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Positional Breakdown: Starting Pitchers

You may want to block your eyes.

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Workout Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Over the next eleven days, we are going to take a look at the Red Sox depth chart to break down each position both in the short-term and the long-term. We’ll look at projected starters, bench pieces, depth options, top prospects, sleeper prospects, other prospects, where the starter fits in the division in terms of projected fWAR using FanGraphs’ Depth Chart system and an overall view. Today we move over to the rotation.

Starters

Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi, Collin McHugh, Martín Pérez, Ryan Weber

Even moving beyond the evaluation of the talent presented here, there are some questions that are still up in the air, and even that is beyond the simple question of whether or not a 2020 baseball season will even happen. For one, we don’t know that McHugh would be ready as he was hurt when he signed shortly before baseball was paused and was expected to miss time to start a normal season. My educated guess is that he’d be ready for any start to a season this summer, but I haven’t seen any sort of official timeline thrown out there. There’s also the matter of ordering. It doesn’t really matter, but someone might put Pérez ahead of McHugh. I really don’t care to argue that point and if you think that should be the order, that’s fine.

As for that talent, well, it’s not great. It wasn’t great before Chris Sale underwent Tommy John surgery and it’s sure not great without him. That’s not to say there isn’t upside here. Over the last four months or so of last season we saw legitimate strides from Rodriguez as a potential top half of a playoff rotation kind of pitcher. I think he’s more of a number three in an ideal world, but there is still room to improve. Eovaldi was having a huge spring and we’ve seen him be very good in 2018 both in the postseason and the regular season. Injuries are a major concern, particularly given the likelihood of a short second spring training and a more condensed schedule, but he can be at least above-average if he can stay on the mound. McHugh has been great out of the bullpen in recent years and maybe a role as a bulk arm behind an opener can help translate a good chunk of that success back to the rotation. Pérez used a new arsenal to induce a ton of weak contact last year and might need just a couple of tweaks to have the results follow. Weber, well, he can potentially keep the team in the game more often than not, which we’ll take.

That’s the upside, and it’s not all that exciting though the Red Sox could make the playoffs if all of those things go right. Of course, it’s very rare in baseball for everything to go right, and that’s under normal circumstances. The unfortunate truth is that there are health and/or performance concerns with everyone listed here, and it will likely be an uphill battle for this rotation to be league-average.

Boston Red Sox v Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Bench

Darwinzon Hernandez, Brian Johnson

Obviously there’s no real “bench” for the rotation, but I had both of these guys in my projected 29-man roster’s bullpen. We’ll start with Hernandez, who is currently projected as a key piece in the bullpen but there seems to be a little more buzz around the possibility of him starting over the last few weeks. I have said before and maintain that I believe this is a bad idea. Pitchers can get better control and he is still plenty young to make strides, but he has massive strides to make to be more than just a solid number four, and even that is no guarantee by any stretch. His stuff is legitimate and if he can go out in short bursts and just go fastball-slider, I think there is a chance at real, tangible impact in that role for him. Generally speaking, you always want a pitcher to be a starter if you have a choice, and I certainly don’t blame Hernandez for wanting to start given the financial advantages there. That said, this is a case where I think you just groom him to be potentially great in this role rather than cross your fingers that he can be solid in the other.

Johnson is a little more self-explanatory. I see him being a long reliever if everyone is healthy and being the first man up to fill in in the rotation if need be. He has the experience, he’s been solid in the past and he was having a good spring. He can be overtaken here for sure, particularly because he’s currently not even on the 40-man, but I have him in this spot for now.

Depth

Tanner Houck, Chris Mazza, Kyle Hart, Matt Hall, Mike Shawaryn, Daniel McGrath

There’s really two types of pitchers here. One group, with Mazza, Hall and Shawaryn, are the more experienced group but with less upside. We know what they are and that is an up-and-down type arm who can serve as a swingman if you need it. They are your prototypical unexciting kind of depth, but the kind that will be necessary given the possibility of extra injuries if there’s baseball this year. Houck, Hart and McGrath are more interesting. If things were normal this season, I’d have expected them to be getting ready to contribute around June at the earliest, with Houck potentially moving to relief at least for this year if they thought that was the better short-term role. With this delay in the season, though, I’m not sure how that works for timelines for players like this. That’s particularly true if they go with a plan like the Arizona plan because then there is presumably no minor-league competition. I’d like to provide an answer here for what that means, but I don’t have it.

