Something I’ve talked about a lot over the last few years and something that I’ve come to believe more and more as time as gone on is that we underrate versatility among pitchers. Obviously we recognize the value for position players who can play all over the diamond, but a pitcher who can bounce around between different roles is tougher than it seems and can open a lot of doors. It’s one of the reasons why Alfredo Aceves’s 2011 season in which he made four starts, finished 15 games, made multiple-inning relief appearances and ultimately pitched to a 2.61 ERA over 114 innings is among my favorite pitching seasons of all-time. Not everyone has to be that extreme, but even guys like Brian Johnson and Hector Velázquez jumping from the bullpen to the rotation in 2018 was a significant reason why that team was able to put together the best season in franchise history.
It’s hard to talk about the 2021 Red Sox pitching staff in anything but extremely abstract terms, of course, because we simply have no idea what the group is going to look like by the time the team starts camp, whenever that may be. Presumably they are going to make multiple additions to add reinforcements to both the rotation and the bullpen, but we don’t know who. They have been connected to guys like Corey Kluber, Tomoyuki Sugano and Jake Odorizzi to this point, but that’s not exactly one clear type other than being distinctly “not Trevor Bauer,” in both good and bad ways.
That said, in a way it doesn’t matter who they bring in because there’s no way they’ll be able to totally or even mostly eliminate the extreme uncertainty on this Red Sox pitching staff. Whichever way you slice it, the Red Sox are going to need innings from a whole lot of places, and that will be the case even if they bring in an innings-eater from outside the organization to fill a rotation spot.
Consider what they already have for starting pitchers that are expected to play some role in the rotation in 2020, even if they aren’t part of the Opening Day group. Chris Sale won’t be there for Opening Day (unless the season gets pushed way back, but that’s not the expectation at this point), but even when he comes back he won’t be able to immediately and toss six or seven innings every time out. Depending on how quickly they bring him back, he could be going three or four innings for his first few times out, to say nothing about fear of setbacks or inconsistency as he shakes the rust off.
Looking at the players expected to be ready for the start of the year, Eduardo Rodriguez’s entire situation is a whole ball of uncertainty. Given the potentially serious nature of myocarditis, one would have to hope the Red Sox won’t be pushing him too hard, particularly early in the year as they try to see exactly what he can do. Nathan Eovaldi is never a strong bet to make more than 20-25 starts in a year. Tanner Houck has never pitched more than 107 2⁄3 innings in a season. Nick Pivetta has a career high of 164 innings.
So just in terms of pure innings, the Red Sox either have to be hoping for big jumps from the expectations from all of these guys or, more likely, they need to fill in the gaps with other options. And none of this is to say anything about performance issues. All of these pitchers have questions about how consistent they can be start-to-start, and getting knocked out early is a fair bet from time to time for all of them, particularly Houck and Pivetta. Long relief will be needed.
Plus, while I am personally high on the current relievers, there is no doubting the uncertainty there either. It is entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that some of these long man options will have to make some late-game appearances. And then when you throw in the extra potential for injury given another offseason with an unclear preparation schedule, it’s clear that depth will be needed all year long.
The good news is, for as poor as the Red Sox pitching staff looks right now, there are actually some intriguing options for this sort of player who can pitch in long relief and also jump into the rotation when needed. Garrett Whitlock was the team’s Rule 5 selection, and while the hope is for him to be a full-time starter at some point in 2021 he seems to fit this role to a tee. All of the uncertainty mentioned above makes him a pretty solid bet to stick on the roster all year. Below him on the depth chart there are guys like Colten Brewer, Ryan Weber and Joel Payamps, and even prospects Connor Seabold and Bryan Mata should be ready to help in some capacity at some point in the summer.
At the end of the day, it remains true that the Red Sox need that top-end performance. That’s the nature of the game, and they won’t go anywhere if they don’t get something close to peak production from guys like Sale, Rodriguez and Eovaldi, not to mention any new additions. Even if they do get that, though, they will need depth to get them through the long season. That is the sort of thing that could bring a roster like this from an 80-win team to one that is legitimately competing for a postseason spot.