By Christopher Smith
---- — The Sox ranked 27th in ERA (4.70) in the majors last year. That type of mediocrity contributed significantly to their three-year playoff drought.
Look at the Tampa Bay Rays. They are a front-runner to win one of the two Wild Cards certainly not because of their offense (.240 average last year, 27th in baseball). But they were first in ERA (3.19).
If you can pitch, you have a chance. It’s as simple as that.
Tampa has been the standard in recent years. The Rays have had a revolving door as far as starting pitching goes. If they lose a good starter via trade or free agency, they have another capable prospect in the minors ready to do an equal or better job.
For the Sox to turn things around, they need Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz to pitch 10 times better than last year and they must build that revolving door like Tampa.
New manager John Farrell is the right man for the job.
When Farrell was pitching coach from 2007-10, Boston led the AL in opponent batting average (.254) and strikeouts (4,771) and was third in ERA (4.11).
Red Sox starters this spring have been terrific under Farrell and new pitching coach Juan Nieves.
Lester had a terrible 2012 with a career-worst 4.82 ERA and just nine wins in 33 starts after posting 15 or more wins each of the previous four seasons. But he has been awesome this spring and will start tomorrow (1:05 p.m.) in the opener at Yankee Stadium.
“I think what Jon has done, he’s gotten back to a delivery that has been similar to his in the past,” Farrell told reporters Wednesday. “I think he’s executing pitches with the consistency we’ve seen before, which made him one of the top left-handers in the game.”
Lester hurled 24.0 innings this spring, allowing just two earned runs (0.75 ERA) with eight hits, four walks and 20 strikeouts.
If Lester and Buchholz return to their 2010 All-Star-form, this 69-win last-place squad should be back in the playoffs soon.
Southpaw Felix Doubront, who posted a 4.86 ERA in 161.0 innings and 29 starts last year, must build his durability and improve his work ethic. Doubront entered camp in poor shape.
He tired at times last year, which led to wild inconsistency. He had a 3.71 ERA in May, 5.83 in June, 3.86 in July and 8.16 in August.
The other big factor in returning to the glory days is building that revolving door.
Top pitching prospects like 22-year-old Matt Barnes (ranked baseball’s 40th best prospect by Baseball America), 23-year-old Allen Webster (ranked 49th) and 20-year-old southpaw Henry Owens (ranked 91st) all must keep progressing.
With a strong start to the season in Triple-A Pawtucket, Webster could pitch his way onto Boston’s 25-man roster. And Barnes, who had a 2.86 ERA combined between Single and Double-A last year, could put himself in a position to make Boston’s 2014 rotation.
Owens has great potential. He struck out 13 of 15 Single-A batters during an intrasquad game last Sunday.
Webster, who the Sox received in their mega-deal with the Dodgers, turned heads this spring. Some in the organization believe he could become an ace. His fastball hit the high 90s this spring and he has incredible sink and a plus change-up.
Before spring training, Webster told The Eagle-Tribune, “To get to the big leagues and stay I have to be really consistent with throwing strikes.”
He did that in Grapefruit League games this spring, striking out 14 and walking just one in 11.0 innings.
That shows the “Farrell and Nieves effect.” They told Webster that his stuff is good enough that he can pitch more to the middle of the plate and get away with it instead of trying to pitch to the corners.
The Red Sox also need Anthony Ranaudo, 23, a first-round pick in 2010, to find his control after he posted a 6.69 ERA and 6.5 walks per nine innings in nine starts last year with Double-A Portland. He was sent to Fort Myers with a tired arm.