Top Prospect

Bryan Mata

This is basically the consensus, though if a certain military-related decision went another way I’d have a different name in this space. Still, Mata is obviously very talented and he’s already pitched in Double-A despite being a little less than a month from his 21st birthday. The righty has legitimate stuff including a big fastball that can lead to swings and misses. There are some questions about command and stature that lead some to think a bullpen role is in his future, but at least among those in the high minors he’s easily the best chance the Red Sox have at an above-average starter, which is something they’ve had a tremendous amount of trouble in developing in recent years. Under normal circumstances he’d be looking at 2021 as a debut season.

Sleeper

Bryan Bello

I had a little more trouble with this one, largely because I wasn’t sure how I wanted to define sleeper. I’m really not sure how much Bello counts, but I do think he can surprise some people. The main reason I think people would be surprised is that he did not have good numbers last year with an ERA near 6.00 in Greenville. However, he made the jump from the DSL (though he was a bit older for that level in 2018) and the ERA is a bit misleading. He was very inconsistent with a couple bad stretches laying him down, but he also went a long time pitching very well. He still has plenty of refinement to undergo if he’s going to remain a starter, but he has a good pitch mix and is the type of profile that is not all that far from a major breakout with the right tweaks.

Other Prospects

  • Noah Song is the other pitcher I was considering for the top spot. I’m a major believer in the talent and the makeup, but taking two years off and not returning until age 25 gives me some pause.
  • Thad Ward is another guy who I don’t think is all too far off from Mata as the cutter he added to his repertoire last year took him to another level.
  • Tanner Houck is still going to be a starter and the team will give him a chance to succeed there, but I think ultimately he’s going to be in the bullpen long-term.
  • Jay Groome is the big X-factor in the system as a former elite draft prospect coming off Tommy John and really just looking to stay healthy.
  • Chris Murphy has some control issues that need to be worked out, but it looked good in his first small taste in the pros and he could be another sleeper a little bit lower in the system.
  • Aldo Ramírez is one of a couple lesser known names in the lower levels who could surprise some people and develop into solid starters even if they lack standout upside.
  • Jorge Rodriguez falls into that category as well.
  • Luis Perales was signed in last year’s July 2 class with no fanfare but he has blown away the scouts who have seen him and he could end up being one of the steals of that class.
  • Chih-Jung Liu is a former two-way player with no professional experience in the States but has exciting upside either as a starter or a reliever.

AL East Projections

  1. Yankees, 18.2 fWAR
  2. Rays, 17.9 fWAR
  3. Red Sox, 10.7 fWAR
  4. Blue Jays, 9.9 fWAR
  5. Orioles, 6.0 fWAR

That the Red Sox are in the middle here really speaks more to the bottom two teams than anything else. Still, it’s very clear that the Red Sox are significantly outclassed by the two teams in front of them. I’m a little more worried about the Rays than these projections, though. Clearly they’re better than Boston and I wouldn’t argue otherwise, but I think the Yankees even with Luis Severino are further ahead. I’m concerned, mostly durability-wise, with guys like Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow as well as with Charlie Morton’s age. The talent is undeniable, but I’m a little less sold on that trio than Gerrit Cole, James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka. It’s mostly becuase of Cole, I suppose. Speaking of which, he and Jacob deGrom both project to be worth more by themselves than the Orioles starters all together.

Parting Thoughts

If there is baseball in 2020, the Red Sox are not going to be expecting too much from their rotation, one would think. It is a weak group with major questions and the short-term depth is concerning to say the least. That being said, the talent coming up through the system actually looks encouraging and at a couple of levels. Song’s military status is still technically up in the air, too. If he can pitch whenever baseball comes back (and I’m not counting on it, by the way) that would be a huge boost and the Red Sox might be closer to a wave of pitching that has been eluding them for so long.