This week, and really the last few weeks, has been dominated by concerns over the rotation depth. So, it only made sense to go with that kind of question this week. Specifically, I asked, “How should the Red Sox handle the open rotation spots?” When I first sent out this question to the staff on Monday, the Chris Sale injury stuff hadn’t started ramping up, and they hadn’t signed Collin McHugh. Keep that in mind as that stuff had not come to light when some of these answers came in. However, also keep in mind that while there has been big news, nothing has changed. Sale is still going to miss the start of the year, and we still don’t know how long exactly he’ll be out. McHugh is going to help the depth, but he’s hurt as well, so to start the year it’s everything is mostly as it was on Monday.
There are very few internal options and even less on the free agent market so I would call Jeff Bridich about German Márquez. Our system would have to take a hit but you do whatever you have to do to get someone of Marquez’ talent. Maybe a package of Thad Ward, Jarren Duran, and their choice of Bryan Mata or Jay Groome could get the ball rolling?
The first three slots are obvious. In some order it will be Chris Sale (editor’s note: No longer obvious), Eduardo Rodriguez, and Nathan Eovaldi. But the last two slots are up in the air.
Now, the popular idea is going to be the opener strategy because it’s all anyone wants to talk about, but I’m an old curmudgeon and I say “bollywocks” to your new-fangled role in this sport that I love. I will have none of this opener business on my watch. The fourth starter is going to be Martín Pérez, in part because he’s literally the best option we have, and in part because there’s a chance he’s not terrible. The fifth slot becomes interesting to me, because I don’t actually feel like we have a fifth starter in the system right now.
Kyle Hart? Mike Shawaryn? Bryan Mata? Tanner Houck? Darwinzon Hernandez? All of these names in my opinion should be considered in direct competition for this slot, and as I write this, I feel like it’s become a two-person race between Mata and Houck if I were choosing the team, with the edge to Houck. The only other one who should make the team out of spring training is Hernandez who will end up in the pen.
The biggest knock against Houck is I don’t think he can go five innings against MLB level competition. But I also think it would be dumb to use him only as an opener (assuming we’re going by traditional terms of 1 or 2 innings maximum for him before going to a long guy, who I’m also not sure we truly have). My plan would be to go with Houck for 3 or 4 innings, dependent on how he’s doing and feeling. The key is to get him at least three innings in every outing, and aim for roughly 100 innings on the season (he threw a little over this amount last year between Portland and Pawtucket). Once Houck is out, you turn to some combination of Darwinzon Hernandez, Marcus Walden, and Heath Hembree to get you to the 7th (or 8th) inning, dependent on the score and situation (if it’s looking winnable go with your best arms, and if it’s not... well Walden could probably throw three or four innings, right?). To close out the game, you turn to the usual suspects and just hope it’s enough. So more of a piggyback type of deal (which is an idea I do support) than a true opener.
It’s decidedly less than ideal to not have a fifth starter. Andrew Cashner, Aaron Sanchez, and Matt Harvey stand out as somewhat interesting starters still available to sign. It would be nice to sign any one of them. We will sign none and go with the opener though, and I’m not sure I buy that as the right move for us.
After trading Mookie Betts prior to the start of Spring Training, the Red Sox made it clear they would not make contending a priority for 2020. Because of this decision, I strongly believe an internal option is the best choice for the fifth starting slot. The free agent pool for starting pitchers is a wasteland with the start of the season so close, and a trade wouldn’t exactly make sense either. Why give up prospects to improve a rotation on a non-contender? A trade that might make sense for the Sox is one to ‘buy prospects’, as was discussed in a potential Wil Myers trade. In this situation, the Red Sox would take on a bad contract (such as Wil Myers, or in this case, a pitcher) in order to receive prospects without losing much value. However, this route seems like the least likely. The Sox’ best internal option is lefty Brian Johnson. Johnson had a lackluster 2019 season, but proved to be fine as a fill-in, back of the rotation kind of guy in 2017 and 2018. He is what he is, mediocre at best, but he really just needs to serve as an inning-eater for this Red Sox team.
The hits keep coming for the Red Sox this winter. With Chris Sale on the watch list for Tommy John surgery the thin rotation could suddenly crumble the next time his elbow twinges. When you factor in the trade of David Price and the departure of Rick Porcello with only Martin Perez joining the fray it once again makes you wonder what the plan was. If 2020 is now a bridge year - or at least a year starting behind the eight ball - Chaim Bloom should look back just one chapter in his story and go all-in on the opener.
First, scoop up as many of Clay Buchholz, Aaron Sanchez, and Andrew Cashner as you can. Surely there is money for guys still sitting around in March. Second, move Ryan Brasier and Darwinzon Hernandez to the opener positions. Brasier is the opener against lineups where the top six batters are heavily right-handed. Hernandez is there for when the top six are mostly left-handed. This lets each of them play to their strengths and dominate same-sided hitters.
