In the wake of Clay Buchholz’ two strong starts, the question has been asked: how can the Red Sox remove a pitcher with Buchholz’ upside from the rotation when he finally seems to be hittin one of those positive stretches in his perpetual cycle of dominance, injury, and total untenability.
The answer is pretty easy to find, though: he’s only been good for two starts, and there’s no obvious pitcher to remove to give him a place.
Let’s start with the guy who’s basically taken over the top spot with his combination of excellence and consistency in Rick Porcello (somewhere, Ben Cherington weeps). He’s pretty clearly going nowhere given that he’s only gotten better as the year has gone on. In the last two months, Porcello holds a 2.35 ERA and a 48:7 K:BB. It’s very easy to argue that Porcello is the guy the Red Sox should want on the mound in a must-win game.
That’s not quite what the plan was to start the year, of course. Certainly everyone assumed that David Price would be their go-to guy in such a situation, but obviously the year hasn’t played out terribly well for Price. Still, if he’s been a disappointment, he’s finally righting the ship as we enter the final stretch. His last two months don’t quite match Porcello’s, but he’s pitched to an excellent 2.86 ERA all the same, averaging nearly seven innings a start, and the peripherals have been there all along. Even if things weren’t going quite so well of late, it’s hard to imagine the Sox even considering dropping Price.
That brings us to the three actual “candidates” in Wright, Rodriguez, and Pomeranz.
It might sound odd to lump Wright in here. He was Boston’s savior in the first half, and holds a 3.01 ERA on the season. Given that he seems ready to make his return, why would the Red Sox ever consider keeping him out of the rotation?
The only answer for that is recent performances. Where Price and Porcello are trending upwards, Wright pitched to an ERA over 6.00 in July. But for all that, the knuckleballer’s last outing before he injured himself running the bases was a complete game shutout against the Dodgers.
There is, of course, all the talk about heat and humidity screwing up Wright’s knuckleball. Maybe it’s for real, maybe it’s just a hopeful excuse. But the Red Sox owe it to themselves to find out as the year cools off, and frankly even if the weather ends up being irrelevant, the Red Sox know well that you take the good with the bad when it comes to the knuckleball. What matters is the total picture, and for Wright, that’s a 150 ERA+ in 2016, and even a 129 ERA+ for his career now. You don’t let that go.
The case against Rodriguez might seem like the best given that he’s certainly got the worst numbers of the bunch, but actually it’s extraordinarily difficult to make. The problem here is that the arguments for and against Rodriguez are the same as the arguments for and against Buchholz.
The only difference lies in the quality of those arguments, and for Buchholz, everything is just a little bit worse. Rodriguez and Buchholz were both awful early on, yes. But Rodriguez had the excuse of being called back into action from injury early as the Red Sox tried to survive the unit’s growing pains in the days of Kelly and, well, Buchholz. I guess you could say the same for Buchholz, but only because ten years of watching the ebb and flow of his career suggests he needs about six months past the point he’s medically cleared to actually return from any given injury.
And on the other hand, where Buchholz has put together two pretty nice games, Rodriguez has put together seven. He’s been nails since his return—right up there with Price and Porcello—and given that his latest session on the mound would suggest he’s ready to return to action, there’s no way Buchholz’ two games should keep him from doing so.
That leaves us with Pomeranz, and weirdly, this is probably the guy who Buchholz could most reasonably replace. It’s not that Pomeranz is bad. It’s just that he’s the only guy there’s a particularly good argument against that, unlike the one against Rodriguez, actually comes from a different angle than the one against Buchholz. Even considering minor league innings, Pomeranz is heading into uncharted territory in terms of innings on his arm in a single season. Certainly, when he struggled out of the gates with the Sox, there were some real concerns that it might be fatigue showing through.
A crucial turn coming for the Red Sox rotation
The Red Sox are one good week away from having five quality starting pitchers.
To Pomeranz’ credit, though, he has rebounded nicely in August, and looks like his early-season self. There’s also not really much in the way of telltale signs of fatigue. His last couple games have seen his velocity on the low side, but are hardly outliers on the season, and there’s no indication he’s overthrowing in an attempt to hide any dip given that he’s been more under control than usual in his last few games.
If the Red Sox get to October, are down to a four-man rotation, and nobody has pitched their way out of the picture, then it might be time to start talking about moving Pomeranz into the bullpen. He’s got experience there, could be a real boost to that unit, and as we’ve established here, would not exactly be leaving any clear weak links behind in the rotation. He’s the sort of guy you can ask to take on a late-inning role immediately without too much concern.
For now, though, there’s just not enough evidence behind Buchholz “resurgence” to really justify yanking Pomeranz from the rotation in his favor. The difference in quality this season is just too great, and risking a disruption to Pomeranz as a starter in an attempt to improve the bullpen when his replacement in the rotation is far from a guarantee is kind of putting the cart before the horse.
That leaves only the idea of a six-man rotation, and there’s just no real need for that given their upcoming schedule and the weakness of the bullpen. The Sox have only one really long stretch of games coming up in September, and with both Wright and Rodriguez having missed starts, they’re not exactly desperate to give guys time off in the next week or so. Better to ensure that, in the event of an unexpectedly short start for whatever reason, the Red Sox don’t waste guys like Kimbrel and Ziegler just trying to get through nine innings in a lost game.
Until someone proves they’re not up to the task of maintaining their recent success, then, there’s just no place for Buchholz on the basis of two starts. And that’s just fine. He’ll return to his role as a long man in the bullpen and, importantly, the spot starter who can save them from having to turn to Henry Owens again should the need for one arise. I think we can all agree that there’s no small value to that.