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The back of the Red Sox rotation can alter the 2018 season

It’s the difference between a good and great rotation

Boston Red Sox Vs. Minnesota Twins At Fenway Park Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

What I’m about to say is not at all an original thought, nor is it the first (or last) time you’ve heard the sentiment from me. But it does bear repeating that this 2018 Red Sox team is going to go as far as the pitching takes them. Obviously, the focus this winter has been on the lineup and improvement at the plate should go a long way towards success. Still, the rotation is the best part of this team and it has the potential to carry them to the postseason and towards deep October run.

As long as they remain relatively healthy — and, of course, this is never anything close to a sure thing with any pitching staff — the top of Boston’s rotation should be just about as strong as any in baseball. Chris Sale, David Price and Drew Pomeranz have all shown that they are good-to-great pitchers, and while there’s some inconsistency with them there has been more good than bad for each in recent seasons. At the back of the rotation, things are a little less clear but just about as intriguing. There is plenty of variance here, and what happens with the final two spots in the rotation is what’ll determine whether this group is simply good, or can elevate its status to great.

Those final two spots are, assuming health, going to be filled by two of three pitchers in Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright. Let’s go one by one through all three of these guys and look at the range of possibilities for each. We’ll start with Porcello, who had a relatively rough 2017 after taking home the Cy Young award the year before. The righty got away from his two-seamer a bit last year, and while it resulted in more strikeouts it also resulted in a ton of hard contact and home runs. It’s been a long time since Porcello was a true groundball pitcher, but he took his newfound flyball tendencies to a new level in 2017. If he can find the right kind of happy medium between his four-seam and two-seam fastballs, there’s a chance Porcello can get back to a mid-to-high-3’s ERA. There’s also a chance he gets pummeled by the long ball again and finishes with another ERA closer to 5.00.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Boston Red Sox Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Rodriguez is, in this writer’s opinion, the most intriguing player in this trio. The bad news is that the lefty is still recovering from knee surgery and is expected to miss the start of the year. Obviously, that’s not a great start. However, if he can get back to full health upon his return, he could very well join that top three in terms of production. There was a period of last season when it seemed as if Rodriguez had truly taken the leap and found a way to be consistently effective. When he is using all three pitches with confidence, he can miss a ton of bats and limit walks enough to get by. With his extreme flyball tendencies, home runs will happen but he’s good enough at limiting baserunners that he can get by with a home run problem. I’m as high on Rodriguez as I’ve been on him in years, and while we’re still waiting to see it consistently for the first time, the southpaw has huge potential to be one of the better number four starters in baseball. Of course, between health and consistency issues, he could also end up below-average.

Finally, we have Wright, who is something of a forgotten man after missing most of last season. The knuckleballer is also likely to miss the start of the year after being arrested for a domestic dispute earlier this winter. Legally speaking, the matter has been put to rest but the league is still looking into it and they have always given out suspensions in these situations. The very nature of Wright’s signature pitch leads to him being impossible to predict. Two years ago, though, he was very good and did a great job of inducing weak contact. If he can find a way to keep the knuckler from falling into the middle of the strike zone too much, there’s no reason to believe he can’t be safely above average in 2018. That being said, he’s also 33 coming off an injury-shortened season, so repeating his 2016 (3.33 ERA) is far from a sure thing.

This all goes without even touching on the depth, where the Red Sox boast three or four pitchers who could very well be right around league-average when called upon. Hector Velazquez was surprisingly solid in all but his first major-league start. Brian Johnson doesn’t have a huge ceiling, but he has shown he is always good for a five or six inning outing with three or four runs. Jalen Beeks is more of a question mark, but he’s a personal favorite of mine and I truly believe he could serve as a close to league-average pitcher by midseason.

All of this is to say that while the Red Sox season as a whole doesn’t come down to just one thing, their fortune changes dramatically based on what they get from the back of their rotation. If one of the three pitchers comes close to his best-case scenario, there’s no reason the team as currently constructed can’t be competing for a division title all year. If two of them reach that level, then all of a sudden Boston has a rotation that can compete with any in baseball. If Rodriguez in particular comes close to his ceiling, all of a sudden Boston has arguably the most formidable four-man playoff rotation in the league. We all know these things never go as planned, and pitchers will get hurt both from this group and the top three. However, the Red Sox are going to be carried by pitching all year long, and they’ll need the back end of the rotation to step up if they want to be the team we all know they can be.