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Previewing the position groups: Starting pitchers

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This year’s staff looks very different than it did a year ago and most spots in the rotation could be shuffled around.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Pittsburgh Pirates Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Since the end of the 2019 season, the Red Sox have watched (or participated in) the deterioration of their starting rotation. They let Rick Porcello walk in free agency and traded David Price. Then Chris Sale had surgery and Eduardo Rodriguez battled COVID-19. With Rodriguez’s status still up in the air, that leaves the starting rotation the Red Sox will employ on Opening Day of the shortened 2020 season looking quite a bit different than it did a year ago.

Today we’re going to take a look at that rotation and the potential depth pieces for the staff. Since there are really only two guys seemingly locked into the rotation (Nathan Eovaldi and Martin Perez) and since there could be a number of experimental pitching strategies utilized (hello, opener), this will likely be a very fluid situation, but based on FanGraph’s projections for who will make the most starts, here’s how things shake out.

The Starting Five

Nathan Eovaldi

Eovaldi may be the key to this entire season. He was going to play an important role before the COVID-19 pandemic and now he finds himself the nominal “ace” of the staff. He certainly hasn’t earned legitimate ace status. Despite postseason heroics in 2018, Eovaldi just couldn’t find a rhythm during his first full season with the Red Sox in 2019. Injuries and ineffectiveness limited him to only 67 23 innings, including 12 starts, and an ERA- of 124. He still flashed strikeout stuff (career-high 23.2 percent strikeout rate), but his control faltered heavily and his walk rate shot up to 11.6 percent, his worst mark since his first season in 2011. The Red Sox are very much chasing that 2018 season with Eovaldi, and if he can return to that level of play (89 ERA- with the Rays and Red Sox), then the staff has at least one reliable starter.

Martín Pérez

Scratch that. Perez is generally reliable, at least in terms of his ability to go out and eat up innings every five days. A free agent addition this offseason, the left-hander has pitched at least 165 innings in three of the last four seasons. Unfortunately, all those innings haven’t yielded a ton of effective production. Perez has only posted one sub-4.00 ERA in his career (in 2013 with the Rangers) and his ERA- has been above 100 in each of the last three years. Perez did show a bit more strikeout stuff for the Twins last season, with a career-high 18.3 percent K rate. He also added more velocity to his fastball. Maybe a change of scenery will help Perez build on those improvements, and there are reasons to be optimistic, but his ceiling still seems relatively low.

Toronto Blue Jays Vs. Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Ryan Weber

Weber was okay as a spot starter and a depth piece for the bullpen in 2019 after coming over from Tampa Bay. However, he did most of his 2019 work in the minors, going 1-5 with a 4.50 ERA across 16 starts in Triple-A. Now the 29-year-old right-hander finds himself projected to pitch the third most innings of anyone on the Red Sox’s staff. Weber made three starts at the MLB level for Boston last year and was ineffective. He produced a 7.94 ERA as a starter and allowed opponents to hit .327. Blame the small sample all you want, but its not like he’s going to get an 162-game season’s worth of starts in 2020 either.

Brian Johnson

This will be the fifth year Johnson makes an appearance at the MLB level and to this point he’s done very little to earn anything more than a limited role. Circumstances may force him into a more prominent spot this year, although he did appear in 38 games (13 starts) for the 2018 Red Sox. Johnson followed that up with 40 13 scattered innings in 2019, pitching to a 125 ERA- in that time. It was quite the regression considering he had had a sub-100 mark in 2018. Like Weber, Johnson’s role as a spot starter and bullpen arm make sense. Seeing him in the rotation, even the fourth spot, speaks to the lack of depth on the Red Sox’s staff.

Matt Hall

Hall is the nominal fifth starter, with FanGraphs projecting him to make five starts and pitch 30 innings for the Red Sox this year as of writing. That’s quite an optimistic outlook because Hall has never made a start at the MLB level. He pitched in 21 combined relief appearances over the past two seasons with the Tigers, making his debut in 2018. In that time he has a 9.48 ERA. Something tells me he won’t be the full-time fifth starter.

The Depth Options

Hall could easily fall into this category as well and if we’re being realistic, other than Eovaldi and Perez’s spots in the rotation, we’ll be looking at a revolving door for the starting staff. The 60-player pool for the Red Sox features a number of guys with at least some starting experience who could get an opportunity or two. Here are some of those guys.

Kyle Hart

Hart seems like a really good bet to get some starting work for the Red Sox. He went 9-7 with a 3.86 ERA (4.32 FIP) in 100 13 innings, including 15 starts, in 2019 in Triple-A. He appears ready to at least contribute and will likely go between the bullpen and starting rotation.

Jay Groome

Groome was a first round pick in 2016, but he just hasn’t stayed healthy long enough to really show off his talent. He didn’t pitch at all in 2018 and pitched four innings total a year ago. He’s still a top prospect in the system, but rushing him into the majors during this very weird season would be a bad idea. Still, with who they have available, the Red Sox may have no choice.

Mike Shawaryn

Shawaryn ascended to the majors for the first time last season, performing in some occasional relief roles over the course of the season. The 25-year-old right-hander has been developed more as a starter, with 71 of his career 84 appearances at the minor league level coming in such a role. He’s pitched to a 3.79 ERA across all those games, but let up a 9.74 ERA in his brief stint with the Red Sox a year ago. Still, he has starting experience and that might be all it takes to get someone on the mound for this year’s staff.

Zack Godley

The recently-signed right-hander was brought to Boston for a reason and that reason (presumably) is to start games for the Red Sox. The 30-year-old was a perfectly solid starter for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2017 (3.41 FIP, 155 innings) and 2018 (3.82 FIP, 178 13 innings), but his strikeout rate plummeted in 2019 and he struggled to maintain a role either as a starter or a reliever for the Diamondbacks and the Toronto Blue Jays, although he showed signs of a bounce back with Toronto (3.94 ERA in 16 innings).

Bryan Mata

Mata is a 21-year-old right-hander and the No. 3 prospect in the Red Sox system, according to FanGraphs. He has started every game in his professional baseball career. Unfortunately, after dominating the lower levels, he took a step back last year in Double A, posting a 5.03 ERA in 11 starts (53 23 innings).

Tanner Houck

A 24-year-old right-hander, Houck was selected in the first round in 2017 and moved pretty quickly through the Red Sox system, winding up in Triple A last season. He got more work as a reliever at that level, and logged a 3.24 ERA vs. a 5.30 FIP, but he has starting experience and a pretty decent slider as well.

Phillips Valdez

Valdez probably projects more as a reliever, but he has some starting experience at the minor league level and has flashed some strong production over the course of 10 years of professional baseball. The 28-year-old right-hander has a 3.76 career ERA across 694 minor league innings (including 89 starts) and finally got his break last year, debuting with the Texas Rangers and posting a 3.94 ERA across 16 innings of relief.

Chris Mazza

Mazza picked up a fair share of starting experience in the minors between 2016-2019 with the Miami Marlins and the New York Mets. However, he pitched in nine games for the Mets in 2019 and none of those were starts. He also finished with a 3.52 FIP against a a 5.51 ERA in that tiny sample.

Outside of this collection of pitchers, the Red Sox could also experiment with guys more traditionally suited for the bullpen, including Darwinzon Hernandez once he’s back to full health, but the pitchers above seem like the best candidates to get starting work. We’ll get into the rest of the staff in tomorrow’s look at the bullpen.