BOSTON -- In theory, at least, this is supposed to be the time of year where every team in baseball is on equal footing.
During the ramp-up to spring training, every prospect is a can't-miss star-in-the-making, every aging veteran is surely going to return to glory and every roster has the makings of a world champion.
In reality, of course, that's not true. Some teams are clearly better than others, a fact which will be revealed when the games begin for real.
By then, another cold reality will hit the Red Sox: their staring rotation is nowhere near as good as two others in their own division, to say nothing of the Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and perhaps the Detroit Tigers.
"I think," allowed GM Ben Cherington before Thursday night's Boston Baseball Writers Association's annual awards dinner, "we have more questions right now than Tampa and New York, for example."
Tampa Bay already had an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the rotation, with five quality starters all under the age of 28. The New York Yankees had some uncertainty in their rotation -- "had" being the operative word, since a week ago, in the span of a few hours, the Yankees traded for Michael Pineda and signed Hiroki Kuroda.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, has built some back-end depth by signing veterans such as Aaron Cook, Carlos Silva and Vicente Padilla to minor-league deals.
The idea, of course, is for the Sox to hit on one or more of those candidates, in much the same way that the Yankees did last year with Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia.
The Sox are operating on the cheap for a change, since they're already projected to be over the 178 million luxury tax threshold. Any money the Red Sox spend going forward will come with a 40 percent tax, which has effectively taken them out of the running for Kuroda (who signed a one-year deal with the Yanks) and Roy Oswalt, who remains on the market with his asking price dropping -- but not enough for the Red Sox' liking.
Cherington pointed out that the team is content with the front end of its rotation (Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz) and confident that Daniel Bard will make a successful transition from bullpen to rotation.
But uncertainty hangs over the Red Sox starters. Beckett fell woefully out of shape in the second half and won just one game in the disastrous final month. He's pitched more than 200 innings just once since 2007.
Lester took a step backward last year, and while most of the statistical changes were slight, he did pitch fewer innings and recorded fewer strikeouts while watching his WHIP and ERA climb.
Buchholz didn't pitch after the first half of the season and must first demonstrate that he's completely recovered from a stress fracture in his back.
The Sox are hopeful that Bard can transfer his stuff to the rotation, but he's never started a pro game above Single A -- much less the big leagues -- and will almost surely have his workload monitored closely. Even if Bard more than doubled his innings total from a year ago, he'll likely fall way short of the magic 200-inning limit.
Perhaps the Red Sox' scouting will pay off with Cook or Silva or Padilla and they'll give the Red Sox some low-cost, high-yield innings. But realistically, what are the chances of that?
Remember that Colon underwent a controversial surgical procedure the prior year in his native Dominican Republic that may have accounted for his surprise season. And Garcia had won a dozen games as recently as the previous season for the White Sox.
(By contrast, the three Red Sox longshots won a combined 13 games in the majors last season).
Were it not for some payroll constraints, the Red Sox might have signed either Kuroki or Oswalt, and ownership's stance is understandable. The last two World Series champions have won titles with payrolls about half of what the Sox have already committed for 2013. If you can't be competitive at 178 million, then perhaps there other factors at work.
And there are, of course. The current Red Sox payroll is bloated with dead money on the books for Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey. Lackey will miss the entire season after undergoing Tommy John surgery while Matsuzaka might be back by August after undergoing the same procedure last summer.
But the Sox are picking a curious time to watch payroll. Surely it hasn't escaped their attention that they are coming off not one but two straight third-place finishes, each resulting in a DNQ for the postseason.
By limiting payroll, they're putting both Cherington and new manager Bobby Valentine in a tough spot. Yes, the offense will produce runs by the boatload and yes, it's conceivable that the starting pitching, with some breaks, will be more than good enough.
For now, however, weeks before players report to spring training, there's too much uncertainty surrounding the Boston rotation to make the team feel as confident as it ordinarily would at this time of year.