Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Chandler Shepherd.
The Question: Will Chandler Shepherd still be on the 40-man roster at the end of the year?
The Red Sox certainly have some questions with their roster — How is the bullpen going to shake out? Which catchers are going to be around on Opening Day? How will they manage the starters workload? How will time be split at first base? What’s going to happen with Dustin Pedroia? — but one of the clear parts of the organization right now is the 40-man roster. There are no crunches there right now, and as a matter of fact there is breathing room on the roster. The Red Sox spent virtually the entire winter with an open spot on their 40-man roster before another opened on Wednesday was Steven Wright was suspended 80 games for a positive PED test. As long as he’s on the restricted list his 40-man spot will go unoccupied. A third could open up in a couple of weeks, too, whenever the Red Sox make a decision with their catchers. Assuming they don’t hold on to all three, there’s at least a chance they either trade one for a player who doesn’t have to be put on the 40-man or is forced to simply cut one.
I bring all of this up because it is good news for Chandler Shepherd, who was added to the 40-man roster in the winter prior to the 2018 season but never got called up to the majors. The former 13th round pick has had an interesting professional career with the Red Sox. He was drafted as something close to a pure reliever out of college, and the Red Sox kept him in that role for the majority of his career. However, after adding him to the 40-man they decided to make him a full-time starter in a transition you almost never see. Throughout his career, he’s been fine, showing good strikeout stuff in the bullpen but not enough else to really make a mark. As a starter last year, the strikeouts predictably fell pretty starkly in extended outings, and while he wasn’t quite bad in Pawtucket he didn’t really stand out either.
In all, the righty made 25 starts for Pawtucket totaling 129 2⁄3 innings (a little over five innings per start). He pitched to a solid 3.89 ERA in that time, striking out 7.4 batters per nine innings and walking 2.4 per nine. Like I said, there’s nothing really bad about his Triple-A performance, his first as a full-time starter in the pros, but there’s also nothing that really stands out. He was basically right around an acceptable level wherever you look and by whatever statistics you use to judge pitchers, but not really above and beyond anywhere. That leaves some question about his role moving forward, or even whether or not he has one.
In theory, the perfect role for Shepherd would be this versatile, multi-inning reliever that could and should become more popular in the league. Baseball is shifting more towards relievers, and the righty could in theory be that kind of reliever who comes in and covers two or three innings every time either the starter doesn’t have it or the team goes with an Opener. In theory, that sounds wonderful. I’m just not sure he has the talent to be useful in that role, at least on a contending team.
I mentioned Shepherd’s numbers above, and as a reliever he was solid. The righty struck out a little more than a batter per inning overall with a walk rate that got up around three in the upper minors. Those numbers would be fine in the majors, but you can’t really assume he’ll stay as effective at the highest level as he did in the minors. In terms of stuff, he doesn’t really have a legitimate out pitch, which is why he was moved to the rotation in the first place. The 26-year-old has an average fastball that sits in the low-90’s as a starter and can get up a few ticks higher in shorter stints. Along with the heater, he has an average-ish cutter along with a curveball and a changeup, both of which are graded as worse than average by Sox Prospects. That’s not really a profile that works without impeccable command, a mark Shepherd falls a bit short of.
Looking at his place with the Red Sox, there are a few guys in his way in both roles. Although his best role is something of a multi-inning reliever, I’m not sure the Red Sox have a need for that kind of guy right now — their 1-5 is one that they’d hope can go six innings every time out (not that they will) — but even if they did Travis Lakins would be the preferable option down in Triple-A. Mike Shawaryn would arguably be above him, too. Then, there are the traditional relievers down in the minors like Colten Brewer, Josh Taylor, Bobby Poyner and eventually Darwinzon Hernandez. Shepherd’s best bet is as an emergency depth option for the rotation, and even there he is behind at least Brian Johnson, Hector Velázquez and likely Shawaryn as well. He could be behind Erasmo Ramirez, too, though performance could change that. It doesn’t help that Shepherd has yet to pitch in spring as he makes his way back from elbow soreness.
Ultimately, the Red Sox have at least a couple of open spots to bring on players who are not yet on the 40-man roster, giving Shepherd a little bit of breathing room. As the year goes on, it is unfortunately likely more spots will open up by virtue of the 60-day disabled list. The issue is, whether Shepherd is still around or not, is that there may not be a spot for him anywhere. His best role may be on a team that uses an Opener consistently, but the Red Sox aren’t that team. I’m not sure whether or not the righty can succeed in the majors, but I don’t see a clear path for the 2019 Red Sox without a bunch of injuries. It looks like this could be another year in the minors while taking up a 40-man spot for Shepherd, who could probably use a move to another organization to really get his shot.