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Always a deep concern

By Nick Cafardo
March 25, 2011

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JUPITER, Fla. — Nothing causes more gray hairs for general managers than going into a season without enough starting pitching. If you don’t have it, you’re cooked. If you think you have it, you always need more.

In recent years, the Red Sox have signed veterans such as Brad Penny, John Smoltz, Bartolo Colon, and Paul Byrd for depth, and now they’re looking again.

As it stands, the “depth’’ behind the five starters is Tim Wakefield, Alfredo Aceves, and Felix Doubront. All have durability issues — Wakefield because of his age, Aceves because of back problems, and Doubront because of elbow soreness.

Junichi Tazawa, meanwhile, is throwing side sessions and is still a ways away from competition after recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The Sox would love a veteran who wouldn’t mind staying in Pawtucket until needed, but that’s always a slippery slope.

They could sign a rehab-type starter and wait on him while he goes through his own personal spring training with the thought that he’d be ready to contribute.

A Pedro Martinez-Andy Pettitte type?

Obviously, forget about Pettitte, who would sign with the Yankees if he were to return. Martinez is an intriguing name, though he seems more suited to the National League, where he had success in his brief time with the Phillies two years ago.

While Martinez hinted about a possible return in a recent interview with Bob Costas on MLB Network, he’s also perfectly content to stay retired and be inducted at Cooperstown sooner rather than later.

Sox general manager Theo Epstein is always looking for pitching depth, both in the bullpen and in the rotation, but starting the season with what he has right now isn’t the end of the world.

“We’ve learned that we can never have enough starting pitching, but we like the depth provided by Wakefield, Aceves, and Doubront,’’ Epstein said.

And who knows? The other “depth’’ lefty could be Andrew Miller, who seems to be out of the bullpen plans for now and will return to Pawtucket, where it appears he’ll be stretched out as a starter. With his velocity (95-98), changeup, and breaking ball, Miller could eventually be an exciting pitcher to watch. Of course, he has never been able to put it together.

Compared with other teams, the Sox seem to be ahead of the depth curve. After all, what team has a reserve starter who has won more than 190 games, like Wakefield?

The Yankees could have Colon, a former Cy Young Award winner, in reserve if Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia make the rotation. They also have Sergio Mitre coming off an injury and Hector Noesi and Andrew Brackman at Triple A. But the excitement comes at the Double A level, where Manuel Banuelos (compared by some to Johan Santana) and Dellin Betances could one day be top-of-the-rotation starters.

The Rays can fill out five, even after trading Matt Garza. But for depth? They have top prospect Matt Moore at Double A, possibly not far from making his mark. They also have Chris Archer, Alex Torres, and Alex Cobb at Triple A.

The Jays will have a surplus once their pitchers are healthy, as Brandon Morrow and Dustin McGowan will be added to the rotation. They also have righty Zach Stewart at Triple A, along with lefties Brad Mills and Luis Perez.

Last season, the Rays used seven starters, the Yankees and Red Sox eight. The Sox had 23 starts made by pitchers other than their top five, the Yankees 19, and the Rays were fortunate to need only eight.

Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka are all candidates to miss time with ailments. Lackey has had elbow issues in the past but so far has been remarkably healthy in his Boston tenure.

Extra pitchers who fill those spots must keep you in games. The Sox were 6-13 in games Wakefield started last season — primarily for Beckett — so that tradeoff wasn’t a good one.

There were encouraging signs for Doubront, but it was a small sample. He seems to need a significant amount of injury-free Triple A seasoning before he could be considered a good replacement for one of the front five.

Aceves is an intriguing piece, a guy who could be effective as a fifth starter, but it still seems his best role is working multiple innings out of the bullpen.

No team likes to lose depth, which is why you rarely see a starting pitcher dealt. The Phillies have made noise about trading Joe Blanton, but he has $16 million remaining on his contract over the next two seasons, which doesn’t make him an attractive option.

The Twins would make righty Kevin Slowey available for bullpen help, and that’s a name that would be attractive to the Red Sox. But he wouldn’t be happy hanging out in Triple A, waiting for a starter to get hurt. The Sox don’t appear to be big fans of Jeremy Bonderman.

Any starter who is available at this time would likely be out of options, so he’d have to be carried on the 25-man roster or you’d risk losing him through waivers. So the chances of getting a really good pitcher as insurance are slim.

“It’s something you really have to plan for ahead of time,’’ said a National League scout. “For most teams, it’s hard to find five good starters, never mind depth.

“But the big-market teams can afford to take a few chances on veterans who might make a little money but who can help out in a pinch. Those types of guys become invaluable, which is why, while it’s not the best roster situation to have Tim Wakefield as your long man in the bullpen, it’s a great guy to plug in when someone gets hurt or if you simply need to push a guy back a day or two.’’

The Sox hope they won’t have a dire need for anyone beyond Wakefield, but until you actually get through the season, you wonder, have I done enough?

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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