Josh Smith did not really pitch all that poorly on Monday night in the series-opening game between the Red Sox and Orioles. Granted, there were plenty of caveats with that performance. He was going up against perhaps the worst team in baseball in the Orioles. He gave up a grand slam that proved to be the difference of the game after getting within one out of escaping a jam of his own creation. His stuff wasn’t super overwhelming and his command wasn’t perfect. Still, whatever way you want to slice that start it was clearly not his fault the Red Sox lost that game. Smith pitched as well as one could have expected given his talent level and track record, he just didn’t get the necessary backup from his lineup.
This post is not meant to be a bashing of Smith, who fills a very specific role on a good major-league team and did so admirably on Monday. The righty, ideally, is a piece of emergency depth who is called upon when an unforeseen event pops up. That is what happened when he was called up originally when the team needed a spot start thanks to a doubleheader earlier in the week. He has stuck around since then, which is a reflection of the pitching depth in the upper minors more than anything, and made another emergency start this week. It became more of an emergency start when it was announced that David Price was hitting the injured list, though Smith starting on Monday was announced before Price’s injury was. Perhaps the team knew this was coming before they made the decision. Who knows.
Either way, with the absence of Price they are now in a tough spot. The Red Sox are missing two-fifths of a rotation that was supposed to be the strength of the team and they are also without their top depth option for the time being. They are digging deeper into their depth than they’d like, and it’s disappearing quickly. Like I said, they can’t really complain about what they got from Smith on Monday, as he was one better pitch away from getting out of that jam and giving his team a couple of shutout innings in an emergency depth start. That said, if that rotation spot does come up again, Smith should not get the call.
I say if because, even with Price on the injured list there is no guarantee they are going to need to utilize a full rotation. There is never a good time for injuries like this to happen, of course, but if it’s going to take place this would be the part of the schedule the Red Sox would want it. In a weird scheduling quirk, Boston has a day off after each of the next three series with three days off overall over an eleven-day stretch. Presumably they looked that this stretch at the start of the year as a likely chance to give their starting pitchers all more of a rest. Now, with two pitchers out this could be a valuable chance to get extra starts out of their guys, rolling with a four-man rotation for the next turn or two. It’s sort of against the M.O. of the organization, but it’s the best option to win games right now.
But, if they stick to their normal plan and want to give their starters the extra days of rest when the chance presents itself, no one would be overly surprised. It’s not what most of us want to see, but you have to take the long-view in a baseball season. There’s also the chance Price’s injury is worse than they think right now and he ends up spending a little more time on the shelf than it appears he will right now. You never know about elbow injuries in general, particularly with a 33-year-old. All of that is to say there is a decent chance they’ll end up needing that rotation spot again by their own decision making or because that’s just how injuries work. If that spot does come up again, it has to go to Mike Shawaryn, not Smith.
Shawaryn was not a realistic option for a start in this series, having just made a start on Friday. His schedule does not exactly line up with the needs of the Red Sox right now, but all of those off-days coming up could make it work if needed. I should be clear that, while Shawaryn is a top prospect in the Red Sox system, no one should be expecting stardom here. This is not like when Jon Lester of Clay Buchholz came up for the first time. However, he certainly possesses more upside than Smith. Perhaps even more importantly, he can provide more length than Smith. The Red Sox already have one guy going every five days in Hector Velázquez who can go four innings at most. Smith is in the same vein — Alex Cora said he wanted 12-15 outs from Smith. The Red Sox simply don’t have the bullpen depth to have two of those guys in the rotation at the same time. They need at least four “normal” starters, and Shawaryn fits that bill more than Smith does.
The one complicated matter here is that Shawaryn is not on the 40-man roster, which is now full for the first time this year. That is not a terribly difficult issue to overcome, though. They could transfer Nathan Eovaldi to the 60-day disabled list depending on how his recovery is going, or they could designate any number of guys for assignment including Smith himself, the recently-claimed Joey Curletta or Chandler Shepherd. It’s a hurdle, but one that can be stepped over rather than needing a full leap.
Smith did his job on Monday and picked up the loss because the rest of his team didn’t do what they were supposed to against the worst pitching staff in baseball. Even with that being the case, though, the Red Sox have a couple of options to make sure they don’t have two starters in their rotation that are closer to openers than “normal” starters. Either one would be fine with me.