Looking at this year’s roster compared to last year’s at the same time, there are clearly a lot of differences between the two pitching staffs. The most obvious of those differences is the presence of a "True Ace" this year in David Price, something that was somewhat infamously missing in 2015. There is also far more high-end relief talent with the addition of Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith, both of whom are far more exciting than Anthony Varvaro or Edward Mujica were at this time last year. While those are the most attractive differences and the ones that stand out the most, there may be a more important difference that ultimately makes the difference in the team’s results this season. This team has a lot of rotation depth that just didn’t exist last year.
Although the Red Sox have their top-end guy in Price, there is certainly no sure thing behind him. We watched that issue present itself last year, and it ended up with Justin Masterson getting nine starts before being sent to the bullpen despite it being clear he’s no longer a major-league starter fairly early on. That shouldn’t be an issue in 2016, as Henry Owens and Brian Johnson are ready for big-league duty to start the year and Roenis Elias has been brought in as well. Then, there’s Steven Wright. He’s the least exciting name among the depth pieces for the rotation, and there’s certainly an argument to be made that he’s the worst. Despite that, he has the inside track to make the team out of camp, and that’s the way it should be.
We’ll start with the obvious: Wright is out of options. To put it in its simplest terms, that’s the reason it is looking like he’ll make the Opening Day roster. If they decide to keep Elias, for example, Wright will be exposed to waivers and may be on another team a week into the season. His numbers in the majors may not be great, but enough teams need competent depth pieces that there’s a pretty good chance he’d get swiped up in this scenario.
The argument against this would be that they have enough depth to take that risk. It’d suck to see him go, but they can survive with Owens, Johnson and Elias. As I said above, on pure talent he’s likely fourth in the pecking order for a spot start(s) in the organization. Logic would say that if you’re forced to turn to your fourth best pitcher, you’re likely already dead in the water as a team. In that case, they should be able to find another break-in-case-of-emergency option somewhere.
There are a few reasons why that is flawed logic. The first, and most important, is the old adage that there is no such thing as too much pitching. That’s obviously an exaggeration. If a team has 45 major-league caliber pitchers, there might be some issues. In non-ridiculous scenarios, however, the more depth a team has always proves to be better. Every year, there’s a team who says they can afford to unload some pitching depth, and every year it bites them in the ass. The Red Sox don’t need four starters to go down to need Wright in the rotation. If, for example, Clay Buchholz gets hurt in the majors while Owens and Elias go down in Pawtucket, Wright all of a sudden becomes a very important pitcher.
Secondly, there are solid reasons to keep Owens and Johnson — Wright’s main competition for the swingman/long man role on the active roster — down. The former had a solid run of starts last year, but still has plenty to improve upon in the minors. Johnson missed the end of last year with an injury, so some Triple-A game action to get reacclimatized is far from the worst thing in the world. Elias has a solid argument to start in the majors, and doesn’t have much to prove in the minors, but he’s also not talented enough to kill your depth just to have him around.
Finally, there’s the fact that Wright isn’t a bad pitcher. Now, obviously that doesn't mean he’s a good pitcher, either. He’s simply a reliable long reliever or spot starter, something that can be very valuable with some of the question marks in this current rotation. He has 107 innings under his belt and has pitched to a 3.95 ERA, or an above-average 108 ERA+. The peripherals were a little worse with a 4.42 FIP, 108 cFIP and 4.09 DRA, but that’s still close to a league-average arm and knuckleballers kind of kill peripheral-based stats.
At the end of the day, the Red Sox hope this is ultimately an inconsequential decision. If they are relying heavily on whomever makes the final roster spot out of spring, it means something isn’t going right in their rotation. With that being said, things are going to go wrong all year. It’s baseball, things always go wrong. Preserving as much depth as possible is key, and that’s why keeping the option-less Wright is imperative for John Farrell and Dave Dombrowski. Plus, what’s the point of watching the Red Sox if there’s no chance of seeing a knuckleball?