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Adam Kaufman

2014 Red Sox player-by-player expectations: Pitchers

John Lackey 5.jpg

On Thursday, we began our tour of the 2014 Red Sox clubhouse with a look at each of the hitters expected to make the team’s Opening Day roster. The biggest question, pending injury of course, surrounds the battle for center field but, for the time being, Grady Sizemore appears in line to secure the job with Jackie Bradley, Jr. heading back to Pawtucket.

This much seems clear: A total of 13 hitters should be on that plane to Baltimore to open the season on Monday, leaving a dozen arms.

Let’s explore what challenges await for each of those 12 pitchers this season.

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Rotation (in order)

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Jon Lester – With a new contract in focus, the Red Sox postseason ace hasn’t looked this locked in since October. In three spring starts, the 30-year-old has allowed one run in 12 2/3 innings, good for a 0.71 ERA. He’s also struck out 14 batters while walking just three. Lester endured an awfully rocky stretch from September 2011 through the entire 2012 campaign, and then an ugly six-week stretch in the middle of last year. However, the southpaw was among the best hurlers in the game in the second half with a 7-2 record and 2.57 ERA before improving by the round against the Rays, Tigers, and Cardinals in the playoffs. Lester is expected to reach his new and very lucrative deal early in the year, if not prior, and that commitment will put 2014 under the microscope like no other. He’ll have to be strong and consistent from start to finish. I’m not sure about future seasons, but I’d expect he’s up for the task in this one.

John Lackey – The 11-year vet may have completely altered his eventual Boston legacy in 2013 when he bounced back from Tommy John surgery to be the Sox’ most consistent starter from beginning to end, and then capped his redemption tour by outdueling Justin Verlander in the ALCS and pitching in three World Series games. With chicken and beer in the rearview mirror, Lackey arrived in Fort Myers in shape again, but the results haven’t been the same. In four starts, he’s given up 13 runs in 18 2/3 innings for a 6.27 ERA, though his control has been fine with 17 strikeouts and three walks and he's coming off a dominant 6 1/3 scoreless effort against the Twins. It’s hard to pay much attention to poor spring stats for veterans, who may just be experimenting on different things or not – as David Ortiz would say – putting in the same effort. That being said, it’s almost impossible not to expect a regression from Lackey in 2014. The motivation to prove his doubters wrong couldn’t possibly be what it was a year ago when he rarely had a bad outing. That doesn’t mean he’ll be the guy with a 5.26 ERA in his first two years for Boston; he just probably won’t be the same one who walked off the mound a champion last October.

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Felix Doubront – Along with Lester, Doubront gives the Red Sox the ability to have two dominant southpaws in their rotation. The 26-year-old has had an up-and-down spring with two great starts followed by two lousy ones for a total of 15 runs allowed over 14 innings for a 9.64 ERA. Fortunately, unlike last season, he arrived to camp in shape, which puts him a few steps ahead of where he began last April. Doubront was 11-6 with an improved 4.32 in his second full year in the rotation, but he also enjoyed a 19-start stretch with a 2.99 ERA from May to August. In the postseason, he was almost flawless as a reliever with a 1.29 ERA in four appearances, but he openly didn’t want to be in the bullpen. So, safe to say he’s breathing easier with Ryan Dempster out of the picture. Doubront should continue to trend in a positive direction in 2014.

Jake Peavy – The soon to be 33-year-old former Cy Young winner hasn’t exactly been a model of health in recent years, but slicing open his finger in a fishing incident was a new one. Fortunately, Peavy’s recovered. In a pair of spring starts, he’s compiled a 2.35 ERA over 7 2/3 innings. That’s after a 4-1, 4.04 ERA post-trade mark over 10 starts after changing Sox last season, and a disappointing playoff performance. If that mentality of having something to prove drives Peavy as it did Lackey in 2013, the Red Sox will be in great shape. Personally, I’m expecting more of the same – some hiccups, injuries, and an ERA in the low-4’s.

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Clay Buchholz – He’s a former first-rounder, a two-time All-Star, and he has ace-like stuff, yet he’s Boston’s fifth starter. Why? He can’t stay healthy. Maybe this makes the most sense for the 29-year-old Buchholz. The righty was electric to begin 2013 and finished with a 12-1 record and 1.74 ERA in 16 starts, but he also dealt with neck and shoulder woes and had countless critics questioning his toughness. In the playoffs, he took a step back, struggling in three of four starts and not making it beyond the fourth inning of the other. It’s inevitable his numbers will inflate at least a little in 2014, but hopefully not by three runs like in 2012. This spring, he’s started five games and flashed a 2.84 ERA, which feels about right for his potential when healthy. At the back-end of the rotation, he should benefit from extra days off and rest. For a guy who should be the team’s second starter, he ought to be the best No. 5 in baseball.

