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Envisioning the next competitive Red Sox team: The pitching staff

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The pitching staff has been the most obvious weak point of the 2020 Red Sox and should be a major area of focus as the organization attempts to improve. What might the staff look like on the other side of that rebuild?

Boston Red Sox v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

During a horrid year overall, the 2020 Boston Red Sox have provided at least some positive results on offense. They rank fifth in baseball in team batting average and are at least an above average team at the plate. Their wRC+ is 103, which means they’ve been three percent better than league average, a mark that ranks 12th in baseball. Where the team has really fallen short is on the mound. Whether you are evaluating the starters or the relievers, the Red Sox are near the bottom of baseball in a litany of statistical categories, showing just how feeble the staff is at the moment.

These types of pitching struggles are to be expected for a team in the Red Sox’s current predicament. With only eight games to play in this shortened season, the Red Sox still have fewer than 20 wins and are nowhere near the postseason race. To put it bluntly, the Red Sox are bad. We know that will change eventually but definitely not until the pitching gets better. Last week I took a shot at projecting what the starting lineup might look like for the next competitive Red Sox team, and now its time to address where a rebuild is most needed: The pitching staff.

As I outlined in part one of this two-part series, based on the current roster and payroll as well as the prospect pipeline, fielding a competitive team may be farther out than Red Sox fans would like. I’d expect 2022 at best and 2023 as a more realistic option. Call me a pessimist, but that’s what we went with last week, so we’ll stick with it for this part of the exercise. So how might things look on the mound in 2023 when the Red Sox are back to contending for playoff glory?

Let’s start with the starting rotation. The Red Sox have handed out a couple large contracts to starters in the last few years, with Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi both locked up on pricey multi-year deals.

Sale’s contract runs through 2025, so unless he retires between now and 2023, he will likely be a piece of the rotation. However, that’s not a bad thing. The 31-year-old left-hander may have been dealing with some health issues over the last year following a disappointing 2019, but if he can return to anywhere close to where he was in 2017 and 2018, the Red Sox will have a solid starter to build around for the next few years. It’s possible Sale won’t be the ace of the 2023 staff, but he could still definitely be a positive contributor.

As for Eovaldi, his path beyond his current deal probably leads somewhere other than Boston. The right-hander is set to make $17 million a year in 2021 and 2022, but he’ll be an unrestricted free agent after that. Eovaldi has dealt with injuries and inconsistencies the last two seasons. I think its safe to assume he won’t be getting a second deal once 2023 rolls around.

As long as we’re talking about incumbent staff members, Martín Pérez is on a one-year deal with a club option for 2021, but although he has been pretty good this year and could be brought back to help beyond his current contract, I wouldn’t expect him to be a long-term answer for the franchise. On the other hand, Eduardo Rodriguez has not made a start for the Red Sox this season, but he becomes an unrestricted free agent after next year. That means 2021 is going to be a major proving ground for Rodriguez, although the effects of his recovery from COVID-19 remain unclear. However, Rodriguez was so good in 2019 and his still just 27 years old, so I expect him to remain a part of the rotation for the next few years. Whether he’s at the top or near the bottom is up for debate.

So that gives us Sale and Rodriguez as the first two members of the 2023 staff. What about the other three spots?

Here’s where the Red Sox go bold and start going with three openers...

We already got a glimpse of the potential future of the rotation this past week. Tanner Houck was dominant on Tuesday night, slinging five shutout innings and striking out seven in his first career start. It was just one start, but it was certainly a promising one. Houck is the number ten prospect in the Red Sox’s system, according to Sox Prospects, and should get another chance to start before the year is out. If he keeps progressing, he might be a full-time starter next year and if things break even further his way, he could be a a top of the rotation starter by 2023.

MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at Boston Red Sox Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

As long as we’re riding on optimism, the Red Sox have a number of pitching prospects who could at least be effective starters. Bryan Mata stands out as the best hope. He is the number prospect in the system, according to Sox Prospects, and FanGraphs projects him to make his MLB debut next season. I like Mata’s potential and would bet on him over most other prospects, but Jay Groome and Noah Song could also be in the mix and that’s without including less heralded prospects.

Of course if the answer was to simply promote from within, the Red Sox might not be in as much trouble as they are right now. At some point the Red Sox are going to make some big splashes for pitching. I think the 2022 free agency class presents a great opportunity to do just that, although they’ll likely be moves made before then as well. I selected 2022 because that year there is a budding ace who might serve as a particularly attractive option. That budding ace is José Berríos.

Berríos is a two-time All-Star and if you count 2020, he has posted an ERA- below 100 in each of the last four seasons, including a sparkling mark of 79 in 2019. It’s unlikely the Twins will willingly part with him, but if he continues on this trajectory, the 26-year-old could be looking to cash in on a big payday after the 2022 season. If the Red Sox remain intent on pooling resources to spend big, Berríos could be that guy and serve as the follow-up to the acquisition of Kris Bryant I projected for the lineup last week. Similarly to that projection, Berríos may not be the exact pitcher the Red Sox add, but it would be foolish to think the next good Red Sox team doesn’t include a talent infusion from outside the organization.

So that would give the Red Sox a rotation of Sale, Berrios, Rodriguez, Houck and Mata. That could be a very good group. Now let’s go to the bullpen.

Trying to guess the makeup of the bullpen multiple years in the future is about as difficult a task as there is in baseball prognostication. If we go two years in the past, we’ll find that the 2017 Red Sox were led in relief innings by Matt Barnes, Craig Kimbrel, Heath Hembree, Joe Kelly and Fernando Abad. Only one of those five is still on the roster and since this year’s bullpen isn’t exactly a dynamite group, we can probably expect even more roster turnover going forward.

However, I promised to take a crack at this, so here it goes. From inside the organization, the Red Sox seem to like Darwinzon Hernandez for the bullpen even if he could be a starter as well. I also think Josh Taylor has a future here while newly acquired Connor Seabold might make his way up the ladder as well. After those three, I’d expect the bullpen to be made up of guys on the fringes of the rotation and free agents. Some interesting names that will enter unrestricted free agency in the next few years include Keone Kela (after 2020), Raisel Iglesias (free agent after 2021), Corey Knebel (free agent after 2021), Cam Bedrosian (free agent after 2021), Edwin Diaz (free agent after 2022) and Matt Wisler (free agent after 2022), but they are far from the only ones. If we assume the Red Sox will add some pitchers like that and add in a holdover or two like Barnes, that probably creates a facsimile of what we could see in 2023.

All of this is based on guess work and falls far outside the scientific method, but the Red Sox will be good again, and this might hint at how they’ll get there.