Depending on how the rotation is set up you’d have E-Rod, Opener, Eovaldi, Opener, Perez, Opener. Buchholz, Sanchez, and Cashner - or more likely, a combination of two of them, would come in for three to five innings afterwards. Is there necessarily roster room for all these pitchers? Maybe. There’s the 26th man this year to help as needed should an opener struggle or the long relievers/short starters not work out. Ideally it’s just shifting a few starting pitchers to a bullpen role and splitting what would be six inning starts over two appearances. If Chris Sale is healthy, even better! He’ll take a regular turn and the openers will show up a little less often. But with limited time remaining and a team that shouldn’t just punt the season (who knows, maybe they cross the bridge this year somehow?) it’s putting the pieces to work. Besides, these roster strategies are exactly why Bloom was hired.
As far as I can tell, the Red Sox have two spots to fill in the immediate future. Chris Sale may be okay health-wise (or thereabouts), but he still won’t be making starts right away. Plus, there’s always the chance that things get worse and not better. With him gone for now, that leaves Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi and Martín Pérez as the locks for the rotation, with the rest yet to be determined.
Collin McHugh could take one of those rotation spots potentially, and I think that would be a relatively savvy move. McHugh is projected to be worth 1.3 wins above replacement by ZiPS this season. He was a relatively solid hurler across 74 ⅔ innings for Houston last season, although primarily out of the bullpen, where he did all of his work in 2018. The last time he was a full-time starter was in 2017, but he only logged 63 ⅓ innings during that campaign. However, between 2014 and 2016, he logged more than 150 innings as a full-time starter every year and now at 32-years-old, he could have something left in the tank. I’d be fine giving him a rotation spot to start and see where things go from there.
As for the final spot in the rotation, I don’t think there’s an easy answer, but I am not a fan of trading for a pitcher. The Red Sox just dealt their best player, and the defense for the move seems to be that it brought in some prospects and improved financial flexibility. Who exactly are they going to trade now to improve the rotation and not either make some other part of the big league roster worse or sap away prospect talent? Instead, I would like the Sox to give multiple younger guys on the roster longer auditions to see if pitchers like Darwinzon Hernandez, Mike Shawaryn and Kyle Hart could become full-time starters.
Well, with the recent news of the McHugh signing that seems to be one of the spots filled. I guess it’s still to be determined if he will be a true starter or if he will be used as an opener, or if he will even be ready by opening day but at least eventually McHugh will be some type of solution. For the other rotation spot, I expect Brian Johnson to be the guy. However, if the Red Sox were to ask my opinion, and with all due respect to Mr. Johnson, I think I’ve seen enough. I eluded to one potential option in the previous roundtable, setting Tanner Houck loose to see what you have in him is certainly an option and one I would seriously consider if I were the Red Sox. He had more success last year as a reliever at Triple-A but at some point, you need to see what the fellas on the farm can do and there’s no better time than now with 2020 seemingly lost to the baseball gods.
A couple of other internal options I would try would be Kyle Hart and Darwinzon Hernandez. The latter I don’t feel confident in given his walk issues, but he was brought up as a starter and it would be easy to roll him back into the ‘pen if the experiment failed. The former pitched 100 innings at Triple-A last year and was freshly added to the 40-man roster this winter and, as I stated before, there’s no better time than now to see what you have out of the farm.
Now that Chris Sale is on the fritz an Collin McHugh is on the team, how should the Red Sox fill out their rotation? I’ve seen a list of free agent pitchers and the one that sticks out for about 100 reasons is Clay Buchholz, who was not good in Toronto last year. Forgive me if I’m a little skeptical about the old carnie legend and what he could accomplish on a Red Sox team that gets fractured anew every week, even if he was pretty good in Arizona a couple years back. He also has a huge problem staying healthy and has for his entire career. So there are many reasons not to sign Buchholz. None of them outstrip the benefits to sign him, which are: a) they need him b) he’s an old friend and c) if this year’s gonna be a bridge year, we might as well befriend the grumpy old troll who lives under said bridge. Best way to do that? Pay the man! Just not very much.
There are a ton of options for the Red Sox to go with in order to fill up their rotation. A lack of options is not the issue. The issue is that they mostly kind of suck! I think signing a new arm even beyond McHugh sounds good in theory, but I’m not sure it’s actually worth it. I’m not convinced anyone available is really an upgrade, and I’d worry about them trying to rush them to be ready, leading to a brutal April. I’d just stay internal and use this as a chance to see if you have a diamond in the rough. I’m fine with using an opener, but don’t think that changes much. You still need the bulk guy, and those are the same as the candidates to start. So my strategy would just be to churn. And keep churning. I’d start with Ryan Weber and Brian Johnson in the final two spots, but no one should have a long leash. Give Kyle Hart his chance at some point. And Chris Mazza. And Mike Shawaryn. And anyone and everyone else. And hope Chris Sale comes back. That last part is key.