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What will the Red Sox rotation look like?

John Lackey

Colin E. Bailey/Associated Press

John Lackey has the slowest delivery to the plate on the team at 1.5 seconds, which makes him susceptible to stolen bases.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — John Lackey pitched seven innings and lost to the Royals Sunday, 4-3. And while most of the Red Sox starters have had their ups and downs, they’ve had good seasons.

But from here on out, every time any one of those five starters pitches, he may be pitching to stay in the rotation. When Clay Buchholz finally returns — and that is still a huge if — the Sox will have six pitchers for five spots — and perhaps even four spots because manager John Farrell indicated that given off days later this month and in September, there may only be a need for four.

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“I’m looking forward to having that problem,” pitching coach Juan Nieves said. “That means we have a lot of good pitchers and that’s never a bad thing. I think this is a team-first type of team. Everyone wants to do what’s good for the team, so I don’t think there’ll be any problems. I mean, everyone wants to start, but I think guys will do what they have to do for the good of the team, I really do.”

From here until Buchholz’s return (most likely in September), there really is a competition to remain in the rotation. Farrell said Sunday that Buchholz, 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA until he was hurt, won’t be anything but a starter. Despite having not pitched since June 8, he may end up the safest of the six.

“Obviously, every pitcher is competing against the hitter, but internally, sure, there might be a little competition and that doesn’t hurt anyone,” Nieves said.

I could use the “these problems usually take care of themselves” adage here — but I have no idea what will take care of itself at this juncture.

Nieves indicated there might be pitchers with “innings issues” as we move forward, but exactly who he’s talking about is anyone’s guess.

Farrell largely avoided the subject in his pregame media session.

“We’ve kind of reserved that only because of not knowing the exact return date [on Buchholz],” Farrell said. “And then with the number of off days that we’re going to go through, who comes out of the rotation and who goes to the pen and do we have the ability, with the number of off days, do we go to a four-man, depending on where we’re at? There’s a lot of factors to include.

“For instance, when we go through Colorado [in late September] we’ve got two off days in a span of four days, so do we bump one or two guys in that turn? There’s a lot of things to contend with that until we get there.”

And there’s the adaptability factor. Who is best able to head to the bullpen and deliver? The Sox, for instance, never would have been able to use Daisuke Matsuzaka out of the bullpen because of his inability to throw strikes.

If you go by wins above replacement, Felix Doubront is the highest-ranked Red Sox pitcher at 2.8, ahead of Lackey’s 2.4, Jon Lester’s 2.3, and Ryan Dempster’s 0.9. Dempster easily would be the odd man out, and he also has been a closer for Cubs. Farrell said he pretty much knows who the most adaptable is, and Dempster is our guess, but Farrell said, “I’m not going to tell you.”

It doesn’t appear it would be Lester, despite his inconsistent season.

But again, the quiet competition over these next few weeks will determine what happens.

“Whoever rises from that is the one who will take the ball,” Nieves said. “With all that we have gone through this year — losing some guys in the bullpen and in the rotation — it’s nice to have a plethora.

“It’s something we have to talk about and see where we stand at that point. Guys are getting into innings. Nobody wants to stop being a starter. Everything happens for a reason. Whoever evolves from that it will be for the better of the team. The team comes first and I’m sure they understand. If we were in a different position we might go into a six-man rotation. We’re playing for tomorrow, of course, but we’re playing for October. The next 43 or 44 games are very important.”

“I trust all of them,” Nieves added. “They’ve done an incredible job. We’ve asked everything and they’ve given everything. They have given us every sweat on their forehead.”

The rundown on each of the pitchers who will be battling it out:

1. Lester — He can certainly be brilliant, but he can have his hard-luck moments, too. He was Boston’s Opening Day starter, and his 6-0 start and being unbeaten in his first nine was one big reason the Sox got off to a 20-8 start and have been rolling ever since. Overall, he’s 10-7 with a 4.37 ERA and a 1.344 WHIP. He’s allowed 18 homers. It doesn’t appear that he would be dropped.

2. Jake Peavy — Because he’s newly acquired and was obtained for the purpose of adding stability to the rotation he also won’t be the guy to go. He’s pitched one good game and one bad game. His experience will keep him in the rotation. Peavy is 9-4 with a 4.50 ERA overall with the lowest WHIP among Boston starters at 1.174. He’s also surrendered 17 home runs.

3. Doubront — He’s been the Sox’ most consistent pitcher, and his WAR number certainly makes a strong case for him staying in the rotation. He still has some strike-throwing issues at times, and gets into high pitch counts, which could hinder his adaptability to the bullpen. He’s 8-5 with a 3.66 ERA and a 1.406 WHIP. He’s 33 innings short of his career high of 161 last season.

4. Dempster — He’s clearly struggled the most among the starters and would be the No. 1 candidate for a bullpen role. He is 6-8 with a 4.67 ERA and has a 1.481 WHIP. He has allowed 22 homers.

5. Lackey — Given his return from Tommy John surgery and the fact that he’s the pitcher with the lowest ERA (3.32) among the starters not named Buchholz, it also appears unlikely that he would convert to the pen. Unless the Sox believe that with 133 innings under his belt a year after the surgery that they’d like to start limiting them.

Lackey also has issues with base runners. He has the slowest delivery to the plate on the team at 1.5 seconds, which makes him susceptible to stolen bases.

Farrell acknowledged those difficulties after Sunday’s game and Lackey is certainly well-aware of the problem.

“Yeah, in low-scoring games it can be a factor for sure,” Lackey said. “There are a lot of things that go into that. You don’t want the runner on base, obviously, but it’s not as important as making a pitch.”

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