’s largely a matter of personal risk appetite, but as a pitcher with ace potential likely to be backed by a superior offense, he’s a guy I’d be willing to take a flier on once I’ve solidified the front end of my staff.
John Lackey - The fact that it's February of 2014 and I’m writing about John Lackey as anything but a spokesman for Popeyes or Budweiser would probably have been seen as a major upset for Red Sox fans heading into the 2013 season. Lackey provided more value to the Red Sox in the 2012 season he missed recovering from Tommy John surgery than in the 2011 season when he served up batting practice every 5th day to the tune of a 6.41 era. Seriously, I don’t think we can understate just how surprising John Lackey’s 2013 campaign was. Not only was he not the worst pitcher in baseball, he was actually pretty good (189 IP, 161K, 3.52 era). And yes the wins weren’t there, but it doesn't take Bill James to figure out that winning only 10 of your 29 starts with a sub 4 ERA on a team with the best offense in baseball was nothing more than a product of very poor luck. That begs the question, was 2013 a new baseline for Big Lack, or was it a statistical outlier for an aging pitcher in decline? A closer look at the numbers reveals some very encouraging signs for Lackey and his prospective fantasy owners. In his age 34 season, Lackey posted career bests in fastball velocity, groundball percentage, strikeout percentage, walk percentage and xFIP. And given how successful Lackey once was in Anaheim, that’s no small feat. In short, there’s no reason to think that Lackey’s 2013 isn’t sustainable into 2014 and beyond. Sure he’s no spring chicken (no pun intended) at 35, and he’s always at risk of injury given the arm troubles of his past, but you should be comfortable targeting Lackey as a top 50 pitcher and a borderline every week starter.
No longer the dominant force he was in San Diego, Jake Peavy has remade himself into a pretty effective pitcher, albeit one who’s unlikely to cross the 30 start or 200 inning threshold. Like many hurlers in the latter half of their careers, Peavy’s sacrificed strikeouts for improved control. He remains an extreme fly ball pitcher prone to the occasional gopher ball, but his ERA isn’t likely to go too far north of 4 given his ability to miss bats and shy away from the free pass. He’s thrown more than 150 regular season innings only once since 2008, but he’s certainly worth drafting as back end fantasy starter. Don’t count on 30 starts, but with the Sox lineup behind him, 25 starts should earn Peavy double digits wins and a semi-regular spot in your starting lineup.
The average Sox fan’s perception of Felix Doubront’s 2013 season was that it represented a step in the right direction. They’ll say he worked more efficiently and made strides toward becoming the mid rotation starter that the Sox had long hoped. In reality, Felix’s 2nd full year was about as effective as his first. He shaved a half a run off his ERA, primarily thanks to a reduction in his previously astronomical home run rate, but didn’t miss nearly as many bats and again struggled with his command. That said, Felix is only 26 and the fact that he’s struck out nearly a batter an inning in over 350 MLB innings shows that he has the raw ability to be a successful major league pitcher. With Dempster choosing to step away from the game in 2014, Doubront is assured of a regular spot in the rotation, and he should be drafted as a matchup play with some hidden post-hype upside.
The Red Sox have an abundance of talented young arms not too far away from the big leagues. We’ll take a closer look at them in a couple weeks in our prospects review, but with above five names all but etched onto the 25 man roster, it's hard to imagine any of the prospects cracking the year in the Show unless someone gets injured.
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last eight months, I’ll take a sentence to summarize the spectacle that is Koji Uehera. He is a 38 year old, 190 pound, 89 mph throwing, high five making Japanese ball of energy who is coming off one of the most dominant relief seasons in MLB history. Is Koji likely to repeat his 2013 performance in which he accumulated a 41 to 1 (41 to 1!) strikeout to walk ratio after the all star break including a stretch that saw him nearly throw the equivalent of perfect game and a half? No, but his 2013 performance shouldn't have been as surprising as many think. The reality is that Koji was one of baseball’s most dominant relievers in the 3 years before his magical 2013 run - only injuries and opportunity prevented him from becoming a household name (2.36 ERA, 10.76 K/BB). As a matter of fantasy philosophy, I prefer to pass on the upper tier closers in hopes of eventually finding a star on the cheap (as I did last year with both Koji and Trevor Rosenthal in 2013), but if you're hell bent on nailing down an elite bullpen, don’t hesitate to target Koji after guys like Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman are drafted. Short of injury, there’s no reason to think he won’t be a top 5 reliever for a 2nd season running.
The Sox return 8th inning man Junichi Tazawa who figures to again be counted on in high leverage situations. Tazawa isn’t your classic overpowering reliever, but he’s very good. He’ll strikeout about a batter per inning. won’t walk many and should get plenty of hold opportunities. Whether or not he would get save opportunities should something happen to Uehera is hard to say. Junichi struggled in a brief cameo as closer last year and complicating matters is the fact that the Sox brought in former cardinals closer Edward Mujica. Mujica, was spectacular for stretches last year before falling out of favor with Mike Matheny. He’ll be in the mix with Tazawa for 7th and 8th inning duties and may potentially be next in line for saves.
Having now covered the Sox’ big league lineup and rotation, we’ll take a closer at the Farm System in the coming weeks .. . .