Bullpen (in alphabetical order)

Burke Badenhop – At 31, Badenhop’s bounced around the bigs. Boston is his fourth team in seven years, but he’s generally had good success. The Sox are undoubtedly hoping he’ll be the same guy who appeared in 66 games for the Rays in 2012 and had a 3.03 ERA in 62 1/3 innings. Historically, he should provide the pen with another right-handed arm capable of getting timely outs, working an inning or two, and finishing games when necessary. He also keeps balls on the ground. Essentially, he could be a younger Mike Timlin. Worth noting, by the way, Badenhop has a career 2.59 ERA in 43 games against AL East opponents.

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Chris Capuano – It’s a homecoming for the 35-year-old native of Springfield, Mass. With Dempster gone, that allowed the Red Sox to sign another flex starter/reliever in Capuano, who was 4-7 with a 4.26 ERA in his second of two seasons for the Dodgers last year. The lefty has primarily been a starter in his career, but has work sporadically out of the pen since 2010. This spring, he’s made four appearances – three out of the bullpen – and registered a 2.45 ERA. Expectations should really be no higher than they were for Dempster once he was lifted from the rotation very late last year and into the playoffs, but a veteran presence who can spot-start is valuable to have around for depth.

Andrew Miller – It’s been a rough spring for Miller after missing much of 2013 with a foot injury. In seven games spanning 4 1/3 innings, the southpaw has walked six and has a 10.38 ERA. However, in the spirit of looking at the bigger picture, he’s improved in each of his three seasons in Boston, particularly once he became a full-time reliever in 2012. Before getting hurt last year, he compiled a 2.64 ERA in 37 appearances. Miller is something of a specialist and he won’t be relied upon for heavy innings. He’s likely good for an ERA in the high-2’s or low-3’s.

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Edward Mujica – If there’s one guy who could win the non-existent “2014 Bullpen Magic Award” the year after Koji Uehara, it’s Mujica. No, he won’t put up the numbers Uehara did in 2013, but he projects to be a very valuable addition to the pen in an area that lacked depth. Once Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey went down and Uehara was thrust into the closer’s role – after a brief failed Junichi Tazawa experiment – the club needed a more reliable set-up man throughout much of the year. That can and will be Mujici, who was phenomenal each of the last two years as the closer in St. Louis before breaking down last September. In seven games this spring, the 29-year-old has been sharp, allowing four hits over 6 1/3 innings without a single walk. In fact, he only walked five guys in 64 2/3 innings last year. Expect big things.

Junichi Tazawa – If you’ve been paying attention, you know not to trust Tazawa against the lowly Blue Jays. Those guys aside, he’s often efficient. The 27-year-old righty had a 3.16 ERA in the regular season in 2013, before compiling a 1.23 ERA in 13 postseason games. The biggest concern here is durability. Over the course of the entire season, Tazawa appeared in 84 games, far more than the 37 appearances he made in 2012. Can he hold up for a similar workload again in 2014? Will he need to? The returns have been good this spring, as he’s given up one run over six innings, but it’s something manager John Farrell will have to keep an eye on.

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Koji Uehara – Hard to talk about workload and not discuss Uehara who, for a single season, was one of the best closers in MLB history in 2013. The modest free agent pickup and fourth closer in the line went from secure setup man to an automatic ninth inning spectacle. In 73 appearances, Uehara finished with a 1.09 ERA in 74 1/3 innings while striking out a ridiculous 12.2 batters per nine innings. In the postseason, he pitched in 13 games for 13 2/3 innings and allowed one run. In total, that’s 86 outings for a guy who is 11 years Tazawa’s elder. Can he do it again? Common-sense would say, “Of course not!” Still, here he is with six scoreless, hitless innings this spring. He may not be human. Fortunately, if it’s even slightly human, Mujica is next in line.

Brandon Workman – Like Capuano, Workman is something of a versatile option as both a starter and reliever. Unlike Capuano, the 25-year-old is projected to be a member of the rotation for years to come, though he’ll start 2014 in the bullpen. The second-year pro has done a bit of both this spring, starting two games and appearing in five. Overall, he’s allowed nine runs (including three homers) and 17 hits in 14 2/3 innings, but he’s struck out 15 while walking just two. As a rookie, he had no problem fanning batters but struggled with his control, accounting for a 3.13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 41 2/3 frames spanning 20 games – and just three starts. Workman hit his stride in the postseason, though, when he silenced those critical of his late-game performances with 8 2/3 innings in which he surrendered just one unearned run. He’ll have to trim the number of hits he allows, but he’ll be a go-to spot-starting option and should have a strong first full year in the majors.

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