The Red Sox have decided on the starters they’ll go into the season with, as Clay Buchholz is gone and the other six pitchers remain. Chris Sale, David Price and Rick Porcello are obviously going to be in the rotation, but the last two spots are between the other three. Any permutation of the trio is a legitimate possibility for the Opening Day rotation (assuming health for all, of course) at this point. They could put Drew Pomeranz in the bullpen, given the team’s lack of impact left-handed talent in relief and his experience in that role. They could put Eduardo Rodriguez in Triple-A, as he’s the only starter with options and this would allow them to keep as much pitching depth on the roster as possible. Without this move, there’s a chance they’d have to expose someone like Heath Hembree to waivers, and he’d almost certainly be claimed.
In my mind, though, the most likely scenario involves putting Steven Wright in the Opening Day bullpen. This — again, in my mind — would give them the five-man rotation that possesses the most talent and the most upside. Given the assumed stability in the top three spots, they are in a prime position to build the final two spots around upside. That’s not to slight Wright, of course. In fact, if this is in fact what the team decides to do when April rolls around, it might seem a little unfair to the knuckleballer.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I find myself forgetting just how good Wright was for the first half in 2016. Porcello ended up taking home the Cy Young award, but when July rolled around it was Wright who was carrying the rotation. He made 17 starts prior to the All-Star break, and pitched to a 2.68 ERA over 114 innings (6-2/3 innings per start) while allowing a .627 OPS. That’s phenomenal, of course, and makes up most of his playing time last season. To follow that up by being the odd man out of the rotation seems insane. Life is unfair sometimes, unfortunately. The good news is: Wright will still be an important piece of this roster even without starting once every five days to start the 2017 season.
Obviously, the most important part of this role for him will be to serve as depth. While Pomeranz and Rodriguez present serious upside in the four and five spots in the rotation, they also boast some real injury concern. We all know about the former’s issues, as they were a big part of the controversy surrounding San Diego GM A.J. Preller keeping health information from clubs with which he was trading. Rodriguez had knee problems last year, and they have already started to creep back up in winter ball. Either or both of them missing time next would be far from a surprise, giving Wright a chance to make a significant number of starts. Hell, even at least one the big three getting hurt wouldn’t be surprising even considering their collective durability over their careers. Pitchers are only durable until they are not.
There just aren’t many teams around the league with a sixth starter as capable as Wright. This is true even if you plan for some regression from the knuckleballer, which is fair given his track record prior to 2016. Maybe the most valuable part of having him on the roster is preventing a large number of starts from Henry Owens, Brian Johnson and Roenis Elias. I think it’s fair to call the step down from Wright to any of those three a massive one.
While everyone is healthy, however, the 32-year-old’s role doesn’t become insignificant. Of course, he is more than capable of serving as a traditional long reliever. If everyone pitches to their potential, that won’t be much of a concern. However, for as much upside as Rodriguez and Pomeranz possess, they are also more than capable of blowing up any given night. Having Wright available to clean up those nights and saving the rest of the bullpen is huge.
On top of that, though, he can be a legitimate late-inning weapon. Craig Kimbrel and Tyler Thornburg will generally be leaned upon in the late innings, and we’re all hopeful Joe Kelly can join that group. Imagine, now, putting Wright into that mix and having to make batters adjust between these kind of flamethrowers and the knuckleballer in high-leverage situations. While he’s not the kind of pitcher whose stuff would play up in this kind of role, we saw last year that his baseline talent has the ability to dominate at its current level. As a knuckleballer, he’s also in a unique position to be able to throw in one-inning stints without having to worry about him possibly needing to throw six or more frames in the near-future.
If this is what the Red Sox have in mind for Wright, essentially pitching wherever the hell they need him, it’s an intriguing and unique challenge. Over the last twenty years, just 16 Red Sox pitchers have made at least 10 starts and at least 10 appearances out of the bullpen in the same season. You can see that list here, and there are a few interesting names on that list. Buchholz makes an appearance from last season, but that was a different situation. Then, there’s Tim Wakefield, who will always be Wright’s comparison in any conversation for obvious reasons. The long-time Red Sox knuckleballer is on the list six times.
Looking at that list, Wakefield’s 2002 is the dream scenario for Wright’s 2017 campaign. In that season, Wake made 15 starts and 30 relief appearances that included 10 games in which he threw the final out. Over the 163 innings he threw that season, he pitched to a 2.81 ERA (162 ERA+) with a 3.62 FIP. Wright doesn’t need to be that good to make a huge impact on the team this year, but he has the ability to do so.
I think the decision on how the Opening Day rotation shakes out is the most interesting question around the Red Sox right now. There are a lot of different possibilities, but Wright to the bullpen makes the most sense. And yet, I can’t get over how unfair it is. The good news for him and everyone else involved, though, is that he can have a huge impact on the team in this role. Even better, this just gives more credence to the Wakefield comparison that will follow Wright around for the rest of his career.