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We could see some six-man rotation turns in 2021

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I hear your joke, and I’m ignoring it.

Alex Cora Boston Red Sox Manager Press Conference Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Alright, let’s get the obvious out of the way, shall we? I know the reaction of most people upon seeing that headline. You see “six-man rotation” on a website focused on the Red Sox, and you instantly say to yourself with a chuckle, “Do they even have six starting pitchers?” First off, stop talking to yourself. We’re all worried about you. Second, solid joke, even if it’s a little bit obvious. But to get to the crux of truth in the joke, you’re not wrong! The Red Sox literally don’t have six viable starters right now. The sixth starter as things stand today is probably Chris Mazza, and while he seems like a fine human being that is not a role for which he is suited at this point.

So, yeah. This entire post is going to be with the assumption that reinforcements are on the way, which they almost certainly are. Who those reinforcements will be, what their credentials will look like and when they’ll actually be added to the roster are up in the air, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find people who don’t actually believe some starting pitching help will be brought in at one point or another. For the purposes of this post, let’s assume they add two starters to the roster. We’ll call them Schmorey Schluber and Schake Schodorizzi, just to throw some random syllables together.

Okay, so the two starting pitchers are in place, leaving the Red Sox with those two along with Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi and Nick Pivetta as a likely Opening Day quintet. Not a world-beating group, but if healthy it’s anywhere from not-soul-crushing to fine, largely depending on your feelings on Pivetta. (My feelings on Pivetta are not great, for whatever that’s worth.) There’s also depth in the wings with Tanner Houck — who, I believe, is better than Pivetta but has minor-league options and thus will likely be allowed to work on some things in Triple-A to preserve as much depth as possible — Matt Andriese and Garrett Whitlock. Again, not some all-time group, but it’s fine.

New York Yankees v. Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Fine, however, is not good enough to win a World Series or even make the postseason, and while the former is basically a pipe dream for this team and the latter is a only little bit less so at this point, that should still always be the goal. And given that, even with some additions the Red Sox are going to have to be creative to make this pitching staff work in 2021, no matter what it may look like. I would expect Alex Cora to roll with some openers at some point as well as traditional bullpen games. But I’d also be on the lookout for a six-man rotation from time to time. Not all year, to be clear, but during certain stretches of the season it could make sense.

A lot of this comes down to the theme I’ve mentioned enough to probably annoy everyday readers at this point, but I’m going to do it again. I’ve talked about it mostly in the context of swingmen, but the Red Sox will need bulk innings from non-top-five starters this year. Some of those innings will likely come in the form of spot starts that don’t replace a regular starter’s turn, but rather push it back a day. In other words, adding a sixth spot to the rotation.

Much of this has to do with reasons that are going to affect every team, i.e. the fact that we are coming off a bizarre season that saw a start and stop in spring as well as a much shorter season than we’re used to, not to mention the uncertainty that lies ahead with this coming spring. Pitchers are going to be off their routines, and teams will be working to make sure they can get through the entire 2021 season, as long or short as it may be, with as few injuries as possible.

And for the Red Sox, the reasons to take extra care and potentially push back turns every now and then makes even more sense. Consider what they have in their rotation, without even considering the possibility of adding someone like Corey Kluber who has hardly pitched over the last two years. By all accounts Rodriguez is progressing fine, but there’s no reason to push him too hard given his myocarditis. They should, and presumably will, err on the side of caution there. Chris Sale will be ready at some point in the summer, but coming off Tommy John they’ll surely want to ease him back into action. Anything to keep Eovaldi healthy longer will be a good idea. Houck has never had a full major-league workload. Pivetta has had that once in terms of total starts. Andriese hasn’t pitched even 90 innings in over three years. Whitlock has never pitched in the majors and is coming off Tommy John surgery a couple years ago himself.

The point is: There are a lot of durability question marks with this pitching staff before we even start to talk about any concerns with performance levels. The depth beyond it isn’t that great, either. I mentioned Mazza above. Later in the year prospects Connor Seabold and Bryan Mata should be ready to contribute, but it’s hard to say they can surely count on them. If the Red Sox are going to be good, they need to get not-brutal production from their starters, and that means keeping them as healthy as possible all year long.

Consider that they have three stretches of over two straight weeks of playing without a day off on the current 2021 schedule, one of which is almost right away in the middle of April. The other two are right after the All-Star break and late-August heading into September. Those are the kinds of stretches where I would expect to see Andriese or Whitlock or whoever else may be in that swingman role at the time slide into the rotation for a couple of starts as a potential sixth starter. And, of course, that 2021 schedule could very well be upended, and the new schedule would presumably be even more condensed to get in as many games as possible over a shorter stretch of time.

If the Red Sox are to be good in 2021, it will be largely because of their offense. I don’t think that’s a new revelation for anybody. But you can’t rely only on a lineup, and the Red Sox need their best starters to be as healthy as possible to make as many starts as they can. And while it may seem counterintuitive, the way to make the most starts could very well be to skip some along the way. Of course, in order to have a six-man rotation they first need to have six starters. So let’s get to work on that piece of it, eh?