It is undeniable that the Red Sox starting roatation was the primary (but not the only) contributor to the team's critically acclaimed portrayal of the Soviet Union. For months, it seemed not a day could go by in the world of Boston sports media without a reference to "BeerGate" or "ChickenGate" or "BeckettIsFatGate." This criticism was, and still is for the most part deserved. What made the matter so enduring beyond the scope of the collapse, however, was the utter disarray the starting rotation situation was left in following the season. Daisuke Matsuzaka had already undergone Tommy John surgery, Tim Wakefield was likely to (and did) retire, Clay Buchholz had never come back from what seemed like a minor injury, and it came to light that John Lackey had been pitching (disastrously) through an elbow injury that also required Tommy John. When all that was combined with the appearance of Sox ownership's wish to pinch pennies by their standards in the offseason, things were not looking too bright for the already shell-shocked Nation.
Over the next few months, many theories were bandied about, such as the promotion of Triple A pitchers like Felix Doubront to the Majors, the conversion of Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves to full-time starters, and signing a low-cost reclamation project in the free agent market. Each of these options had their flaws, which were all relentlessly debated. Felix Doubront had shown inconsistency in his call ups and had been injured in the late season. Daniel Bard carried with him doubts about the innings he could handle and as to whether his starter-necessary third pitch, his changeup, could be effective. Aceves, despite his stellar bullpen performance, had many of his poorer performances as a starter. Finally, all one had to say to dissuade people from free agent reclamation was John Smoltz and Brad Penny. By all accounts, the Sox were facing a "pick your poison" situation and were completely and utterly screwed.
Now, with the regular season less than two weeks away, there have been encouraging signs. Beckett and Lester have performed extremely well in Spring Training, as well they should have. Buchholz, though not stellar, has felt completely fine in his outings, assuaging many fears about his back injury. Bard has shown signs he could one day be a starter, though his numbers have not borne that out. Aceves started off Spring Training wonderfully, but completely blew up in his outing against the Phillies, which may be an abberation. Then there is Aaron Cook, the free agent project that has pitched very well so far, including a fairly solid outing against the Yankees. None of these pitchers represent ideal solutions. There is no way the Sox will have anything resembling the "Four Aces" of Philadelphia last year (for all the good it did the Phillies in the playoffs). However, one needs to take stock of, for a moment, what these men are being asked to replace.
The Red Sox had three members of their opening day rotation "healthy" in September last year. Of those three, only Lester was truly healthy. Beckett was fatigued from lack of conditioning (or too much of the three Ps: Popeye's, Pabst and Playstation, if you will). Lackey, unbeknownst to the fans and the media, was pitching through the aforementioned Tommy John requiring injury. The back of the rotation was comprised of a decreasingly effective Tim Wakefield and a series of poor outings primarily from Kyle Weiland and Andrew Miller. All of this combined for a combined ERA near 7 in September.
Here are the stats for the people the Red Sox need to replace: Kyle Weiland (0-3, 7.66 ERA), Andrew Miller (6-3, 5.54 ERA), Tim Wakefield (7-8, 5.12 ERA), and finally, last and and certainly least, John Lackey (12-12, 6.41 ERA). All these pitchers have to do is put up better numbers than those. The Red Sox started off 2-10 last year and still needed an unprecedented collapse fueled by one of the most atrocious pitching staffs ever to miss the playoffs. The core of that team remains, and objectively they have an excellent chance to make the playoffs, especially with the new Wild Card rules. The end is likely not nigh.
As for who will make the cut? It depends on management's committment to making Bard a starter this year. I personally would say he needs another year to develop his third pitch, and all is not lost if he doesn't and he remains a setup guy/closer. After all, it worked out well with Papelbon. Aceves could make it if his last outing against Philadelphia was in fact a fluke, but I believe his value is as a long relief man and a spot starter. Personally, I would roll the dice with Felix Doubront and Aaron Cook at 4 and 5 respectively. They have performed well in Spring Training and barring a disaster have proven to be most cut out for the job. I'm sure there are many who may disagree with me for completely valid reasons, but the way I see it, it's worth a shot. After all, they just have to be better than the worst ever.