The Red Sox are, after another brutal loss added to their ledger on Monday in Cleveland, sitting at a 62-59 record. They are now 16.5 games out of the division and 8.5 out of the second wildcard spot. They are just three games above .500 for the first time since a win in Baltimore pushed them to that point back on June 14. They have a four percent chance of making the playoffs according to Fangraphs. Before Monday’s loss they had a 1.3 percent chance of making it according to Baseball Prospectus. The Red Sox continue to insist they still have a push for the postseason left in them, mostly because what else are they supposed to say?
Whether or not they actually have that push left in them — they don’t — they still have to play out the string and finish off this season. That is one of the quirks of the major-league schedule. That means they are going to have to field a lineup each and every day through the end of the September. With the position players, that won’t be much of an issue. Despite their mind-numbing issues with runners on base and in scoring position they have a ton of talent and production at the plate. The rotation....well, that’s a different story.
One of the big questions for the remainder of the season is how the Red Sox are going to fill out their rotation and set up their pitching staff over the next six weeks. Alex Cora has been talking about shakeups and new approaches, and that started on Monday with the announcement that Andrew Cashner will be moved to the bullpen. That seems like it will only be the beginning. So, what are they going to do?
In the immediate future, it seems the Red Sox are going to roll with a four-man rotation whenever they can. That is going to be a real possibility for them basically for the rest of the month as the team doesn’t play on a Monday or a Thursday until September 4. That’s a ton of off-days and a chance to keep guys on normal rest while only using four starters. It’s not a perfect plan, however, for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s not like they have four lockdown starters. Relying on Rick Porcello and Brian Johnson for a full 50 percent of your games is asking for disappointment. Cashner is already in the bullpen and we all know Porcello could be next. On top of that, with the focus almost certainly getting ready to shift towards preparing for 2020, pushing Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez without giving extra rest when you can could become less appealing. They are going to use this option, but A) it won’t last forever and B) even while it is lasting it is far from perfect.
I think this is probably what we are going to see the most moving forward and into September, particularly if David Price suffers a setback and can’t pitch again. (There is no indication that will happen, but with pitcher injuries it’s always a possibility.) This one is straight forward and doesn’t really require a long explanation. It means using five or six pitchers throwing one or two innings each through the game. I suspect this is what we’re going to see on Wednesday in Cleveland, and once rosters expand in September and give more bullpen depth we could see it even more often.
Among my biggest pet peeves in baseball conversations right now is the conflation of bullpen games and “opener” games. It is a distinction that shouldn’t bother me as much as it does, but I can’t change my big dumb brain. As I mentioned above, a bullpen game is just using relievers for one or two innings throughout the game. It’s been happening for as long as baseball has been a thing. An opener is a new and different strategy. This is using a reliever first and then turning to a longer, starter type for four or five innings at least. So, for example, the Red Sox could look at a team with three or four big right-handed bats at the top of the lineup and decide that’s not a great matchup for Brian Johnson. So, they’ll throw Nathan Eovaldi out to record four outs then pass the ball to Johnson to (hopefully) get through the sixth. It’s an entirely different strategy than a bullpen game that is designed to get a starter-type pitcher deep into the game while avoiding the top of the lineup for one turn. I’m not sure we’ll see Alex Cora utilize this strategy, but I think it could be beneficial in front of guys like Johnson and Porcello (who has been so hittable that you want him facing big bats as little as possible). Eovaldi, Cashner, Darwinzon Hernandez and Josh Taylor are among opener possibilities given the makeup of the opposing lineup on any given day.
The most cathartic fix for this rotation would simply be finding new starters to get chances in the rotation. I think as fans we are often too quick to try and pull the plug on some pitchers, but it’s hard to argue that Porcello and Johnson in particular need to make more starts. They aren’t getting taken out of the rotation, but even if that was a legitimate option there is the unfortunate fact that the Red Sox just don’t have any replacements. The Pawtucket rotation at this point includes names like Erasmo Ramírez, Kyle Hart and Teddy Stankiewicz. There is also Denyi Reyes, who has been on fire lately but also has spent all year in Portland. I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least two of those Pawtucket guys get a chance in September one the team has really packed it in, but there’s just no one who is going to get an extended look ahead of the 2020 season.