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Alex Cora has his work cut out with this rotation

There’s upside, but it needs to be managed carefully.

Alex Cora Boston Red Sox Manager Press Conference Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

After joining the rest of baseball in a miserably slow offseason, the Red Sox have started to pick up the action over the last couple of weeks, and this past weekend in particular. After signing Martín Pérez, they followed that up by signing Enrique Hernández on Friday and then subsequently bringing in Garrett Richards the very next day. It should be mentioned that none of these moves have been made official to this point, and two more spots on the 40-man need to be cleared. But there is no reason to believe the contracts are not actually in place.

Of the two signings this past weekend, it’s hard to argue against Richards being the more interesting one, if for no other reason than the pitching staff being the much bigger area of need on this roster. With Richards in place, the Red Sox have an actual rotation in place, which if we’re being honest is probably the first time we can really say that since 2019. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see some sort of veteran come in on a minor-league deal with an opt out at the end of camp, because for all the reasons I’m about to get into Boston should be among the most attractive destinations for that kind of pitcher. But, for the most part, the rotation is set.

As of right now, if everyone stays healthy through camp Boston should be starting the season with the following rotation: Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi, Garrett Richards, Martín Pérez, and Nick Pivetta. You can quibble with the order if you want. They also have usable depth as well, with Tanner Houck likely starting the year in Triple-A barring injury along with Matt Andriese and Garrett Whitlock likely throwing out of the bullpen, and guys like Chris Mazza, Ryan Weber, Joel Payamps and Daniel Gossett as more emergency-type depth, to say nothing of prospects Connor Seabold and Bryan Mata, who should be ready to contribute at some point in 2021 even if they’re not quite ready to start the season. It’s not an elite group by any means, but there is a path to this being a good enough group to make some noise.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Of course, there is also quite a bit of downside and risk all throughout this group, taking different forms. Nothing but positive news has come from Rodriguez’s comeback after missing 2020 with COVID and his subsequent development of myocarditis, but it’s still an extremely serious situation and the Red Sox should and presumably will be careful with him. Eovaldi always struggles to stay healthy. Richards has had health problems of his own, and while he’s been relatively healthy since the latter part of 2019 he still hasn’t tossed more than 76 13 innings since 2015, so workload will be a concern. Pérez has performance questions, as does Pivetta. It’s a group with potential, but it’s a very intricate puzzle to put together to not only get the best out of everyone, but to get the best out of everyone over a six-month season. Alex Cora is going to have to be creative to get that done.

Now, it of course has to be mentioned that this is not all on Cora. In a modern organization, the manager just doesn’t have the kind of unilateral say to determine how the pitching staff will be used. Chaim Bloom and others from the front office will be part of those discussions as well, and generally speaking that’s how it should be. There are exceptions to this rule, but for the most part more perspectives and opinions are better than fewer. That said, at the end of the day on a game-to-game basis, it’s Cora making the decisions, just as it was ultimately Kevin Cash’s decision to pull Blake Snell even if it was part of a greater organizational blueprint.

And so Cora is going to have his work cut out for him with this rotation, though he’s shown the chops in this job to get the benefit of the doubt heading into it. I would expect to see some weirdness with the starters, particularly over the first month or so of the season. A few weeks ago I mentioned the possibility of a six-man rotation for portions of the season, and that looks even more likely now that we see who they brought in via free agency. With Richards in particular, they need to find a way to limit his innings a bit and this is one of those ways. There’s a balance to be struck with the idea of a six-man rotation, though, as an extra starter means one fewer reliever, and with all of the questions for Boston’s starters they could probably use that extra reliever.

Which is why I think it would be smart to consider using a piggyback situation, particularly for that sixth rotation spot if/when they use it. As I mentioned above, Andriese and Whitlock are both likely to start the season in the bullpen if everyone is healthy. They are also both starter-types, though, and can make spot starts if necessary. So, it could make some sense to plan for each to throw something like three innings on a sixth starter day, therefore limiting the amount of off time they theoretically need between those outings and thus allowing them to contribute in a more traditional relief role once or twice in between. You could also use Colten Brewer for that kind of role, though personally I’d prefer to keep him to one- or two-inning outings if possible.

And then there’s the possibility of just straight-up bullpen games, which if we’re being honest I think we’re all sick of after the last couple of seasons. We’ve seen enough bullpen games to last a lifetime, but again if the Red Sox are going to keep the workload down for their starters they need to find ways to skip starts when possible. Say they have an extra inning game before a day when Andriese and/of Whitlock were supposed to start and/or piggyback, or there was just a lot of bullpen usage in general before that and those guys were used. They couldn’t be counted on for the traditional starter workload, and at that point you go with a bullpen game to try and keep the starters fresh.

At the end of the day, even after this relative flurry of activity the Red Sox still need a whole lot to go right for them to be a true playoff contender. Some of that comes down to bounce backs in the lineup, but a lot of it rests of getting as much as possible out of this rotation. There is upside for this group to be a useful one that can push Boston forward, but the downside is readily apparent as well. Getting the most out of this volatile group is going to take some care and creativity from Cora, including but not limited to some of the suggestions above.