Playoff prognosis: Red Sox rotation edition

Yes, Ryan Dempster, we're looking at you. You'd more than likely be
the man on the outside looking in if the playoffs started today.

Jan-Christian Sorensen
Contributing Writer

It’s a loaded question, but play along: If the postseason began today, what should the Red Sox starting rotation look like?

Ideally, it should be anchored by a lanky right-hander with a 9-0 record, a 1.71 ERA and Nasty to spare, but since Clay Buchholz — who has been out with a shoulder injury enjoying the unspoiled view and all-you-can-eat sunflower-seed buffet from the top step of the Boston dugout since mid-June — is still at least a couple weeks away from making his next start, let’s all be glad there are still 47 games to go before the long road to the Fall Classic begins.

Considering Ryan Dempster, who starts today for Boston against the Astros, would be first bull out of the gate if the playoffs DID start today, be very glad.

No slight against the veteran righty, but Dempster’s increasingly looking like he’ll be the guy holding the (rosin) bag when Buchholz returns. Toss Jake Peavy, John Lackey, Jon Lester and Felix Doubront into the five-man stew and Dempster is likely the one who’ll be without a seat when the music stops. 

The trade-deadline acquisition of Peavy was more or less an insurance policy in the event of a worst-case Buchholz scenario, but with the latter making strides in his recovery and Dempster not doing himself any favors in his recent starts, it’s Dempster (6-8, 4.54 ERA) who has suddenly cast himself as one of The Expendables. After putting together a string of six consecutive quality starts from late May through June, Dempster has since allowed five or more runs in three of his last four outings. Over his last five starts he’s served up 24 runs (18 earned) on 37 hits while walking 14 for a 6.15 ERA. Opposing hitters are teeing off on him at a healthy .319 clip.

But Dempster could prove to be a valuable and effective short-relief option out of the bullpen in the playoffs. It's not something that's new to Dempster, who pitched out of the 'pen in Chicago for the Cubs from 2005 through 2007, saving 85 games and posting a 4.12 ERA with 211 strikeouts in 233.2 innings of work.

Red Sox Nation is already frothy about Peavy, who came to the Sox with an 8-4 record and a 4.28 ERA and went seven strong innings against Arizona in his Boston debut Saturday, striking out seven and allowing only two runs on four hits.

Even though it’s far too early to tell if Peavy will be the savior Sox fans are banking on and Buchholz returns to toss the same sick stuff he was doling out before hitting the DL, it could give the Sox an effective 1-2 tandem to begin the playoffs.

Doubront (8-5, 3.56 ERA), meanwhile, has more than made his case to be the No. 3 man out of the chute. Over his last 10 starts the Venezuelan lefty is 4-2 with a 2.30 ERA, and he recently recorded his 15th consecutive start allowing three earned runs or less — tying Herb Pennock of the 1919 Red Sox and putting him only one away from the team record of 16, notched by Babe Ruth in 1916.

Lackey could either be the third or fourth arm in the rotation. The tall Texan may have a win-loss record of 7-9 but his ERA of 3.21 is the lowest on the team among starters and 11th in the American League. He also leads the team and is 15th in the league with a WHIP of 1.21.

That still leaves Lester (10-6, 4.52 ERA) as the biggest quandary of Boston’s banner season to date, and the question of where he fits into the rotation. He’s been maddeningly inconsistent, offering occasional glimpses of both the ace who went 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA in 2008 and the human gasoline can that went 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA last season. He reeled off a 6-0 record and a 2.72 ERA in his first nine games, including a one-hit shutout masterpiece at Fenway against Toronto May 10, and then dropped four of his next six, posting a 7.20 ERA during that stretch.

Still, Lester is a proven performer who has shaken off a dismal 2012 season under the familiar tutelage of John Farrell, and he has both the stamina and gumption to put together a big game in the playoffs for Boston no matter where he’s slotted in the rotation.

The Red Sox also have a potential ace in the hole in spot starter Brandon Workman (2-1, 5.04 ERA), although his relief performance in Houston Tuesday night didn’t win him any supporters. Prior to the Houston debacle — in which Workman went 4.2 innings and gave up six runs on nine hits — Workman showed flashes of brilliance, most notably in Seattle on July 30 when he went six innings and gave up only one run on six hits and struck out nine. Prior to that, he went 6+ innings in Oakland, giving up two runs on two hits and striking out five. Still, Workman hasn't toed the rubber in a big game, so barring a complete rotation collapse down the stretch in September, he likely won’t be involved in a postseason rotation discussion when he can provide valuable long relief out of the bullpen.

Here’s the disclosure statement: none of the seven men in this rotation discussion have a winning record in the playoffs. Lackey is the most experienced by far, with a 3-4 record and a 3.12 ERA in 14 games (2002 ALDS, ALCS, WS; 2005 ALDS; 2006 ALCS; 2007, ’08, ’09 ALDS; 2009 ALCS). Jon Lester is next at 2-3 and a 2.57 ERA in eight games (2007 ALDS, WS; 2008 ALDS, ALCS; 2009 ALDS). Peavy is 0-2 with a 12.10 ERA in two games (2005, ’06 NLDS), while Dempster is 0-1 with a 6.35 ERA in two games (2007, ‘08 NLDS), Buchholz has a no-decision and a 3.60 ERA in one game (2009 ALDS) while Doubront and Workman have zero post-season experience.

However, as a wise and bewildering man once said quite famously, "Pitching always beats batting — and vice versa."

Ah, Yogi Berra. Of course you were a catcher. You always knew how to cover your bases.

Twitter: @jan_doh