All season long, it seems, general manager Theo Epstein and the Boston Red Sox have waited for an opportunity to put Felix Doubront back in their bullpen. The 23-year-old lefty pitched out of the bullpen down the stretch last season and again in early April, and his best fit right now would be as a lefty to complement Franklin Morales in the Red Sox bullpen.

But with so many health issues plaguing the staff, Doubront remains a starter at Class AAA Pawtucket for now and the foreseeable future. The Red Sox can’t convert him to short relief until they know for sure he won’t be needed as a starter.

“With our starting rotation being a little banged up, we need to keep Doubront healthy,” Epstein said last week. “If we ever get to a point where we’re really satisfied with the health of our starting staff, getting Doubront into the ‘pen and big leagues as soon as possible is an option for us.”

For his part, Doubront bounced back from rough outing to throw seven scoreless innings Wednesday night in Syracuse, allowing four hits, striking out four and walking two.

Just having the lefty available at has to help Epstein sleep at night. The same goes for Kevin Millwood and Kyle Weiland, two other PawSox starters who could help the Red Sox right now if called upon.

As shaky as the Red Sox rotation looks like right now, the pitching depth in the organization has a chance to pay off big in the second half.

“That’s the one thing Theo and I talk about in the winter more than anything,” manager Terry Francona said recently. “We talk about it a lot, having enough pitching to where it can’t derail your season.”

Not one of the pitchers in the Red Sox rotation represents a sure thing going forward. Josh Beckett and his 2.12 ERA comes the closest, but illness cost him a start in late June and he dealt with injury issues all of last season.

Daisuke Matsuzaka is done for the season, having already undergone Tommy John surgery. Clay Buchholz is on the 15-day disabled list with a back injury, and a return date has not yet been determined. Jon Lester was placed on the 15-day disabled list on Wednesday with a muscle strain of undetermined severity. John Lackey missed time earlier this season with an elbow injury and has a 7.47 ERA. Tim Wakefield has pitched as well as could have been expected in spot duty, but he’ll turn 45 in August and his continued good health cannot be taken for granted.

But the Red Sox appear to have enough starting-pitching depth to weather the storm. It would take quite a bit more than already has happened to derail their season.

Wakefield was the first line of defense. He was buried in the bullpen in April with the understanding he’d be needed before too long — and, sure enough, he’s made 11 starts in the first half.

Andrew Miller has transformed from intriguing project to irreplaceable rotation arm even though he hasn’t yet started against an American League team. He has a 3.06 ERA with 13 strikeouts in 17 2/3 innings pitched thus far.

Swingman Alfredo Aceves, the next arm on the depth chart, likely will replace Lester on Sunday — though Francona said no decision yet has been made. Aceves has walked nine and allowed 12 earned runs in his last 10 innings pitched as a starter, but he’d allowed just two earned runs in 11 innings pitched in his two starts before that.

If Aceves proves ineffective, the Red Sox have several options in the pipeline behind him.

Primary among them is Weiland, who had the best first half of any pitcher in the Red Sox organization outside of Beckett. Baseball America ranked Weiland 20th among Red Sox prospects at the start of the season, but the righty has catapulted himself close to the top of the prospect lists with an eye-popping first season at Pawtucket. He has struck out 99 hitters in 93 innings — including a 12-strikeout effort last week in which he didn’t walk a single hitter — and he has a 3.00 ERA.

The only reason for the Red Sox not to promote Weiland to replace Lester is the fact that he’s not on the 40-man roster. If they add him to the 40-man roster and then send him back to AAA for more than 20 days, they burn one of his three option years.

If the Red Sox wait until mid-August to call Weiland up, even if he ends up going back until rosters expand on Sept. 1, they wouldn’t have to send him back to the minor leagues for more than 20 days — thus preserving the option.

Millwood has a 4.88 ERA in nine starts for the PawSox, though the fact that he has three times as many strikeouts as walks is an encouraging sign. He gave up six runs in four innings against Rochester in late June, but he’d allowed two or fewer earned runs in four straight starts before that point.

“He had a rough start in there, but he’s by and large been effective, changing speeds, locating really well,” Epstein said. “He’s been consistent.”

And behind Millwood is Doubront, who has dealt with health issues and inconsistency but still has a 3.86 ERA in 11 starts. Entering his start Wednesday, he had 45 strikeouts and 18 walks in 49 innings pitched this season.

Losing Buchholz and Lester is far from ideal. But a team could do far worse than having Doubront, Millwood and Weiland waiting in the wings.

 


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