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Red Sox starting pitchers still a concern

The Red Sox are counting on Jon Lester (left) and John Lackey to have bounce-back years.

FILE/JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

The Red Sox are counting on Jon Lester (left) and John Lackey to have bounce-back years.

The Red Sox have been one of baseball’s most active teams this winter. They retained designated hitter David Ortiz, traded for closer Joel Hanrahan, and signed six free agents.

That number will rise to seven if the Red Sox are able to complete a deal with first baseman Mike Napoli, whose contract negotiations have gone on for a month because of a pre-existing hip injury.

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Counting Napoli and the expected raise that Hanrahan will receive through salary arbitration, the Sox added approximately $83 million to their payroll.

General manager Ben Cherington has dramatically changed the roster of a team that lost 93 games last season.

But only 16 percent of all the money spent has gone to improve the team’s greatest weakness: the starting rotation. Pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, Fla., six weeks from today, and the Red Sox have a group of starting pitchers who can’t yet be considered trustworthy.

They have a lineup that could prove potent and a greatly improved bullpen. But the rotation remains a concern, given the lack of changes when compared with the rest of the team.

Red Sox starters were 48-72 with a 5.19 earned run average last season, the third-worst ERA in the American League. Opponents hit 135 home runs against the Sox and had a .790 OPS.

The three pitchers who started the most games — Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Felix Doubront — return as the core of the rotation. Lester had a 4.82 ERA, Buchholz a 4.56, and Doubront a 4.86.

“The players who are returning need to improve — that is more important than anything else,” Cherington said. “We’re confident that will happen.”

Lester, a lefthanded All-Star who was on the precipice of becoming an ace, is 10-17 with a 4.90 ERA in 39 starts dating to Sept. 1, 2011. In his last 237 innings, Lester has allowed 251 hits and struck out only 198.

Lester averaged 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings from 2009-11. That fell to 7.3 last season.

Buchholz finished poorly last season, allowing 12 earned runs in his last 7 innings. But he did start 29 games and throw 189 innings, both career bests. At 28, he appears to be healthy and reliable.

Doubront was one of the few bright spots of last season, starting 29 games after coming to spring training with no guarantees or minor league options. But his 161 innings were the most he has thrown since 2008, when the lefthander threw 129 innings in Single A.

At 25, Doubront is in the risk zone for injury because of his age and the jump in innings.

Most teams try to manage the innings of young starters to guard against shoulder or elbow injuries. The Red Sox seemed to be doing that in August when Doubront was put on the disabled list with what was described as a knee contusion.

He had a 5.40 ERA in seven starts after returning. Doubront did strike out 21 in his last 14 innings and said on the final day of the season that his arm felt fine.

The only addition to the rotation was Ryan Dempster, a righthander who turns 36 in May. He was signed to a two-year deal worth $26.5 million.

Dempster has averaged just under 200 innings and 32 starts in his last five seasons. Only 15 other starters in the game can make that claim, a testament to Dempster’s durability.

But Dempster has spent the entirety of his career in the National League with the exception of 12 games for the Texas Rangers last season after he was traded from the Cubs. Pitching in the American League East against better lineups in hitter-friendly ballparks could be a challenge.

Dempster has a 4.63 ERA in 50 interleague appearances. He is 4-8 with a 4.91 ERA in 18 career appearances against teams from the AL East — including 0-4 with a 7.62 ERA in five career starts against the Yankees.

“I’m well aware that the American League East is a very tough division, but at the same time, every team in baseball is a tough team to pitch against,” Dempster said last month. “If you go out there, make your pitches, and you execute, it doesn’t matter who you pitch against or where you’re pitching.”

The Red Sox also are counting on John Lackey, who did not pitch last season while recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery. Lackey was 26-23 with a 5.26 ERA in his first two seasons with the Red Sox. Some of that, team officials believe, can be attributed to the deteriorating condition of his elbow.

Lackey will arrive at spring training nearly 16 months removed from surgery and is not expected to be restricted.

“We’ll go into spring training with a normal progression for him,” said manager John Farrell. “Spring training is going to tell us a lot about where John’s at, and we fully expect him to be ready to go.”

Cherington said he is planning no significant additions to the rotation, pointing to the depth on the roster.

Lefthanded reliever Franklin Morales will work as a starter in spring training. He was 3-3 with a 4.14 ERA in nine starts last season. In 45 innings as a starter, Morales struck out 47 and allowed 39 hits. As it stands, Morales would start the season in the bullpen. But the versatility he showed last season could prove valuable.

If the Red Sox retain righthander Alfredo Aceves, he could fill a similar role.

Aceves is 2-1 with a 4.18 ERA in nine career starts, the last coming in 2011. He has been pushed deeper into the bullpen with the addition of Hanrahan and could provide the most value as a spot starter.

Aceves was a candidate for a rotation spot last spring before becoming the closer and long has expressed a desire to start.

The Red Sox also have several prospects who could provide rotation depth.

Righthanders Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster, who were obtained from the Dodgers in August, could prove important. De La Rosa, 23, started 10 games for the Dodgers in 2011 before undergoing elbow surgery He returned to pitch in 13 innings in the minors last season.

De La Rosa was considered one of the game’s better prospects before he was injured. Webster, 22, has a 3.43 ERA in five minor league seasons. He is likely to start the season in Triple A.

Lefthander Chris Hernandez, who has exceeded expectations and moved quickly through the organization since being drafted in 2010, is another option. The Red Sox also believe knuckleballer Steven Wright, obtained from the Indians last season, could factor in. He had a 2.48 ERA in five starts in the Dominican Winter League.

There is a sense, too, that Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves will make a difference after the tumult of the last few seasons.

The Red Sox have had three pitching coaches and two managers in the last two seasons. There was often a sense of disarray when it came to the staff.

“The starting pitching has to get better, we all know that,” Farrell said. “The pieces are there, I believe.”

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.
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