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Finding a role on the Red Sox for Roenis Elias

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Roenis Elias was the forgotten piece in the Wade Miley deal, but he's likely to play a role in 2016. The only question is which role?

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After trading for Craig Kimbrel — a top-five reliever in the game — and signing David Price — a top-five starter in the game — all other moves are understandably overlooked. The trade with Seattle that sent Wade Miley to the Mariners didn’t go totally unnoticed, but it probably hasn’t gotten the full credit it’s deserved over the last few weeks. Even if you, like me, aren’t totally sold on the current rotation, it was still a coup. Dave Dombrowski felt like he had an extra starter to sell, and he got one of the top young relievers in the game back for a roughly average pitcher in Miley. The Red Sox also got Roenis Elias back in that deal, and while he’s clearly a less valuable piece than Smith, he can still play a relatively large role on the 2016 team.

The former Mariner has just two big-league seasons under his belt, but he’s a little older than that may suggest. He came over from Cuba back in 2011, and it’s taken a bit of time for him to get set as a major-league player. As he enters his age-27 season, he has roughly two seasons worth of slightly below-average performance as a major-league starter. Between injuries and underperformance to those in front of him, Elias is going to get a chance to contribute. It becomes a question of what his role will be in those chances.

Before we get into the specific options for Elias in 2016, let’s take a quick look back at his performance over the last two major-league seasons. The Cuban southpaw has tossed 279 innings over 51 appearances (49 of which were starts). He pitched to a 3.97 ERA in that time, but when you factor in the fact that he called Safeco Park his home, it translates to a below-average 107 ERA-. Along those same lines, his 4.23 FIP translates to a 115 FIP-. Both of these indicate a safely below-average pitcher, albeit with a relatively small track record. Baseball Prospectus’ new pitching stats agree with this assessment, as Elias comes in with a 4.74 DRA and a 107 cFIP over his career. As I’ve said, this underwhelming performance has come almost entirely out of the rotation, leaving his potential out of the bullpen as something of a mystery. There is some potential for him to be a factor here as a reliever. Obviously, it’s unlikely he’d be a true game-changer, but he can at least be a difference maker.

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

There are a few things that need to happen before we get to that point, however. When pitchers and catcher start to report for spring training in just over a month, there will be a legitimate battle for the fifth spot in the rotation. Barring any other moves, of course. Elias will be a part of that competition, along with Joe Kelly and Henry Owens, as well as a possible veteran addition or two. As of this moment, it’s all but guaranteed that Kelly will get the first crack at that spot, as exciting as that idea may be.

This scenario leaves Elias as starting pitching depth to start the year, which on its own is not so bad. I’ve already outlined his career numbers, and having that around in case a pitcher or two gets injured certainly isn’t the worst thing in the world. However, there are at least a couple of guys who could very well be ahead of him on the depth chart waiting for a rotation spot. Owens and Brian Johnson haven’t proven a ton at the major-league level, but they’ve both gotten tastes of the big leagues and were solid in their stints. Although both of those young lefties have some real potential, the same can't necessarily be said for Elias. At some point he just is who he is, and we’re getting close to that point. All of that is to say rather than putting the former Mariner in the Pawtucket rotation to serve as the third depth piece for the rotation, he and the team would be better served letting him bide his time in the bullpen.

There is at least some chance that Elias could thrive in that role with his solid swing-and-miss-stuff. Last season, he ranked 55th out of the 146 pitchers with at least 1500 pitches in swinging strike rate, per Baseball Prospectus. The year before was even better, when he ranked 37th of 155. That could get even better in short stints. If things work out ideally, his fastball could see a jump from the 92-93 mph range up to the 94-96 range, which is a rather large difference. It’s worth noting that he didn’t see any uptick of that sort in his two previous relief appearances, but there were other factors at play. Namely, they were at the end of the season when he’d already thrown almost a full year’s worth of innings. He also had little-to-no preparation for that role. There’s no guarantee his stuff would play up — it’s not a universal occurrence — but it’s certainly worth the shot.

Elias also has a repertoire that could be better suited for a relief role. Over his career, he’s lived as a three-pitch pitcher, leaning on his fastball the most but also mixing in a curve and a change. All of these pitches are of relatively equal value, but not all the time. Since you can get by on two pitches out of the bullpen, Elias can move away from one of those deliveries if it doesn’t feel right in his warmup session.

Again, there is no guarantee this would work, but at the moment the Red Sox don’t have many better options. As I’ve said a few times this winter, they still lack a strong left-handed option out of their bullpen. Robbie Ross and Tommy Layne are both solid secondary pieces, but someone needs to take another step forward. Elias has that potential more than anyone else on the roster. He could especially thrive as a situational lefty, as he’s shown strong platoon splits over his career. To wit, he’s allowed a .635 OPS against left-handed bats to go along with a 27.4 percent K-rate and a 9.3 percent BB-rate. That’s compared to a .744 OPS with a 18.3 percent K-rate and a 9.1 percent BB-rate against right-handed hitters.

Obviously, there is still a long way to go until the team starts solidifying its players roles for the 2016 season. While I may feel Elias could fit best as a reliever, that’s under the assumption that everyone stays healthy through spring training. If Kelly, Owens, Johnson or Steven Wright go down, things could change. However, as things stand now, there is too much starting pitching depth in front of Elias for him to make a real difference in most scenarios. We’ve seen enough of him that another minor-league stint isn’t going to help anyone that much. He could still be stretched out in spring training and be kept around as a break-in-case-of-emergency starting option, but trying him out of the bullpen could be the best move for everyone.