Just last week, I wrote a little bit about a quote from Alex Cora indicating that he did not see it as necessary for the Red Sox to carry a left-handed reliever at all times. This seemed noteworthy as Cora was brought in as a change from the relatively by-the-book managing style of John Farrell, though ultimately my conclusion was that they’d still spend plenty of time with a lefty among their relief corps. I won’t rehash that whole argument, obviously, but while I stand by the conclusion I did make one pretty big mistake in hindsight. Throughout the post, I noted the left-handed depth largely included just two names with Robby Scott and Bobby Poyner. With each passing day it’s becoming increasingly clear that I should have given more credit to Roenis Elias in that post, as he seems to be gaining some helium with each passing day in camp. So, to make up for it, now Elias gets a whole post to himself.
If you believe the beat reporters who are with the team on a daily basis down in Florida, and I’m not really sure why you wouldn’t, then Elias is worthy of some attention right now. Just over the last couple of days he has gotten a bit of a spotlight from two different writers. Rob Bradford of WEEI told us not to sleep on him in the battle for Boston’s bullpen at the end of last week, and on Tuesday Jen McCaffrey of Masslive came out and predicted that Elias would indeed make the Opening Day roster. I’m still not entirely sold that Elias will ultimately be in the bullpen when the Red Sox take on the Rays on March 29, but there’s a good chance that’s just me being dumb and stubborn. Either way, I will certainly acknowledge that it’s time to take the possibility seriously and also acknowledge that it’s a possibility with legitimate merit.
I’ll start with his performance this spring, not because it’s something that really matters but it’s obviously played a role in the changing thought around him. Elias has made six appearances with a total of eight innings in the Grapefruit League. The good is that he has yet to allow a run and has six strikeouts in the eight innings. The bad is that he also has eight walks. Of course, as I said, the small-sample numbers really aren’t going to play a big role here. Based on the chatter we hear from beat writers, it seems the team is coming around to the cut of Elias’ jib. I would say it’s fair to assume that the team probably liked plenty about the southpaw heading into camp, and there are reasons we shouldn’t overlook him.
Generally speaking, as Red Sox fans, we think of Elias as a Triple-A arm who is really only a depth piece because that’s what he’s been relegated to since coming to Boston in the same deal that brought Carson Smith to town. Of course, that’s an overly simplistic view of Elias and doesn’t take into account the injury issues that have held him back in recent years. In fact, the now-29-year-old had made himself into a solid and underrated back-end starter in a couple years with the Mariners. Between 2014 and 2015, Elias made 51 appearances for Seattle with 49 coming in starts and pitched to a 3.97 ERA and a 94 ERA+. He had solid strikeout stuff and trouble with control in a package that certainly didn’t have him pegged as a future star but proved he could survive at the highest level. He was similar in 2016 in 21 appearances and 19 starts with Pawtucket when he pitched to a 3.60 ERA. Last season was much less impressive but it was also an injury-shortened campaign.
So, Elias has been a really solid pitcher as a starter, and while the ease of transitioning from starting to relief can be overblown at times it seems Elias is the perfect candidate for this kind of role change. For one thing, it’s not really a major change for a guy who has pitched out of relief at different points throughout his career. Elias has five career relief appearances in his major-league career and has spent the last few springs preparing for a possible role in the Red Sox bullpen. On top of that, as we’ve already discussed control and command has been the biggest issue for Elias. This will hurt in any role, of course, but we’ve seen plenty of pitchers who struggled with control as starters make it work in shorter stints. Finally, Elias has been really effective against left-handed hitters over his career, holding them to a .671 OPS vs. a .755 mark for righties. It goes without saying that a relief role would allow the team to make sure a higher rate of his opponents hit from the left side.
There are still a few different roads the Red Sox can take to build their Opening Day bullpen and even more possibilities for how the group will change over the course of a season. Right now, the only certainties seem to be Craig Kimbrel, Carson Smith, Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes for Opening Day. Even Kimbrel may not be a certainty given that he’s spent almost all spring away from the team to be with his infant daughter who has undergone multiple heart surgeries since her birth last summer. There are, by my count, seven players in play for three spots. I won’t make a prediction right now on who gets those spots, but many — myself included — have neglected to include Elias among that group. That ends now.