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Forget openers. The Red Sox should piggyback starters

If you’re going to build this bad of a rotation, you have to get weird.

Boston Red Sox Summer Workouts Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Back in the Normal Times, before COVID-19 started ramping up on America’s shores and baseball — and really the sports world at large — shut down, the big talk around the Red Sox was all about the rotation. That’s obviously for good reason, too, and when some real baseball talk squeezes its way in between all of the legitimate COVID concerns that remain with his potential restart to the season, the rotation remains the focus. Why wouldn’t it? It’s the clear weakness on the team and the reason many (myself included) see the Red Sox as being on the outside looking in for the playoff picture. If they are going to overcome these potential major issues with its starting pitching, they are going to have to be creative, and that becomes even more true in a season like this with so few games and such a small amount of time to ramp things up before Opening Day.

Going back to March, creativity was the talk of the town then, too. With Chaim Bloom now in tow as the leader of the Red Sox front office, most of the discussion around creativity and the rotation centered on the idea of an opener, a reliever who comes in to start a game to get three to six outs before a long man comes in for a handful of innings. Bloom was one of the key members of the Rays when they implemented this strategy with solid success, and there was an expectation it would come to Boston. While there are legitimate gripes with openers with respect to player salaries and hurting players’ chances in arbitration, in terms of on-the-field value I have no issue with the strategy. It is a legitimate plan to give certain roster constructions an edge, and that generally is with respect to teams with poor rotations.

So, I do like the opener and I think with the Red Sox having clear rotation issues it’s a viable strategy for them to try and get through the season with their lack of talent. However, I don’t think it’s the best option. Instead, looking at the way their roster shakes out, I think if they want to get creative they should look past the opener and instead think about piggybacking multiple starters for a few spots in their rotation.

Piggybacking is something that teams have done for a long time down on the minors in order to get more work for more prospects, but you don’t really see it at the major-league level. Given the weirdness of this season and the lack of talent on this Red Sox roster, this would be the perfect storm to bring it to the highest level. Let’s assume perfect health through camp for this Red Sox team — probably not a fair assumption, but we can’t predict injuries. The way I look at things, that leaves the Red Sox with two semi-trustworthy arms in Eduardo Rodriguez and Nathan Eovaldi. Some might put Martín Pérez in there, too. I would disagree, but even in that scenario you’re left with two wide open slots, and if you’re like me you have three. However, you also have a whole lot of mediocre (for lack of a better word) pitchers fighting to fill those spots. Those players are:

  • Ryan Weber
  • Brian Johnson
  • Collin McHugh
  • Chris Mazza
  • Matt Hall
  • Mike Shawaryn
  • Kyle Hart

This also doesn’t include prospects like Tanner Houck, Bryan Mata and Daniel McGrath who could be added to the player pool before the season starts or potential free agent signings a la Andrew Cashner and/or Clay Buchholz. The point is, there are a lot of options, none of whom inspire a ton of confidence.

Whether they like it or not, they need to pick a couple of these guys to fill the final two rotation spots. The point of the opener was to limit exposure for pitchers and have them face the best part of the lineups only twice instead of three times. You don’t necessarily avoid the heart of the order the first time through with piggybacking, but the idea of limiting exposure remains the same. Instead of picking two pitchers from this group, you pick four (or five if you want to piggyback with Pérez too). Then you let each pitcher go three or four innings, giving them a turn or two through the lineup each rather than three or four for one.

This allows you to get into the sixth or seventh inning just like you would hope from a starter while also saving relievers like Darwinzon Hernandez, Josh Taylor or anyone else you were thinking about as an opener and having them available for the crucial late innings. As an added bonus, you’re also limiting workloads for pitchers coming off the shortened camp and could potentially use some as long men on their throw days if needed. Plus, there’s the possibility of mixing up handedness and forcing a team like, say, the Rays who platoon so much to adjust on the fly in the middle of a game.

I mentioned that this is the perfect year to try and do this, but it does get harder as the year goes on. At the start of the year the Red Sox will be able to carry 30 players on their roster, and obviously this strategy is more viable the more pitchers you have at your disposal. As we get later into the year and rosters go down to 26 players, it’ll be harder to pull this off while still having a full bullpen and bench. However, even that works out here as you can think of the first month as a chance for these pitchers to separate themselves from the competition. By September, the hope would be that two or three of them step up and earn themselves more traditional starter roles for the stretch run.

The Red Sox simply don’t have the rotation of a team that hopes to contend. Even if Nathan Eovaldi continues to shine like he did in March and like he has very early on in this summer camp, there are major holes on this portion of the roster. If Boston is going to overcome it, they are going to have to be creative. That means making unconventional decisions in an unconventional season. Using an opener has been mentioned and makes some sense, but looking at how their roster is constructed I think the best option is to take it a step further and piggyback two starters for some of these questionable rotation spots.