The ace wasn't in attendance at the Red Sox winter weekend, as snow prevented David Price from joining the Red Sox' festivities. Yet even in his absence, the new Red Sox lefthander made his pitching peers look … different.
The "who's the ace" jokes and T-shirts of a year ago are no more. That being the case, the other members of the Red Sox rotation are in position to be viewed not for what they aren't but instead for what they are. While the 2015 Red Sox lacked a true top-of-the-rotation starter, the group that will return behind Price in the rotation appears to have a host of legitimate candidates for the title of No. 2 starter.
At the end of last season, Tim Britton of the Providence Journal writes, Rick Porcello looked like a pitcher whose strong performance resulting from a modified pitch mix could sustain a position as a No. 2 starter.
He spoke with a self-assurance at the Winter Weekend of someone who had emerged on the other side of his transition period to Boston.
"I think the comfort level is definitely there now. I'm familiar with everybody. The more experience you have in one place you figure out how to handle things, continue to get better and it's easier to block out all the different adjustments and changes now because I'm used to it," said Porcello. "I just got lost in that in the middle of the season last year. I was able to come out of it and finish up the season throwing the ball the way I know how to. As much as it sucked I think it was a good thing for me to go through my first year. It's behind me now and I look forward to carrying those adjustments into 2016."
Then there is Eduardo Rodriguez, who had a 3.85 ERA that was misleadingly high based on a few outings in which he tipped his pitches and got shelled. In the majority of his 21 starts, Rodriguez was dominant, allowing one or no runs in 12 appearances.
"I think he has a chance to be a perennial All-Star," said Porcello. "He's a lefthander throwing 95-96, working both sides of the plate, at 22 or 23 years old -- that's pretty exceptional."
Joe Kelly showed improvement down the stretch as well, most notably during a run of eight straight wins in which he altered his pitch mix, both using his secondary offerings with increased frequency and attacking with his fastball inside more than he had earlier in the year while getting shelled.
And Clay Buchholz actually performed at the level of an ace in 2015 during the time when he was on the mound. Ultimately, among the 133 starting pitchers who logged at least 100 innings last year, Buchholz ranked 31st in Wins Above Replacement with 3.2; if the Sox can get that value out of any of their starters in 2016, that pitcher could be referred to reasonably as a No. 2.
The difficulty of forecasting the Sox, of course, is that the floor of all of those pitchers behind Price is far below their upside ceiling. While Porcello averaged 2.8 WAR with the Tigers from 2012-14 – a standard that would place him in the No. 2/No. 3 conversation – he had about half of that value in 2015. Rodriguez represents an unknown, particularly as he prepares to assume a considerably increased innings log against a league that knows him. Kelly's 1.2 WAR in 2015 represented a career-high, nowhere near the standard of a No. 2. And in his career, Buchholz has been everything from a three-win pitcher down to a pitcher who was worth less than one win above replacement level.
In short: There is a far longer list of credible candidates for the role of No. 2 starter this year than there were for the title of the Sox' No. 1 last year, but there is a fascinating separation of the ceilings and floors of the team's pitchers that suggests that the rotation could be anywhere from one of the best in the majors to a middle-of-the-pack ensemble. As such, the group of starters contribute to a sense of the 2016 Red Sox as a team that offers fascinating uncertainty as spring training nears.