Before the world as we know it turned upside for a little bit, the Red Sox rotation was a complete and utter mess. They had some sort of foundation at the top of the rotation in Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi and Martín Pérez. If everyone was totally healthy, those three were always going to be part of the rotation to start the year. Of course, injuries to Chris Sale and then signing an injured Collin McHugh meant that they were higher up in the pecking order than you’d like. Then there’s Ryan Weber, who as we talked about yesterday was pretty much guaranteed the fourth spot to start the year. Then, there was the fifth spot, which was completely and utterly wide open. We talk about “wide open” position battles just about every year, but in hindsight it often feels like forcing it. However, I really don’t think I can remember a battle that was truly wide open like this one was.
Of course, events in the world that have shut down baseball for an indefinite period of time make the entire rotation conversation even less clear. Maybe they will still be in this situation whenever baseball comes back. Maybe Sale and McHugh will be entirely healthy. Nobody knows literally anything about what is going to happen and when it is going to happen! So, with the clear lack of knowledge of what comes next, I’m going to continue with the mindset I had at the beginning of last week when baseball was still a thing, which is that the Red Sox need to figure out what the heck they are going to do in that fifth rotation spot.
This is something we’ve written about a bunch and all of us were thinking about a bunch before baseball halted. Right around a day before that happened, the idea of piggybacking popped into my mind. Obviously, other things came up that took precedent in my mind, but now that the dust has settled a bit I kind of want to revisit this idea. So, if you’ll indulge me, let’s just assume we get to a world where the Red Sox are in this same position where they found themselves a week ago. Maybe it’s later in the year after a couple new injuries. Maybe Sale and McHugh both suffered setbacks. The specifics aren’t important. All that matters is that the rotation has a glaring hole with no good answer to fill it.
We’ll get to the piggybacking thing quickly, but I think it’s important to start with why I don’t like what I see as the other two options, which are related. Those options are using a normal, traditional starter or using an opener. Both of those are somewhat similar roles, with the latter just starting later and probably being responsible for an inning less in an ideal world. You still want your bulk pitcher who comes in after the opener to go at least four or five innings and move through the opposing lineup at least a couple of times. I like the opener as a concept more than I think others do, but I think you need the right bulk arm a la Ryan Yarbrough, Yonny Chirinos and Jalen Beeks in Tampa Bay.
As the Red Sox roster stands now, I don’t trust any of these arms to go through an order more than once or to go any more than a maximum of three innings on most days. So, my initial thought was just picking one of the many arms fighting for that fifth spot as a bulk arm and carrying another long arm to pick things up if/when things blew up. That then brought me to the concept of piggybacking, which is just having two guys combining for six innings. The Red Sox don’t have anyone fighting for the rotation that I trust for more than three innings at a time, but they have a lot of pitchers of similar talent that I can squint and see surviving for a trip and a half through an order each.
So, just to take a couple names from the pile, if you start with Brian Johnson and then hand off to Chris Mazza in the fourth, it’s not unreasonable to think you can get six innings from those two — or whichever two options you happen to like the most — and keep the team in the game. Then, you just have the final three innings, a position most teams look to find themselves in this era of baseball. A potential downside here would be that you could be eating up two roster spots for one usage every five days, but if both pitchers are going only three innings every time out I would think it’s possible for them to be good for an inning or two in between piggyback outings. Call it a throw day.
Even if the Red Sox do get to a point where they are desperate for a rotation spot, I don’t expect them to actually use this plan. No team has ever done this consistently in the majors — they do do it in the minors, but that is for developmental reasons, not for winning — and it certainly is not an efficient use of roster space. That said, Chaim Bloom was brought in at least partially for creativity, and the Red Sox have a lack of depth that could very well lead to a need for extreme creativity. Personally, I don’t have faith in any of their options as a bulk arm in an opener situation, much less as a traditional starter. This season is already going to be weird. Why not get real weird and try to use the piggyback approach on a regular basis?