Go get an ace, we all told the Boston Red Sox. Go get an ace, and the rest of the starting rotation will fall into place.

They got an ace—one of the best. There’s a reason David Price cost $217 million.

But the idea that simply adding a No. 1 would transform the rotation hasn’t had a good spring in Fort Myers, Florida. Instead, after a year of asking “Who’s No. 1?” the big question for the Red Sox now is “Who’s No. 2?”

As my friend Jon Heyman tweeted last week:

As another scout said to me this week: “The big issues are [Rick] Porcello and [Clay] Buchholz answering the bell. The depth’s OK, but they don’t have shutdown guys.”

Which is exactly why Eduardo Rodriguez is so important.

For all the talk about David Ortiz’s final season, Pablo Sandoval’s weight and Hanley Ramirez’s reactions at first base, the real key to the Red Sox could be whether the 22-year-old Rodriguez can overcome a spring injury and take another step forward.

He was good enough last season that when Dave Dombrowski took over as Red Sox president last August, he spoke of Rodriguez as a future ace. He could be good enough this year that he becomes the true No. 2 behind Price.

The Red Sox bullpen should be good enough, especially if the forearm stiffness that forced Carson Smith from a game Monday doesn’t prove to be serious. The batting order looks promising.

But with Rodriguez set to open the season on the disabled list because of a dislocated right kneecap suffered early in camp, the rotation behind Price sets up with Buchholz, Porcello, Joe Kelly and a fifth starter to be named later.

Rodriguez has already begun throwing, and the hope is he could be ready sometime in late April. The bigger hope is that he can continue making the progress that has already made the July 2014 trade that sent Andrew Miller to the Baltimore Orioles look so good for the Red Sox.

He was the first Red Sox rookie left-hander with double-digit wins since John Curtis in 1972. He debuted in late May with 7.2 scoreless innings (and just three hits) in Texas, and he made eight other starts where he pitched at least six innings while allowing one run or none.

His 3.85 ERA was the best by a Red Sox rookie with at least 20 starts since Curtis (3.73) and Lynn McGlothen (3.41) debuted in ’72.

Meanwhile, Buchholz has been hurt so much that he’s made 20 starts just twice in the last five seasons and still doesn’t have a 30-start season in eight years in the big leagues.

In a Sunday piece on the issues facing the Red Sox, Boston Globe baseball columnist Nick Cafardo wrote that it’s important for Buchholz to be “a solid No. 2.” But how do you count on him?

How do you count on a guy who has done little to inspire any confidence this spring? In his first two exhibition starts, Buchholz allowed 12 baserunners in 5.1 innings (although he was better Monday).

Porcello has been even worse, giving up 19 hits in his first nine spring innings. The Red Sox would like to think he can build on a strong second half of 2015 (3.49 ERA over his last 12 starts), but it’s a little much to see him as a true complement to Price.

Maybe Kelly, who also showed promise late last season (2.35 ERA in his final eight starts), can eventually be that guy. Maybe eventually the Red Sox can trade for someone, although MLB Network’s Heyman reported that a winter inquiry about Oakland‘s Sonny Gray went nowhere because the A’s didn’t want to move him.

Rodriguez is the best option, and that’s why it’s not a stretch to label him as one of the most important players on a team that has back-to-back last-place finishes but much bigger dreams.

The rotation, in any case, is the key to those dreams. One veteran scout who follows the American League East closely went so far as to say the lack of quality starters was the one issue that keeps him from believing the Red Sox could win.

Not everyone agrees. Another veteran scout said recently that if Price pitches well, the Red Sox probably will win.

That was the idea, after all. Go get an ace, and the rest will fall into place.

If Rodriguez gets healthy and pitches well, maybe it will.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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