FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Recently, a veteran major league scout -- one who has watched the Red Sox extensively this spring as part of his regular coverage -- had a question.
"They can't start the season with this rotation, can they?'' the scout wondered.
It's a question being asked around the Grapefruit League, with the club's regular season opener just a week away.
The addition of David Price, signed to the biggest contract ever given to a pitcher this past winter, has given the Red Sox the No. 1 starter that they so sorely lacked last season.
But increasingly, talent evaluators are citing the dropoff in quality after Price in the Red Sox rotation. And the knee injury that will sideline Eduardo Rodriguez for the start of the season, while not a long-term concern, is, for now, further thinning the starting group.
One team official told an evaluator with another team recently that while Rodriguez might already be the team's second-best starter, his unavailability to start the season might be a blessing of sorts, since it will limit his innings after a career high 170 innings last season.
Still, in the short-term, Rodriguez's absence could be felt strongly, especially if the Sox don't get more out of Clay Buchholz and Rick Porcello, the projected second and third starters respectively.
Buchholz had an impressive outing in his last outing against a major league teams, the St. Louis Cardinals, last week.
"Spring training is spring training,'' shrugged Buchholz, dismissing the significance of Grapefruit League outings. "But I feel strong right now and at this point in spring training, that's where I should be right now.''
When Buchholz is healthy, he can be a solid No. 2 starter, as he demonstrated last year in posting a 3.26 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP.
But Buchholz is known to be fragile, having never made 30 starts or logged 200 innings in a season. He's also spent time on the DL at least once in each of the last six seasons, and last year, didn't pitch again after July 10 after experiencing some forearm issues.
Porcello, meanwhile, has been more durable, but his rough introduction to Boston and the A.L. East last season (9-15, 4.92) is plenty of reason for concern.
On Monday, in a 5-3 loss to the Orioles, Porcello was alternately good and bad. He allowed the first four hitters of the game to reach with a homer, triple and two walks. He then tossed four straight scoreless innings, retiring10 of 12.
But in the sixth, poor location with some pitches resulted in two more solo homers.
"It's a matter of being more consistent with Rick,'' said John Farrell. "He's capable of better; he's shown that. We need Rick to pitch to his strengths. We need him to be a little bit more consistent.''
Finally, there's Joe Kelly, who, at 27, may be positioned to capitalize on his elite stuff and establish himself. But his past inconsistency means he's far from a sure thing.
Internal options aren't encouraging. Most evaluators consider Henry Owens and Brian Johnson to be back end starters. The two most talented starters in the organization -- Michael Kopech and Anderson Espinoza -- aren't options for several years. Kopech has twice in the last two years seen his season interrupted -- once for testing positive for a stimulant, and more recently, breaking his hand in an altercation with a teammate. Espinoza, meanwhile, is just 18 and has yet to pitch above Single A.
It's unlikely the Sox can address their needs through trades right away.
Even the worst teams are reluctant to sell off valuable parts in the first two months of the season.
Instead, the Red Sox will have to bank heavily on Price, hope that Kelly indeed turned a corner last season (he's been super this spring), and welcome Rodriguez back sometime before May.
But with 40 percent of their rotation occupied by -- and $33 million in salary committed to -- Buchholz and Porcello, there's a sense of unease about a rotation that ranked 13th out of 15 teams in the American League, and even with the addition of Price and the expectation that Rodriguez will continue to grow, may not be good enough.