Torrents -- torrents! -- of ink, bandwidth and tears have been spilled over the New York Yankees' rotation concerns. Yet there's another AL East colossus saddled by pitching worries, and those worries might be more serious than those of the Yankees, particularly when you factor in the hard-charging Tampa Bay Rays.
The Boston Red Sox rank eighth in the American League in runs allowed, but the current state of affairs is even more grim. Despite having a puncher's chance to finish the season with the best record in the American League, the Sox envy the pitching certainties of the Yankees. Consider that if the postseason started today, the Boston rotation would consist of Jon Lester and & hmmm.
Josh Beckett? He has been Boston's best starter on a rate basis this season, but he's presently sidelined with a bum ankle and likely won't return until next weekend at the earliest. There's also Beckett's substantial injury history to consider (he has been on the disabled list 13 times in his career, and last season he lost 75 days to injury). He's just not durable, so there's no guarantee that Beckett will be able to remain healthy and effective once he does return.
Clay Buchholz? He may have the rawest ability of anyone on the Boston staff, but he hasn't pitched since mid-June because of a back injury. Buchholz could throw from a mound this week. However, even if he is able to return this season, the Sox may be forced to deploy him as a reliever.
John Lackey? He has been one of the worst starters in baseball this season. Despite having worked just 144 1/3 innings, Lackey has given up the most earned runs in the league (and in a related matter, he has hit the most batsmen). All you really need to know, however, is that opponents are hitting .304/.373/.484 against Lackey this season.
Stated in rough terms, Lackey turns every opposing hitter into something a little better than Kevin Youkilis. But wait, there's more! Lackey has just two quality starts in the second half, and his September ERA stands at a foul-smelling 12.38. At this point, it can legitimately be asked whether Lackey even merits a spot on the postseason roster, should such a thing be necessary.
Tim Wakefield? The franchise stalwart, it would seem, has been in search of career win 200 since the men of Boston wore powdered wigs, and with a WAR of 0.7, Wakefield has been effective only by the low standards of Mr. Lackey.
Also, if you're the sort to value playoff performance as a meaningful indicator, note that Wakefield is lugging around a career postseason ERA of 6.75.
Elsewhere, Erik Bedard (nine career DL stints) is laid up with knee and lat problems and has no clear timetable for a return. Andrew Miller has a 5.58 ERA in Boston, and Daisuke Matsuzaka (remember him?) is still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and won't begin light throwing until the middle of October.
Accordingly, symptoms of desperation abound: Kyle Weiland is part of the stretch-drive rotation, and Alfredo Aceves might soon be forced back into the rotation.
Suddenly, the Yankees' straits -- a rotation of CC Sabathia plus a gumbo of lesser alternatives -- seem downright enviable. Unless Boston is willing to trot out Lester on short rest, it will need four starters in each playoff series. Can you find four worthies within this mess? No, you cannot.
Of course, as a consequence of all this carnage and lousiness, the Sox have more to fret over than their playoff rotation.
First, they must concern themselves with reaching the postseason. Coming off a devitalizing sweep in Tampa, the Red Sox are now as close to the Tampa Bay Rays in the standings as they are to the Yankees. A 3.5-game lead in mid-September -- which is the wild-card margin the Red Sox presently cling to -- is still substantial, so it's likely (though hardly assured) that Boston will be part of the playoff fray. But simply put, this is not a good rotation right now.
If the Sox survive the four-game set against Tampa Bay that starts Thursday, they'll likely be back into the playoffs via the AL wild-card berth. But unless the rotation gets healthier in a hurry, they could be poised for a quick and quiet exit.
After a headline-dominating offseason, that would be quite contrary to expectations and design.