Steven Wright began the year in the Red Sox rotation because of a spring training injury to Eduardo Rodriguez. The expectation was that Wright would pitch -- and possibly pitch well, even -- for a month before ceding his spot and heading back to the bullpen as originally planned. It's not that Wright couldn't be more than a spot starter: it's more that the Red Sox already have five starters they wanted to throw out there regularly, leaving Wright without a rotation gig.
It doesn't have to be this way, though. Joe Kelly is currently on the disabled list with another shoulder injury. He hasn't looked great to begin 2016, and other than a win streak in the second half of 2015 that has gotten too much attention -- he was better, yes, but this eight-start run dropped his season ERA to 4.70, so let's not go overboard -- hasn't done much as a starter in Boston. In addition to performance questions, we still don't know if Kelly can even pitch a full season, as 2015's 134 innings represents a career-high.
It was worth a try to see if he could lock down the fifth starter job this season -- his improved second half in 2015 earned him that much. This is a Red Sox team that benched Pablo Sandoval with $75 million owed to him because he wasn't doing enough to keep his job, though. This is a Red Sox team that sent Rusney Castillo to the minors yet again because he didn't do enough in the spring to justify a starting spot, even though he's making over $11 million this summer and the move forced utility man Brock Holt into a starting role. They did all of this so they would have the team with the best chance to win on the field, and at this point, removing Kelly from the rotation in favor of Wright seems like the next step in that process.
Wright has 133 major-league innings behind him, with 85 of those coming as a starter. He's produced a 3.44 ERA and 122 ERA+ in that time -- for reference, Kelly's career ERA+ is 101, and he hasn't topped that mark since 2013 -- with 7.4 strikeouts per nine against 3.4 walks per nine for a 2.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He's allowed some homers, but nothing worrisome, as his career rate in the bigs is one per nine. How is it he's pitched so well despite a lack of fanfare from his time in the minors? The answer is a simple one: knucklers are weird and difficult to project, and the only way to know if one is going to succeed in the majors is to have them pitch there.
Three years ago, we spoke to a number of prospect analysts, scouts, and front office members about projecting knucklers. It remains a topical piece given knucklers are something of an impossible puzzle to complete, but for our purposes what you need to know is that it's nearly impossible to project them or their pitch, as this quote from a front office executive details:
"They are viewed in a different context because the stuff is so different. Judging by velocity or projection is pointless, and it's really difficult to make any kind of assumptions or generalities into these type of pitchers. If anything, scouting a knuckler at the professional level is going to be more about performance than with probably any other pitcher or type of player."
Wright has 133 innings of major-league performance behind him at this point. At the time that feature was written, he had zero. How many innings are enough to know that Wright can contribute in a big-league rotation? It might not be 133, but it's also hard to argue that there is anyone in the organization, whether it be Joe Kelly or Henry Owens or Brian Johnson or Roenis Elias, who gives the Red Sox a better chance to win today than Steven Wright.
Owens and Johnson might have more upside, but that "might" should be pronounced with a certain level of hesitation and uncertainty attached -- plus, neither has the track record Wright does in the majors, and Owens hasn't even shown he's completely solved Triple-A yet. Elias is more of a known quantity, and that known quantity is less than what Wright has produced in the majors over a similar time frame. Kelly, we've already discussed. He might be a good starter! And Rusney Castillo might be a good left fielder, and Pablo Sandoval might return to form. The Sox aren't focusing too much on "maybe" this spring, and Wright should benefit from that in the same way Travis Shaw and Brock Holt have. Why? Because the Red Sox would presumably benefit, too.
A rotation of David Price, Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Steven Wright could be very, very good. Buchholz hasn't pitched well yet, but this wouldn't be his first terrible April before turning things around, and Price hasn't exactly gotten on track yet. Improvements from those two and the addition of Rodriguez will help make up for any drop in Wright's performance that sees him go back to being just good instead of transcendent, so Boston wouldn't need to worry too much about the bottom falling out.
Plus, Wright's placement in the rotation should help keep the bullpen fresher and more productive. Kelly averaged just 5-1/3 innings per start in 2015. Even after returning from the minors with an improved performance last summer, he still managed just 5-1/3 innings per start thanks to as many early exits as he had seven-inning performances in that 11-start stretch. Wright has averaged 5-2/3 innings per start for his career, and it's worth pointing out that number is only growing. Since the start of 2015, that figure is six innings per start, over the course of 13 total games.
If it were just those 13 games as evidence, your apprehension would be justified, but there's more to it. With Wright, the Sox probably have a better chance of getting a starter to go six between their recent comparative histories and Wright's being a knuckler in the first place: there isn't the same wear-and-tear on him in each start that there is for a regular pitcher, since he's not out there working max effort on every pitch thrown, so the opportunity to push him past 100 pitches is there more often. For a non-hypothetical example: Kelly has made it to and past 101 pitches 21 times in his career in 76 attempts: Wright has achieved the same seven times in 15 career tries.
Kelly could also help out the very bullpen Wright would be helping to save. Carson Smith's injury has played a large part in this, but you might have noticed that up-and-down pieces like Noe Ramirez have already appeared in nine games, the still unproven and still worrisome Matt Barnes is leading the team in relief innings, and John Farrell is noticeably having trust issues with certain pieces in the current pen. Non-prospect William Cuevas was entrusted with multiple innings in a close game in his major-league debut, Pat Light was called up to help out before he solved his control issues or Triple-A... there's a lot going on in innings before the Sox can get to their setup men, and little of it is encouraging.
Kelly is likely better in short bursts than as a starter -- he has a 3.25 ERA in 52-2/3 relief innings with 8.4 strikeouts per nine from his days with the Cardinals -- and could be just what the Sox need to avoid relying too heavily on Barnes or at all on Ramirez. A bullpen with Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara, Carson Smith, Junichi Tazawa, Robbie Ross, Joe Kelly, and Matt Barnes should be legitimately great. Combine that with a rotation that needs to rely on the pen less, and suddenly, Boston's pitching is a strength rather than a question.
There isn't much more Wright can do to prove he belongs in a big-league rotation, other than be handed a more permanent job that he'll pitch well enough to keep. The Sox made more expensive and more difficult decisions to improve on their roster elsewhere already, and now it's Wright's turn to benefit from this new vision that Dave Dombrowski and John Farrell are employing. The best Red Sox team you can field has Steven Wright in the rotation and Joe Kelly in the bullpen, and at some point in the near future, the Sox are going to have to admit as much.