Despite the occasional reporter theorizing they may need to trade for a Buchholz-like player, the Red Sox are pretty much loaded when it comes to starting pitching. Teams are struggling to find five viable arms for their rosters, while the Red Sox have two Cy Young winners, a perennial top-five finisher, two 2016 All-Stars, and an exciting young lefty to work with.
There’s never really been any implication that they were considering a six-man rotation, however, meaning one man was always going to be on the outside looking in. The most common guess has seen Steven Wright missing out on the rotation to take a place in the bullpen as a swing man. Perhaps that’s because we have experience with a knuckleball pitcher in that sort of role. Perhaps we have that experience specifically because knuckleball pitchers tend to be pretty capable of pitching short, long, or anywhere in-between. Other consideration has been given to Drew Pomeranz given his history of success as a reliever, though he would likely be pegged as a late-inning arm rather than a long relief type.
Now, though, it seems like Eduardo Rodriguez is currently the low man on the totem pole, at least according to Dave Dombrowski on a recent Buster Olney podcast. According to the president of baseball operations in Boston, it’s Pomeranz and Wright penciled in at four and five, with Rodriguez the odd man out.
In a way, this feels like a huge waste. When he’s been healthy, Rodriguez has been excellent, finishing last year with 77 innings of 3.24 ERA ball after his rough stretch in June which can likely be attributed to being called up too early out of desperation for rotation help. Whether Rodriguez is actually a 3.24 ERA pitcher yet, and whether he ever truly will be, is up for debate. But it’s not hard to imagine him developing into a front-of-the-rotation starter before long given the peaks we’ve seen him reach. That game where he struck out 13 of the 22 batters he faced, for instance, suggests big things to come.
But in a great many ways this also seems to be the obvious move to make if you can get past any personal desire to see Rodriguez get as much time in the rotation as possible.
For one, it makes sense to have Wright in the rotation early. While he was an All-Star early, his season died out in a hurry with some bad games and an injury suffered while serving as a pinch-runner. The latter is easily solved, but the implication during the season was that the former was a result of the high temperatures and humidity of summer. If, indeed, Wright is going to struggle under those conditions, it would make sense to use him early, when he’s at his best, holding the sixth starter in reserve for when conditions force Wright out.
The case to keep Pomeranz in the rotation isn’t quite as clear and objective, but is still somewhat compelling. This is a young pitcher who has only managed to find his rhythm as a starter in the last couple seasons. It’s true he faded in his time with the Red Sox due at least in part to fatigue, and it’s also true he has the best bullpen numbers of the bunch, but the fatigue issue is the sort of thing that should only improve as he enters his third year in the role, and Pomeranz would be much more valuable as a good starter than a good reliever. Meanwhile, jerking him back and forth between relief and the rotation seems a dangerous way to handle him. Certainly he seems the most likely to be unable to transition between the role he’d be handed in the meantime and the starting role he’d have to take up in the event of an injury elsewhere. Better not to mess with perhaps the most volatile arm of the bunch.
Then there’s Eduardo Rodriguez. Where Wright and Pomeranz have reasons to keep them out of a sixth starter role, Rodriguez actually has a reason to actively be pushed into one. Simply put: he’s the only guy they can keep off the 25-man roster. And here we get to the issue of the bullpen crunch. As it stands, the Red Sox have a whole bunch of arms in line for a relief role. Kimbrel, Thornburg, Kelly and Ross seem like locks. Matt Barnes’ numbers don’t really support similar treatment, but the Red Sox seem to have passed the point of no return with him, and it’s sink-or-swim time. Heath Hembree is finally out of options, meaning they have to pull the trigger on him now or give up a guy with a 2.65 ERA in 2016. Fernando Abad is a bit of a pariah around these parts, but they gave him arbitration, and frankly, he’s a perfectly useful piece when used properly. All this is without mentioning Carson Smith, who will return before too long. Even without Smith, that’s seven names, meaning the Red Sox will either have to kick someone to the curb, run a short bench, or find another place to stash their sixth starter.
And that’s where Rodriguez comes in. Rodriguez is alone among Boston’s starters in being able to open the season in Pawtucket and make his debut whenever the Red Sox actually have need of him. This scenario would not be the most talented Red Sox roster possible, but it might well be the best built roster possible, and would certainly preserve the most overall talent in the system going forward simply by allowing the Red Sox to keep all their bullpen pieces in place.
And as it stands, it also seems the scenario most likely to occur. Injuries can change everything, of course, as can spring training performance if the Red Sox are going to put any stock into it (they shouldn’t). But barring such eventualities, if Dave Dombrowski has Rodriguez penciled in at number six, it’s almost certainly because the Sox can stash him in Pawtucket without losing anyone from their bullpen. After all, of the three pitchers vying for spots four and five, Rodriguez stands alone as the one who makes the least sense in relief. It is, in fact, what most clearly sets him apart. And so it stands to reason that if he is the choice to act as depth, that the Red Sox will take advantage of the opportunity to preserve depth in the bullpen as well, even if it means sending Rodriguez back to Pawtucket, where it’s hard to argue he really belongs.