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How many starters do the Red Sox need?

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Dave Dombrowski will almost certainly get a top of the rotation arm this winter, but should he stop there?

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I feel like this gets said every year, but I’ll say it again as the 2015 season winds down. The upcoming offseason is going to be one of the most fascinating in recent memory for the Red Sox. They are coming off a disappointing season, but one in which many players have rebuilt some value towards the end of the year. They have a new front office structure in tow, and with that may come some new team-building philosophies.

For as much work as Dave Dombrowski has ahead of him this year, his toughest job may be figuring out exactly where he needs to make additions. In the end, the only thing everyone will agree with at this time is the fact that Boston needs and "ace" or a "front-of-the-rotation starter" or whatever vague title you want to give it. They need David Price, Sonny Gray, or someone similar. However, is that really all they need to fix the rotation?

In the end, we’re still looking at a group of starting pitchers that combined for a 4.35 ERA, higher than all but eight teams in baseball. Of course, that hardly tells the entire story. For one thing, the peripherals tell a much more optimistic story, as Boston’s rotation currently sits 11th overall in FIP. Additionally, the rotation now is almost completely different than it was in the first half, both in terms of who is pitching as well as how they’re pitching. In the second half, they rank seventh in ERA and 10th in FIP. This recent run complicates things. Although a couple months ago it was clear this rotation needed a few pieces to be rebuilt, things are more muddled now. To clear things up, let’s go through the options and see how many spots they truly have locked down.

Rick Porcello is the natural place to start this discussion. He was supposed to be the best pitcher on the team this year, and is the perfect representation of how the season has gone for the rotation as a whole. He got off to a god-awful start, but has been more than solid after coming back from injury in late-August. He may not be worth the big extension he received before the season, but he’s still a clear part of the rotation moving forward. The key is getting that ace you can slot ahead of Porcello in the rotation, but they won’t cut the latter out of the picture entirely. Even if they wanted to trade him, the aforementioned extension probably makes that nearly impossible. He’ll be in there, and with the addition of the agreed-upon ace, that gives the Red Sox two starters.

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Next, we go with Eduardo Rodriguez, the highly-touted young pitcher who came up slightly earlier than expected and proved he belongs in the majors. It hasn’t been a seamless transition, of course, but he’s more than held his own and has already put himself in some impressive company. He’s never thrown more than 160 innings in a season, so they may have to get creative next year to get him through the entire season and (hopefully) the playoffs, but he’s definitely a part of the rotation. That leaves two open spots.

As we start to get into murkier territory, we look at the most enigmatic player on the roster, Clay Buchholz. The talent is there, but the health is not, as we all know. I’ve long been extremely high on Buchholz, and still believe he is the most talented pitcher on the roster (at least until the "ace" is brought in), but even I have to acknowledge he just can’t be counted on as a full-time rotation member. When he’s healthy, they’ll benefit from his performance, but it’s hard to count on him as more than a half-season contributor. That gives them 3-1/2 starters in their rotation.

To fill in the other half-slot, we turn to another pitcher with his own uncertainty, although it comes in a different form. Henry Owens made ten starts in his first taste of the majors, and generally held his own. He pitched to a 3.84 ERA in 58-2/3 innings that was partially inflated by one horrendous outing against the Yankees. For a 22-year-old, that’s a solid start and one that could justify a rotation spot to start 2016. However, we’re still dealing with a relatively small sample, and there are still some kinks to work out with him. His control is still an issue, and he still loses his command at times. Given all of that, and his general lack of experience, he has enough uncertainty to start him in triple-A, or even out of the bullpen as a swing man, and use him as Buchholz insurance. That role should still give him something like 15 starts and 75+ innings in the rotation. That gives them four full spots.

Now, we’re on to a few names that I don’t see in the rotation for next year, for various reasons. We’ll start with Joe Kelly, who I’ve written about a few times recently and won’t go too in-depth with again. To put it simply, I don’t see his recent performance being sustainable and feel he’s a much better fit in the bullpen. Here’s hoping Dombrowski feels the same way.

Next, we have Wade Miley, who is the most likely man to stick around as a back-end starter. He’s clearly not the most exciting pitcher in the world, but he is a solid number four or five starter provided you have the right talent surrounding him. Although he hasn’t blown anyone away, he’s done essentially all anyone could have expected from him. However, he makes more sense as a trade candidate for the Red Sox than as a future piece. His upside is limited, and the Red Sox have plenty of options when it comes to back-end depth. With Owens, Kelly, Steven Wright and Brian Johnson in the organization, they have guys who can fill in and give them close to what Miley can. Instead, they should look to trade him. In return, the Red Sox can possibly get some outfield depth to go with their young trio, some much-needed bullpen depth, or maybe even a first baseman if they decide to trade Hanley Ramirez. Keeping Miley around wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but he’s by no means a necessary piece to the 2016 puzzle.

Finally, we have Rich Hill, who may be the most fascinating piece of this puzzle. If you mentioned him a couple weeks ago, you’d be laughed at. Now, after 23 innings with a 1.17 ERA, a 1.62 FIP and a 15 K/BB ratio, he’s in the conversation. In the end, however, it’s just too small a sample to change judgement on him so quickly. If he's willing to stick around as a bullpen piece and starter depth in 2016, that’s great. But you can’t pencil him into a (hopefully) contending rotation after three great starts.

With all of the pieces put together, they could certainly get by with only an "ace" brought in, but it looks safer to bring in a mid-tier piece as well. Luckily, as we saw last offseason, those options can be plentiful. The hard part is figuring out which ones will be able to help.