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Checking in on the Red Sox rotation depth

The Red Sox don’t need to make any moves to their starting rotation, but how does their depth work?

Pittsburgh Pirates v Boston Red Sox Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

For the first time in what seems like decades, the Red Sox won’t be going into this offseason looking for rotation help. Sure, a deal could arise that is too good to pass up, and changes will be made to the core group. There’s no need for them to go actively seeking that path. David Price, Rick Porcello, Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez and one of Clay Buchholz or Steven Wright is a fine — maybe even strong — group.

Of course, we’ve all been watching baseball long enough to know that things don’t always go according to plan. Even if this is the group they go into the year with, injury and/or fatigue will surely necessitate more than those six. Last season, the Red Sox used ten starting pitchers. The year before, they used 12. In 2016, every team in the league used at least seven pitchers, and most used at least a few more. Unless the 2017 Red Sox are almost historically lucky, they’re going to need to dip into their rotation depth a couple times. Because of that, it’s worth looking at what they have in that department.

The Other of the Big Six

As mentioned at the top, the Red Sox currently have six starters who have likely earned a shot at an Opening Day rotation spot. As far as I can guess, Wright and Buchholz will be the two fighting for the fifth and final spot. Now, the saying goes that these things have a way of working themselves out, and with Buchholz in the mix that becomes even more true. With that being said, in the event everyone is healthy on day one, I’d lean towards Wright getting that spot based on 2015 performance. Either way, whoever is left out immediately becomes the sixth starter, which leaves the team in a good spot in terms of their top depth option in the rotation. After that, it becomes a bit more questionable, though that could be said of just about every team in baseball.

The Former Top Prospects

It wasn’t all that long ago that the top two pitchers in the Paw Sox rotation, Brian Johnson and Henry Owens, were close to the top of Boston’s prospect list and were relatively highly regarded in the national landscape. Obviously, both of their stocks have taken a bit of a hit over the last year, but for different reasons. The former missed a big chunk of the season, and didn’t pitch all that well in Triple-A when he did. Of course, it’s important to acknowledge why he missed that time. Johnson was dealing with anxiety issues, and stepped away from the game for a bit to figure it out. It’s hard to overstate how overwhelming anxiety can be, and how big of an effect it could’ve had on his game. He looked better after returning to Pawtucket, and if we assume he’s gotten over his personal issues (which, of course, we all hope he has for reasons beyond baseball), it’s fair to think he can be a more than adequate depth piece for a major-league rotation.

Minnesota Twins v Boston Red Sox Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Owens, on the other hand, took more of a step back and with less reason for optimism in the future. For the lanky southpaw, control has always been the biggest issue. Those issues became even more apparent in 2016, as he walked over eight batters per nine innings in 22 major-league innings and over five per nine in 137 Triple-A innings. I believe it’s still fair to say Owens has a higher ceiling than Johnson. He is still in his mid-20’s and we’ve seen late bloomers before. Plus, even in some of his major-league innings we saw the stuff that could produce a mid-rotation arm. With that being said, that ceiling seems farther away than ever, and those control problems seem more insurmountable than ever. He’s almost certainly eighth on the depth chart, which isn’t a position of strength on any roster. Owens still, however, isn’t anyone you want on the mound for more than one or two starts.

The Next Level of Depth

Remember when I said the Red Sox have used at least 10 starters in each of the last two seasons? That means there’s a decent chance the eight names I’ve already mentioned won’t be enough. Now, it’s probable some of the top ten starters next year aren’t in the organization yet and I’ll get to this possibility in a second. First, I want to look at three more pitchers already with the Red Sox. One is exciting, the other two are very much not.

Starting with the lack of excitement, we have Justin Haley. The big righty split the season between Double-A and Triple-A and showed off his perfect average attributes across the board. His ceiling is likely that of a fifth starter, but he’s 25-years-old and is close to that modest ceiling. He’s not better than Owens, but he’s more exciting relative to expectations.

Then there is Roenis Elias. He is likely higher than this on the depth chart, but that is assuming he is kept as a starter. He was a starter for the vast majority of last season, but his best role is in the bullpen as a left-handed reliever. He’s a capable starter who could provide depth for a few starts, but he’ll never be a rotation mainstay. There’s also the issue of finding him a roster spot, as he is currently out of options.

If you want exciting, though, Michael Kopech is that guy. Now, I don’t want to make it sound like we should expect to see him in the majors this year, particularly as a starter. The chances are extremely slim. However, I said the same thing about Andrew Benintendi. Obviously, their respective positions make the comparison apples and oranges, but, well, they’re both round fruit that grow on trees right? It would take the perfect storm, with mass injuries and Kopech dominating his minor-league competition, but it’s November and at least it’s something to dream on.

Minor-League Free Agents

Just because the Red Sox probably aren’t going to look for Major League talent in their rotation doesn’t mean they won’t be on the search for depth options. Elias and Sean O’Sullivan weren’t long-term members of the organization either, and there could be some cheap veterans to fill a hole or two in the Pawtucket rotation. The list of names is almost endless, but Edwin Jackson and Gavin Floyd are likely the types of names to look for. In other words, guys that are as talented as O’Sullivan.

Depth is never the most exciting part of a roster, but in a 162-game season, it can be the difference between making or missing the postseason. As of this writing, the Red Sox look good in their rotation, both in terms of starting five and depth. Things will never go as planned, and it wouldn’t shock me if someone besides the many names I listed here makes a start. If, somehow, they stand completely pat, they theoretically could make it through a season with this group. Of course, after writing all of this, we’ll likely end up with Joe Kelly making his way back to being a starter because we can’t have nice things.