It hasn't taken long for the 2016 Red Sox to stumble upon their first injury saga. There wasn't too much concern for Eduardo Rodriguez when he injured his knee more than a week ago. The Red Sox were quick to announce that the injury was minor, and that they weren't worried about him being ready for the season. But, as the days have passed, the situation has started to look more and more dire, and now we have a time limit. If Eduardo Rodriguez isn't pitching in the next ten--now nine--days, he'll likely be starting the year on the disabled list.
For the Red Sox, it's the last place they want to take a hit. While the addition of David Price to the rotation is huge, Eduardo Rodriguez is seen by many as perhaps the most reliable of an uncertain bunch filling out the other four spots. Buchholz' injury history (and post-injury history) speaks for itself, as do the seasons of Rick Porcello and Joe Kelly in 2015. Yes, Rodriguez is young and inexperienced, but he had a strong start to his major league career last year, and it's hard to consider that a fluke given that expectations were high for him all along.
On the bright side, though, the Red Sox have more than their fair share of options to replace Rodriguez in the short-term should the situation demand it. Not that there's any guarantee it will, of course. The Red Sox won't actually need a fifth starter until the 10th thanks to the traditional (and terrible) day off after Opening Day.
But if it's the 10th and Rodriguez is still not ready, there are options aplenty. First, we have the team's likely swingman to start the year in Steven Wright. Wakefield's heir made nine starts for the Red Sox last year, and generally did what you hope for from a knuckleball-throwing swingman: gave the Sox a chance to win, only suffering one particularly bad game while pitching to a 4.01 ERA as a starter. Wright was roughed up some in his first Grapefruit League outing, but when it comes to the knuckleball you kind of just shrug off results and keep throwing. If the Red Sox want minimum disruption to their roster in terms of shuffling major pieces back-and-forth between Triple-A and Boston, Wright seems like a good choice.
Disruption, however, isn't nearly such a big deal at the start of the year. After all, if the Red Sox expected Rodriguez to be back within, say, 10 days, a 15-day disabled list trip wouldn't actually keep him off the roster for any extra time, as his stint could be made retroactive into the late days of March. Under those circumstances, it would likely make sense for the Red Sox to turn to one of their first line of defense in Triple-A: the triumvirate of Roenis Elias, Henry Owens, and Brian Johnson.
While it wasn't always clear what Roenis Elias' role would be (and, frankly, it's still far from set in stone), he's at least set to make his Red Sox debut as a starter today. In the event the Red Sox do view him as a long-term starting option, then he might actually be the first in line ahead of Owens and Johnson. I expect if you asked the top brass in Boston which of the three they have first in their long-term plans, Owens would be the one to get the nod. But Elias has more than 200 innings in the major leagues with an ERA under 4.00, and the Red Sox would very much like to get off to a good start. Passing up on the more established player to take a gamble might not be in their best interests.
Or they might really want to get a good look at that gamble in real games before they have to make any longer-term decisions. The fact is that the Red Sox have to be expecting someone in the rotation to work their way out of it before the year is over either due to ineffectiveness or injury. And when that happens, Henry Owens is very likely to be the player given the spot assuming the minor league starters all have comparable starts to the year. When looking for a long-term answer, it just makes sense to try the higher-variance option first. If it goes well, it goes great! If it doesn't, there's a reliable safety net in place. Add in some very early positive returns in spring, and maybe the Red Sox would even err on Owens' side in the short-term as well.
Which brings us to Brian Johnson, who sadly does seem to be on the outside looking in to start spring. It sounds like he's healthy now, which is great news, but still leaves him just a bit...redundant with Roenis Elias. Maybe that's the wrong word. The Red Sox are overjoyed to have Johnson and Elias both to back up their mix of unreliable starters. But in a situation where they need just one body, Elias should always have the edge at this point in the year in the battle of more reliable options. It would require a huge disparity in spring training to change that given Elias' experience advantage.
The real hope, of course, is that none of this ends up mattering. No matter how good Boston's depth is in this department--and it's better than I can remember it being in a long time--the best depth is depth unused. If the Red Sox expected any of these guys to perform better than Rodriguez, they'd be the ones starting the season in Boston given that Rodriguez is not short on options. It will be a little more than a week before we even know if any of these players are going to be called upon,
But if that depth proves necessary right out of the gates, it's likely to be between Roenis Elias and Henry Owens to get what starts Rodriguez misses, with the final decision coming down to what the Red Sox are most interested in: reliability for now, or information for later.