Despite a wildly frustrating extra-innings loss on Tuesday to put a sour taste in our collective mouths, things are good for the Red Sox right now. They remain with the best record in baseball, they can still beat opponents on multiple different ways, and their roster is loaded with talent as well as enviable depth. That depth is about to lead to some issues that will be difficult to sort out, as this team has a lot of good pitchers and a couple more coming back. This is certainly not a bad problem to have and it is almost annoying to even complain about this kind of problem — it’s like someone complaining about making so much money but not being able to spend it all — but it’s something that is going to have to be figured out soon.
Now, this is not a decision that will have to be made right now, but it’s something that needs to be thought about as they lead up to the actual decision time. You see, the Red Sox are going to have to open up two spots on their pitching staff at some point this month. Steven Wright as a set day of returning to the roster after starting his suspension clock. He’ll be back on May 14. Tyler Thornburg isn’t as fixed and setbacks are always possible for pitchers coming back from long-term shoulder injuries, but his rehab is started and he should be back at some point shortly after Wright. It should be mentioned that neither of these pitchers have minor-league options remaining, so stashing them in Pawtucket for any extra time is out of the question.
That is a theme throughout this pitching staff, in fact. Normally, having a pair of good, experienced pitchers (I know there is some disagreement on Wright’s talent level. I hear you yelling right now.) coming back to the roster is a positive, stress-free experience. The Red Sox certainly aren’t going to complain about it now, either. Wright, despite struggles last year and being a seemingly inherently untrustworthy pitcher given his pitch of choice knuckleball), has been a good major-league starter in the recent past and those don’t grow on trees. Thornburg is coming back from a surgery from which few players have come back completely, but he also has the talent to easily be the second-best reliever in this bullpen and give them a late-inning weapon they truly lack. Room needs to be made.
Right now, it’s easier said than done. Generally speaking, teams are going to try and maintain as much depth in their organization at all times. That means, in situations like this, they’ll try to simply a pair of pitchers to Triple-A Pawtucket and call it a day. It’s not that easy with the Red Sox. They have four pitchers on the staff who can be optioned, but it’s hard to see if happening with most or all of them.
Eduardo Rodriguez is frustrating, but he certainly makes the rotation better and is beyond the point in his career where time in Triple-A will help. Matt Barnes is frustrating at times, but he’s the second-best reliever in this bullpen right now. Carson Smith hasn’t been as good as many of us had hoped, but he’s their best healthy choice to be an elite reliever alongside Craig Kimbrel. Hector Velazquez doesn’t blow anyone away, but he’s been great early this year in that swingman role. It would not be easy to lose any of those guys off the roster.
Of course, if you don’t want to lose any of them, then you start to look at trade situations. There are no pitchers in this bullpen who would risk simply designating for assignment and losing for nothing on waivers, but there are guys you could look to trade. Specifically, the most likely candidates would be out-of-options guys like Heath Hembree and Brian Johnson. The former is looking about as good as ever so far this year and the latter has been up-and-down but has the talent to start or relieve for most teams around the league. If I had to trade one of them it would likely be Johnson, as the team has other potential swingmen like Velazquez, Wright, Jalen Beeks, Chandler Shepherd or even someone like Brandon Workman if they need it. Johnson would also get more back in a trade — though neither would bring back anything too exciting — given his potential to start.
Those are pretty much the options. They could also trade guys like Joe Kelly, Barnes or Smith, but I would find it surprising if they dealt from their late-inning crop with all of the questions they have there. They are still trying to figure out the hierarchy behind Kimbrel, and they need to keep anyone they trust late in games. Ultimately, the options that are there all have some downsides, and we’re really not going to feel good about any of them when the time comes.
Generally speaking, these things have a way of working themselves out, but the Red Sox need to start narrowing down their options now and figuring out who they do and don’t trust. There are only a couple more weeks for things to work themselves out before decisions need to be made. My prediction is that one pitcher will be moved to the disabled list to make room for one of Wright and Thornburg — I will not predict the pitcher to his the DL; that seems mean — and Velazquez will be optioned to clear the other spot. This is a organization that has always prioritized hanging on to depth, and I can’t really see that changing now even if it means optioning a guy who has been arguably the best pitcher in this bullpen all year.