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One Big Question: Can Roenis Elias stick on to major-league roster?

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Roenis Elias was stuck in Pawtucket for most of last year. Can he turn that around in 2017?

Arizona Diamondbacks v Boston Red Sox Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Roenis Elias.

The Question: Can Roenis Elias find a way to stick on the major-league roster?

The first two editions of this series have dug deep into the nitty gritty on two pitchers who are almost certain to have some sort of impact on the Red Sox this year. This time around, though, we have a pitcher who would just like a chance to play. Roenis Elias was the secondary piece in the Carson Smith deal, but he was one that gave the Red Sox some interesting depth. He had spent two years in which he was on the Mariners roster more often than not, and mostly found himself in the rotation.

Last year, however, was a different story. He never really got his chance to make an impact for his new team in any role. Elias threw only 7-2/3 innings in 2016 over one start and two relief appearances. Obviously the sample is tiny, but he certainly did not impress. He pitched to a 12.91 ERA with five walks and three strikeouts. The larger sample for him came in Pawtucket, where he made 21 appearances that included 19 starts. Looking ahead to 2017, he has one more chance to stick on the major-league roster. He has one option year remaining,* and if he doesn’t make a compelling case for himself this year he’ll almost certainly be looking for a new team for 2018. Before he can make the case that he’s a legitimate major leaguer, though, he needs to get the chance. The issue is finding where that will come.

*This is a point of contention, as Sox Prospects lists him with an option remaining but Roster Resource does not. As far as I can tell, he spent fewer than 20 days in the minors in 2014, so he should still have his final option. He does have an option.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Since he’s spent the majority of his professional major-league career as a starting pitcher, it’s only logical that we first look for an opportunity for him in that role. Obviously, he’s not going to crack the Opening Day rotation unless disaster occurs during spring training. Since the Red Sox have six major-league caliber starters on their roster, Elias won’t even be the first in line in case of injury. He probably won’t be second or third in line, either. Henry Owens and Brian Johnson are higher profile prospects who have a firm place in the organization. At least to start the season, I’d imagine both are ahead of Elias. As something of a low man on Owens, I’d at least bet on Elias’ chances to pass him on the depth chart based on Triple-A performance. Still, this is not a good place for the former Mariner to be.

On the other hand, it may be for the best. Ever since they acquired Elias, I was never convinced starting was the ideal role for him. Sure, he’s shown himself to be competent enough to fill in as a back-end starter, but what kind of life is that? He’s pitched to a 4.15 ERA over his career in the rotation while allowing a .731 OPS, and that’s calling a pitcher-friendly park home.

No, the most intriguing role for Elias could potentially come out of the bullpen. It’s not something he has a ton of experience in -- just four career outings, including the two from this past year — but that’s the case for most relievers. There are some positive indicators for him. The first is that he has shown off swing-and-miss stuff, as he ranked well above the median for major-league starters in whiff rate in each of his two years in Seattle. His fastball hasn’t been huge as a starter — low-to-mid 90’s — but shorter stints could get that up to and over 95 mph. He’s also a three-pitch pitcher, which as I talked about with respect to Matt Barnes, can be a big advantage. This is particularly true when none of the pitches are plus.

The best case for Elias to be in the bullpen, though, is his ability to shut down left-handed opponents. Over his career, he’s allowed a .232/.320/.349 line to same-handed opponents, versus a .258/.336/.421 line to righties. Even better is that the stuff becomes infinitely more playable, as he strikes out 26 percent of lefties versus 18 percent of righties.

To make matters even better, there is likely an easier path to this kind of role with the Red Sox. Although the team has its fair share of reliever depth, most of it comes from the right side. They lack a truly dominant southpaw, and only Robbie Ross is a safe bet for the major-league roster. Fernando Abad will get his shot to start the year, but him losing that spot relatively early wouldn’t be a huge shock. If that does happen, Elias’ competition would be Robby Scott and Luis Ysla. The latter only has one appearance above Double-A, and likely won’t be rushed to the majors. Scott did impressive in a short stint last September, but he also doesn’t profile as a dominant arm. Elias could earn that opportunity if the team is comfortable taking him out of the rotation depth.

Elias hasn’t yet had a chance to make an impact with the Red Sox, and he’ll need some luck to do so in 2017. There’s not a great path for him in the rotation, leaving him to the bullpen. There’s a possibility he could thrive there, and the team does have a weakness there. If he’s going to stick on the roster, my guess is it’ll be in that role.