There is a widespread consensus that the Red Sox starting rotation was significantly improved this winter. But while most of that improvement is attributed to the signing of John Lackey, there is more to it than just that.
Lackey will no doubt improve the Sox rotation. But in addition to adding the best free agent pitcher on the market, the Red Sox improved their rotation through subtraction.
The Red Sox gave 38 starts to three pitchers (Brad Penny, John Smoltz and Paul Byrd) who posted a cumulative 6.17 ERA last season, and who are no longer with the organization.
Last year, the Red Sox pitching staff often struggled after Josh Beckett and Jon Lester took their turns. The Sox received a quality start only 40 percent of the time last year when someone other than Lester or Beckett took the ball.
However, those struggles went beyond the shortcomings of Penny, Smoltz and Byrd.
Daisuke Matsuzaka was injured and ineffective most of the season, as was Tim Wakefield in the second half. But to the surprise of many, newcomers Penny and Smoltz didn't pan out nearly as well as projected.
In fact, there were 55 games last season in which Red Sox pitchers had a combined 6..28 ERA.
But this year, a healthy and in shape Daisuke Matsuzaka is returning. Dice-K's performance was awful in the eight games before going on the DL. However, in four games after returning, he threw six-plus innings per start and put up an ERA of 2.22.
The Red Sox need more of that pitcher, not the one who who's innings per start have been in steady decline. Dice-K's innings per start have dropped from 6.4 in 2007, to 5.8 in 2008, down to 4.9 last year.
Though Matsuzaka won 33 games over his first two seasons (the fourth most in baseball), of the 12 pitchers to win at least 30 games in that span, he ranked last in innings pitched.
With Clay Buchholz poised to join the rotation on a full-time basis, in addition to the 31-year-old Lackey, the Sox rotation will be a lot younger this season. Gone are the elder-statesmen Smotlz and Byrd, and Wakefield will likely have a diminished role.
Indeed, I do believe that Buchholz is a lock for one of the five rotation spots. Red Sox management believes that he is ready to finally break out, and that he can win as many as 12-15 games this year.
The fifth spot will come down to the health and effectiveness of Matsuzaka and Wakefield. Despite Matsuzka's recent back issues, being 14 years Wakefield's junior likely gives him the advantage.
The hope is that by getting younger the rotation will also be healthier and more effective this season. On Opening Day, Lackey will be 31, Beckett will be 30, Matsuzaka 29, Lester 26, and Buchholz 25. The seasoned veteran, Wakefield, will be 43.
The Sox rotation will be bolstered by three pitchers in the primes of their careers who have each won the deciding game of a World Series (Lackey, Becket and Lester). Each of them would be a viable no. 1 stater on almost any rotation.
However, nothing is guaranteed; the trio still has to go out and prove that they are the best front line in the Majors. If anyone gets injured, the team's high expectations could be dashed. After all, starting pitching should be one of the Red Sox' overwhelming strengths this year.
Lackey should certainly be an asset to the team's rotation; he has a career 3.81 ERA, all in the AL. And he can be innings eater, having reached 200 innings in four seasons, and 198 in another.
However, Lackey hasn't come close to 200 the last two seasons, missing a month-plus in each due to arm trouble. In 2008 he made just 24 starts, and last year he made 27.
As a result, Lackey has only thrown 163 1/3 and 176 1/3 innings the last two seasons. Depending on how you look at it, that's either a good or a bad thing.
After making just 51 starts over the last two years, some might take the view that Lackey's arm hasn't received as much wear as if he'd made the customary 30-plus starts each year. Perhaps his arm has been somewhat preserved, leaving him fresh this year and beyond.
The Red Sox obviously think so. They had better hope so.
After striking out 199 and 190 batters in consecutive seasons in 2005-06, Lackey's strikeout rate has dipped dramatically, down to 179, then 130, and 139 each of the last three seasons.
So, there is legitimate reason for concern. Lackey has pitched in – and won – some big games. But his resume does have holes.
The big Texan is 31 and has never won more than 19 games. Overall, he has won just 102 games in eight seasons – an average of 13 wins per year. And he has never struck out 200 batters in any season, though he did fan 199 in 2005.
The Red Sox invested a lot in John Lackey, and they have a lot riding on that investment. At the outset, given his age, experience and history, he seems a better bet for success than Brad Penny, John Smoltz or Paul Byrd ever did last year.
If healthy, the Red Sox' staff should be among the elite rotations in the Majors in 2010, and perhaps beyond.