I’d like to start this post off with an apology to Steven Wright, though I know he’ll never read it. Prior to the start of the season, I scoffed at the idea of the knuckleballer making more than the occasional spot start. I figured he'd get knocked around almost every time he took a major-league mound. Well, we’re here in May and he’s shown enough to earn a consistent major-league role on a struggling pitching staff.
When Justin Masterson was first taken out of the rotation, the initial reaction was mostly one of relief. The thing is, it seemed most were expecting either Eduardo Rodriguez or Brian Johnson to take his rotation spot. There was a bit of disappointment in the air when it was announced that Wright would be plugged into the rotation for now.
Despite that disappointment, Wright has actually been pretty solid in his two spot starts, and has more than earned another turn in the rotation while the team awaits Masterson’s possible return. If and when Masterson does take his spot back, or when Johnson and/or Rodriguez join the rotation and push Wright out, the latter has earned a spot on this team even if it’s not as a starter.
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Although it’s clearly a small sample size, Wright’s numbers over his two spot starts have been very impressive. He hasn’t been a star by any means, and he’s clearly replaceable in this role, but he’s been everything you look for in a spot starter and more. He’s tossed 11-1/3 innings in these two starts with a 3.18 ERA. He’s not striking out batters at all, but he’s allowed just two walks in these outings. Furthermore, he’s holding batters to a .209/.244/.349 line.
Besides those two spot starts, he’s also made two impressive appearances out of the bullpen. Although it’s something of a lost art, those two appearances came in valuable long relief performances. The situations were vastly different, but they both served the same purpose: saving the other pieces in the bullpen. In his first game, he came on in the 15th inning of the 19-inning marathon in New York and finished the contest. His presence allowed the Red Sox not to worry about having to rely on a position player pitching. In the other game, he came on after Masterson failed to make it out of the third inning. Typically, those types of outings destroy a bullpen, but Wright managed o finish the game and let the other relievers take the day off and stay fresh for more competitive games.
For now, Wright is in the rotation, and he’s performing admirably. At some point, however, he’ll be taken out of the starting role. Either Masterson will come back, one of the prospects will take his place, or a trade will knock him out of the role. He’s just not long for the spot. While I’d have been in favor of him being demoted back to Pawtucket if you asked me about this situation just a few weeks ago, he’s looked good enough since then to earn a bullpen role. Especially in a rotation like this, having a solid long reliever can be extremely valuable. While the overall season didn’t work out, you needn’t look further than Alfredo Aceves’ performance in 2011.
The importance of a long reliever is even more important on a team with this kind of rotation. Yes, the starters have looked infinitely better over the past few weeks, they are still prone to short outings. Just look at Monday’s outing by Joe Kelly. Having Wright around in the bullpen would save Barnes from those long outings and keep him in the higher-leverage situations late in games that he could be more valuable in.
Looking at the current roster, there aren’t many other options for this role besides Wright. Barnes could be one, but as I mentioned, he’s better suited for the back-end of the bullpen. The unit needs someone to be paired with Junichi Tazawa as a bridge to Koji Uehara. None of the other relievers are well-suited to go more than an inning or two, never mind five. The other option would be using Rodriguez or Johnson if they can’t get a spot in the rotation. That would be the way I’d go if Wright didn’t show the solid performances he has thus far. Now, the prospects are able to stay in Pawtucket to continue to craft their games while they wait for a rotation spot to open up. The other option would be Masterson. While the idea of him pitching well out of the bullpen sounds great in theory, nothing he’s shown this season would support that theory. He looks like someone who will be knocked around no matter what role he’s put into.
Wright is never going to be a superstar or anything close to it. With that being said, the players on the margins of the roster can be extremely valuable, and he fits that bill. It’s unclear how much longer there will be a rotation spot for him, but he should still have a spot on this roster even when he’s no longer a starter. Although the swingman position isn’t used nearly as much anymore, this Red Sox rotation could sure use one, and Wright would be the perfect fit.