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A difficult week for the Red Sox rotation leaves October plans unclear

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Porcello and Price and...who else, exactly? Right now, it’s not clear who will round out the rotation should the Sox make the playoffs.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Rich Gagnon/Getty Images

It wasn’t that long ago that the Red Sox finally seemed to have their rotation in top shape. David Price had started to pitch like David Price, Drew Pomeranz had shaken off his early post-trade jitters, Eduardo Rodriguez was healthy, Clay Buchholz was trending upwards, and Rick Porcello was doing exactly what he’d done all year long. They seemed to have gone from one of baseball’s most decrepit bunches, kept afloat only by the offense, to one of its best in the second half.

This last week? It’s been very different. The last five starts between Pomeranz, Buchholz, and Rodriguez have produced just 23 earned runs in just 17 innings of work, with 16 strikeouts and 12 walks. David Price, too, was a let down in his last outing (though not without good reason), and with Steven Wright only hoping he’ll be ready to pitch again before all is said and done, that basically leaves Porcello alone as the one truly effective member of the Red Sox rotation.

All this has left some uncertainty in who the Red Sox might call on to pitch should they play postseason baseball (still not a guarantee, that). Porcello is obvious, and really, Price is too, even after his outing against the Yankees. How they line up remains to be seen, particularly if the Sox can stay far enough ahead that they don’t have to hold to their current plan to have Price start the final game of the season, but those two are both clearly part of the plan.

The other two? That’s where things get sketchy. Obviously the Sox would like to have Pomeranz in there pitching at 100%, but I think even going back to when they made that trade it wasn’t entirely certain how much he’d be able to provide come October. Pomeranz has already exceeded his previous high water mark for innings in a season, even taking minor league outings into consideration (he threw about 150 innings back in 2012). So while these last couple of games could just be a blip, it’s not hard to imagine that Pomeranz might be out of gas. Again, I doubt that’s an entirely unexpected outcome (having Pomeranz to weather the barren pitching market of 2017 is huge, and he already helped get them to this point), but it’s certainly not ideal.

For a brief spell, Clay Buchholz was looking like he might just force his way into the conversation, but these last couple of outings put that very much in doubt. His last two outings have just looked a lot more like the Buchholz we saw in the beginning of the year, starting with the disaster performance against the Jays, and frankly continuing into his game against the Yankees. Yes, two earned in six actually looks quite good. But we’ve seen games like that from Clay before, where he pitches himself into trouble and then seems to luck into escapes more than anything. They’re rarely a sign of good things to come.

Eduardo Rodriguez is probably the guy most often relegated to the bench or bullpen by those drawing up postseason rotations, but might actually be the guy most likely to earn a place as the clear third behind Price and Porcello. His season numbers aren’t going to recover from the early (injury-related struggles), and he doesn’t have the experience of Clay Buchholz. But of the three, Rodriguez is currently the one with the fewest red flags. He got a late start to the season, so he hasn’t got all that much wear on his arm for the year. He had a couple bad games, but still holds a 3.25 ERA and .635 OPS against since returning to the majors in July. And his most recent unfortunate outing was preceded by two much stronger ones, including the near no-hitter against Oakland.

These last two weeks will go a long way towards determining who the Red Sox would turn to in spots three and four should they find themselves in the ALDS, and if two of the pitchers stand out it’ll make things easy for the Sox. Where things become a lot more interesting is when there’s only one who plays particularly well, or if all three are fairly even.

In any situation where Pomeranz is not the lone standout, the Sox will be faced with an interesting choice between sheer quality as a starter and the interests of the bullpen. Pomeranz is having the best season of the three by far, but he’s also the one who has big experience in the pen and could actually be an impact arm there. And if he isn’t a standout, then there’s probably been more signs that he’s running on fumes. Of the three, he seems like the one who would be least likely to overcome a late slump without an offseason of rest.

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For Buchholz, while he’s the guy who’s most frequently been tabbed as a potential bullpen savior, the fact is he just hasn’t been very good there at all. His 3.57 ERA is fine, but it belies a 13:9 K:BB and is boosted massively by a .221 BABIP. Of the three, he’s also the one who’s probably got the best chance to randomly start throwing shutouts again even if he’s not great the next couple times out. It sounds silly to say, but with Buchholz, he really is only awful right up until he’s great.

There’s also some small consideration for the fact that he’s the righty of the bunch. At the moment, the Sox seem most likely to face the Indians of any team, and their splits are relatively even. But if the Sox through some bizarre twist of fate find themselves against the Orioles, they’re a team that’s really struggled against lefties, which might push Buchholz out of the running.

Rodriguez, as mentioned before, just seems like the most reliable of the bunch. This is still the guy who put up strong marks in his rookie season, and he’s very much looked the part—even a step forward—in the second half. It should take a lot of bad to undermine that if you’re willing to overlook the early-season struggles when he was rushed back from injury. Certainly a lot more than we’ve seen of late considering the general lack of red flags.

With fewer than three turns through the rotation left, there’s still a lot to be figured out, and relatively little time for this situation to sort itself out. Inevitably, the Red Sox are going to have to make a call with less-than-ideal information and just hope they land on the right options. Still, it’s important how they land on those options, and what their defaults are. With Pomeranz? He should probably have to prove he’s still got something left in the tank. Rodriguez? He’d have to prove he doesn’t. Buchholz? Well, he’s the default in case Pomeranz can’t prove himself capable or Rodriguez proves himself otherwise.