The Red Sox subtracted one starting pitcher from their rotation on day one of the winter meetings, only to add another to the mix. The word from President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski is that the rotation is "probably" set now, but that word leaves open all kinds of possibilities for further changes.
As structured, word is that the rotation will be new $217 million man David Price, followed by Clay Buchholz, Eduardo Rodriguez, Rick Porcello, and Joe Kelly -- Kelly didn't have a spot when Monday began, but the trade of Wade Miley opened it up for him as the next most experienced and established arm in the organization.
Those five aren't set in stone, though, and that's not just a guess: Dombrowski stated that Henry Owens and newcomer Roenis Elias, part of the return from the Miley trade, would be competing for a spot in the rotation in the spring. So, if Kelly has a rough spring, or doesn't show any progress as a starter, it's possible that one of Owens or Elias could leapfrog him and begin the season in the rotation instead.
That's no guarantee, but it does remind you that just because Dombrowski is intrigued by Kelly's second-half performance and velocity does not mean his leash is of infinite length. The Red Sox have the depth to mess around with Kelly one last time, but they also are going to be prepared to use it if said messing around doesn't pay off. Kelly could start for all of 2016. He could also start for three months, two months, one month, or no months at all depending on how his early season and even spring go. That's a luxury the 2015 Red Sox did not have coming into the year, so at least this time around there are legitimate backup plans in place -- and that's without bringing up Brian Johnson or Steven Wright.
There is also the possibility that the Red Sox aren't done dealing yet. They are reportedly in talks with the Braves about Shelby Miller, and teams like the Royals and Rangers were calling about Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly, respectively, hours before Miley was dealt. It's easy to envision the Sox trading for Miller -- or another available arm -- then moving one of the question marks of Buchholz or Kelly to make room.
Even if this is it, if these are the five pitchers the Sox are going with, they're in a far better position than they were a year ago to take that kind of gamble. For one, Price is atop the rotation -- it's far easier to risk the hope that Clay Buchholz will be healthy when he's not your primary arm. Buchholz is maybe a 50/50 shot to pitch a full season, but if he does, it will likely be great, and if he's not healthy, well, that's what depth like Owens, Elias, Johnson, and Wright are for: 200 combined innings from Buchholz and one or two of those arms should make for a fine rotation spot, especially since it's not the top one.
Porcello has obvious risks, as his first half of 2015 was a disaster, but pitching coach Carl Willis seemed to undo whatever damage was done to Porcello's repertoire and pitch selection before the season ended: a Porcello who remembers he's all about sinkers should be the mid-rotation presence Boston needs, if not better than that. And with Dombrowski around -- the man who traded Porcello to the Sox in the first place -- it'll be harder for the organization to forget that sinkers are the key, too.
Eduardo Rodriguez is a question mark mostly because of unfamiliarity, but the sophomore also has real promise to be anything from a well above-average starter to showing signs of a future at the top of one. Things could go south for him, sure, but Rodriguez's entire career thus far has been about beating the odds and expectations set by his age and inexperience: you're right to worry a little, but he's likely to come through for the Sox. Again.
The 2015 Red Sox were forced to keep using Justin Masterson for longer than they should have, because there just wasn't anyone to replace him. They lacked a strong force at the top of the rotation throughout the season, but that's what Price has done in his career and what he's here for now. Buchholz might or might not last the entire season, but at least the Sox have the depth to cover for him if not. It's reasonable to believe Porcello is fixed, and while Rodriguez might take a step back as the league adjusts to him, it's just as likely, if not more, that he takes a step forward now that he has a chance to adjust to the league.
Dombrowski taking no chances with Sox bullpen
The Red Sox added not one but two late-inning relievers, and it's about time for everyone involved.
Kelly is probably the most significant question, but he's also one the Sox are in a position to bail on in a hurry if they don't like the answer. It's not ideal, but it's a step up from 2015.
As is the bullpen, which now features a bridge of Carson Smith, Junichi Tazawa, and Koji Uehara on the way to closer Craig Kimbrel. Robbie Ross is there, too, and maybe one of Tommy Layne or Elias will join him in taking down lefties. Between Price and his ability to pitch deep into outings and this game-shortening bullpen, the Red Sox are in a better position to risk it with a Porcello rebound, Rodriguez's second year, and Kelly's quest to become a viable big-league starter outside of St. Louis.
Remember, the most significant problem in 2015 was the pen, not the rotation. The rotation wasn't guilt-free by any means, but they pitched well more often than is remembered because the bullpen did a tremendous job of making sure everyone forgot about those times. Now, the Sox have a stronger one through five, they have more depth at their disposal for if something goes awry, and they have a bullpen that will take some of the load off of the rotation as necessary. The whole staff is in a better place, so yes, the rotation is "probably" set.
There is a lot of winter left, though, and spring training, too, so "probably" was the right word for Dombrowski to use. We'll see if there are any more changes, but at least the Sox seem to be in a position where they don't need to make any.