Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Roenis Elias.
The Question: On which depth chart does Roenis Elias best fit?
There are always players throughout the years, fair or not, who are consistently forgotten. There may not be a better example of this than Roenis Elias, though perhaps there is a better example and I simply forgot. Either way, Elias always gets left out in discussions where he likely merits inclusion, and I am certainly among those who leave the southpaw out. We think a lot about the Carson Smith trade and how it hasn’t worked out yet but how it could pay off in a big way in the coming season. It’s rarely, if ever, mentioned that Elias also came around in that trade and he has also failed to make an impact in the same time. When we talk about the rotation depth beyond the big six, we talk about Hector Velazquez, Brian Johnson, Jalen Beeks and even Chandler Shepherd. Roenis Elias is rarely mentioned (again, I am a part of this too) despite having the most major-league experience. When we talk about the lack of left-handed relievers we discuss Robby Scott and Johnson along with Williams Jerez and Bobby Poyner, but Elias is sparsely mentioned. As we look forward to 2018, Elias could theoretically fit on either depth chart, and I’m not quite sure where he’s the best fit.
Before we get into that, let’s remind ourselves what the lefty has been doing over the last couple of years since coming to Boston. After serving as a serviceable, almost league-average pitcher for the Mariners, Elias hasn’t been able to do much since the trade that sent Wade Miley and Jonathan Aro to Seattle. Elias spent most of 2016 in the Triple-A rotation, putting up solid results with some control issues. He got a few outings in the majors that year, too, but they did not go well. Heading into 2017, Elias had a chance to prove he could perform in a longer major-league stint, but injuries derailed that chance. He’d end up missing about half the year and made 15 lackluster appearances in Triple-A before a September cup of coffee in Boston. Entering his final year with a minor-league option, now is his chance to stick in the majors. He just has to find out which role is the best fit.
The case for Elias sticking as a starter is fairly simple. Starters are more valuable, and the more starters a team has the better. As we’ve mentioned many times before, teams generally have to use at least ten starters in a season, and sometimes more. Furthermore, Elias has proven he can be a capable major-league starter. In 2014 and 2015 with the Mariners, the lefty made 51 appearances with 49 of them coming as a starter, and he posted a 3.97 ERA for a 94 ERA+. Sure, that’s not going to garner any headlines noting him as a savior, and it was a few years ago now, but that is more than fine as a depth option. If he can still do that after a couple injuries and entering his age-2 season, that’s his most valuable role.
On the other hand, while Elias could be fine as a depth starter he could have a higher ceiling in the bullpen. Most pitchers have a higher ceiling in the bullpen, of course, but Elias seems particularly well-suited. For one thing, over the course of his career he’s had a significant advantage over left-handed hitters, allowing them to post a .671 OPS vs. a .755 mark for right-handed opponents. Obviously, the team can better dictate his matchups if he comes out of the bullpen. Elias also has solid strikeout stuff as a starter that could play up to roughly a strikeout per inning in the bullpen. The biggest key, though, is that control has been arguably Elias’ biggest issue in his career, and that is a flaw that is much better hidden in short stints.
I’ve always felt that Elias fits better as a left-handed reliever because of the qualities I mentioned above, but it’s also true that in general a depth starter is better than a depth reliever. On the other hand, the Red Sox are in a rare position where they have more rotation depth than they do from the left side in the bullpen. This is the rare case where a team could value his presence in the bullpen over having it in the rotation. Of course, the Red Sox don’t need to make this decision right now. There is plenty of time, and they can spend spring training getting him ready for both roles. For Elias to make a mark in his final option year, though, he’ll have to show that he can contribute in one role or the other.