Ever since the Red Sox went through that elbow scare with David Price, the team’s rotation depth has come into focus. Really, there are two ways of looking at this. The first is the optimistic view, in which you realize the team has six potentially outstanding major-league starters, and not many teams can say they have more depth than that. Nobody likes giving starts to their seventh and eighth starter. The pessimistic view entails using your imagination and thinking about Henry Owens or Brian Johnson starting a major-league game that matters tomorrow. I wouldn’t recommend that
The answer, as most things do, lies somewhere in the middle. The team isn’t in too bad of a spot. Teams generally use somewhere between eight and ten starters every year, at least, but that doesn’t mean they have full confidence in every single one of those starters. At the same time, the Red Sox could really use someone to emerge from their mass of Quad-A arms to look like a serviceable back-end pitcher.
This is particularly true after what’s happened so far this spring. We’re still unclear on when Price is going to make his first regular season start, but he’ll probably miss at least a couple outings. Drew Pomeranz and Steven Wright expect to be ready for the start of the season at this point, but they are just now getting ready to make their first spring training starts. The point being, the Red Sox may need to dip into their depth as early as Opening Day. And the more I look at the depth chart, the more convinced I become that Hector Velazquez is the most important starter projected for Pawtucket’s rotation.
Really, the reason I think last year’s Mexican League breakout performer is so important is because we have no idea who he is. It sounds counterintuitive, but it makes sense in the context in this roster. I think. Before I get to that, though, it’s important to look at the other depth options for Boston’s rotation.
As of this writing, it seems as if Kyle Kendrick has surprisingly moved himself to the top of the depth chart. Most of that has to do with the performance of the other competition, but that’s not to undersell his performance this spring. He’s pitched to a 2.08 ERA over 13 innings with a 10/3 K/BB ratio. He’s not on the 40-man roster, but that’s an easily solvable issue if it comes to it.
That’s the good news. The bad news for the Red Sox is that we’re talking about 13 good innings against Grapefruit League competition. We have 1281 major-league innings by which to judge Kendrick over his career, and they’re not good. He has a career 4.63 ERA (88 ERA+) with under five strikeouts per nine innings. He spent all of last season in Triple-A with a 4.46 ERA. It was in the hitter-friendly PCL, but still...not great. Maybe something’s changed and he can be formidable, but I’m not holding my breath.
Then, there’s the two prospects Henry Owens and Brian Johnson. The hope was that at least one would step up this spring and assert themselves as future major-league starters, but that hasn’t happened. Owens has been particularly brutal, but Johnson also has a 5.40 ERA in 6 2⁄3 spring training innings. There is plenty of time for them to turn it around, and perhaps they’ll start to do so when the regular season gets started, but right now there’s no way Boston can trust them if they need a starter for the beginning of the season.
Roenis Elias was part of this group, too. He certainly wasn’t a favorite, but he has a decent track record as a back-end arm and blames last year’s struggles on his inability to adjust to a new organization. It’s not an ideal excuse, but it’s realistic. Unfortunately, the southpaw was hurt before his last outing and will be shut down for at least a few weeks. That takes him out of the picture.
Long story short, the favorites for the job are either hurt, struggling mightily or have a lackluster (to put it nicely) track record. That brings us to Velazquez, who is a total unknown. The Red Sox know a lot more than us -- at least scouting wise — but you can never really know how a pitcher who has spent his whole career in another league in another country will adjust to the majors.
Signing him to a minor-league deal made a ton of sense for the Red Sox, though. For much of the latter portion of the offseason, Dave Dombrowski talked about how much trouble he had signing the top players available on minor-league deals due to their mostly set roster. In Velazquez, he got a 28-year-old pitcher who pitched to a 2.37 ERA across 41 starts (246 innings) and three leagues last season. Thus far this spring, the righty has an ugly 7.20 ERA, but he’s struck out six batters in five innings with just two walks. He’s mostly been hurt by a huge amount of singles.
On the scouting side of things, Velazquez offers three pitches that he trusts. His fastball isn’t overpowering, coming in at the low-90’s. He also offers a solid changeup and a splitter that’s been attributed with the reason for his 2016 breakout in Mexico. Velazquez isn’t going to overpower anyone, but at his best he throws strikes and limits free passes. That’ll play as a replacement-level pitcher, and given the lack of knowledge on him around the league he could even be better.
In an ideal world, the Red Sox would have a seventh starter in whom we could place even a semblance of trust. That’s not the situation they’re in, though. Velazquez is a virtual unknown, but he’s also the most important pitcher in Pawtucket’s rotation. We mostly know what we have in the other guys, and it’s not exciting. Sometimes, the unknown can be the best option. If Velazquez looks even a little like he did last year in Mexico, Dombrowski will quickly look like a genius.