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Don’t let the bullpen overshadow how great this rotation could be

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The starters have the chance to be something very, very special.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Since Red Sox fans in general have turned the page on the 2018 World Series run, or at least started putting a big portion of their focus on the offseason and the upcoming 2019 campaign, the attention has largely been paid to the bullpen. It’s been the driving narrative of the entire winter. Obviously, there’s plenty of reason for that and we’re as guilty as anyone for focusing almost entirely on the relief corps this offseason. The weakness of the bullpen was, in my opinion, a bit overplayed down the stretch of the regular season last year, but that’s not the same as saying it was fine. There were clear weaknesses, and that was before losing Craig Kimbrel (probably) and Joe Kelly (definitely). I like Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier just fine (more than just fine in Barnes’ case) and there is reasonable hope for solid performances from the next tiers of relievers. Still, it really doesn’t look like a playoff team’s bullpen in this era. The handwringing about the group, generally speaking, has been mostly warranted.

With that being said, it’s also sort of weirdly overshadowed the fact that this team is poised to be elite once again even with this group of relievers. Anything can happen in baseball, of course, but at this point on the calendar all signs are pointing to the Red Sox being right there all season long as one of the league’s true World Series contenders. Obviously, the lineup should be a big part of it yet again. Mookie Betts will be with Mike Trout as a preseason MVP favorite, J.D. Martinez is still one of the best hitters in the game and downtrodden positions like second and third base have a very real chance of improving from last year. That aside, and despite the potential hiccups from the bullpen, the real story of this roster should really be the rotation. If things go according to plan, Boston’s starters could be one of the best groups in the league and one of the best this franchise has ever seen.

MLB: Boston Red Sox-Workouts Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Consider all of these names on their own and think about what we can reasonably expect from them on the high end. Obviously the sky is the limit with Chris Sale. We know the ways things can go wrong, but as long as Sale is healthy and something close to his best he is going to be one of the two or three best pitchers in baseball. The narrative around his 2018 has seemingly shifted to his injury and downturn of performance upon his return, so much so that it’s easy to forget he may have been better than ever in the first half of the year. He was the no-doubt Cy Young favorite before the shoulder started acting up. There’s no reason to expect his healthy performance to drop significantly, and his motivation should theoretically be higher than ever (if that’s even possible) as he’s set to hit free agency for the first time in his career following the season. There aren’t a whole lot of true aces around the league these days, but the Red Sox have one of them.

Moving on, David Price’s 2018 is deservedly going to be remembered for him getting the playoff monkey off his back. He finally came through on the biggest stage, and he got some much-deserved love for his incredible performances. Looking longer-term, though, the real story of his 2018 was his coming to terms that he’s no longer the prime David Price. His fastball isn’t the weapon it once was, and he can’t rely on heat and impeccable command alone to get outs like he used to. About midway through the season, corresponding well with when Sale went down, Price started moving away from his fastballs and leaned more heavily on his cutter and changeup. The results were staggering, and we saw some evidence that he will be the type of pitcher who will be able to succeed even as his stuff takes a step back. Not that he’s there yet, because that cutter/changeup combination is still nasty and if he can carry it over to 2019 we could see a full season of second-half Price.

Nathan Eovaldi is probably the most popular man in the rotation right now after his postseason heroics, but October wasn’t the only point in which the righty thrived in 2018. The entire season was a breakout for the former top prospect as he came back from multiple major arm injuries a new man. His old velocity was still there, but instead of throwing straight four-seam fastballs he was throwing disgusting cutters in the upper-90s. You never know how the league is going to adjust after a breakout performance like that, but Eovaldi is coming off a year with peripherals that suggest he should be a very good midrotation arm going forward, and he’s only 29 years old. Even just by the eye test, it’s hard to believe you could watch him last year and think he’ll suddenly become hittable.

In terms of upside, the lowest perceived upside in this group certainly belongs to Rick Porcello. In a way, he kind of is what he is, which is more than fine in the back end of a rotation. That is, a guy who will throw 200+ innings year-in and year-out, getting into trouble now and then while rarely dominating, but mostly keeping his team in the game every time he takes the mound. That said, we might underrate potential upside here. I’m not saying I’d bet on him winning another Cy Young or anything like that, but he’s been that good once. Even if he’s not that good, if he can find a way to knock just a few home runs off his season total we’re talking about a totally different caliber pitcher. Spring training pitch additions are often overrated, but him learning a new changeup grip from the next guy we’re going to talk about is hard not to at least find intriguing.

That guy, of course, is Eduardo Rodriguez. The number five starter in this rotation, at least by title, is a former top prospect who just struck out over ten batters per nine innings with a 114 ERA+ last year and is entering his age-26 season. Seems pretty good! We know that Rodriguez has never been able to take that last leap forward as a starter, but there’s still plenty of time. The southpaw is coming off a fully healthy offseason, which is rare for him, and the early reports from his bullpen sessions are overwhelmingly positive. Again, those reports can be misleading, but this is the time of year for optimism. All signs are pointing towards Rodriguez finally taking that last step forward, and this is likely the last time he’ll get the benefit of the doubt heading into a season. If he does come through, he’s at least in the conversation for the best “number five” in baseball.

MLB: Boston Red Sox-Media Day Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

It goes without saying that all of this ignores the downsides that do exist with each of these pitchers. Sale’s shoulder is a legitimate question mark, as is his jarring trend of falling off precipitously in September. Price could always morph back into his former self, and the league could adjust to his new style. Eovaldi is always an injury risk and for all of the excitement from last year it was just one season. Porcello, for any perceived upside he has, he hasn’t really shown it very much in his career. Rodriguez has had the same positivity with respect to his potential preached for what seems like forever at this point. There will be missed starts, and while Boston’s rotation depth is solid it’s clearly not on par with what we’ve discussed to this point.

Things rarely go entirely right, particularly when you talk about major-league pitching. We all know that to be true. Still, not everything has to go right for the Red Sox rotation to be special this year. The Red Sox have a real chance at being the first team to repeat as World Series champs since the turn-of-the-century Yankees. If they pull it off, something tells me the biggest reason will be a special, all-time performance one through five in their rotation.