The Boston Red Sox are in an interesting spot with their rotation, which was the main area of focus for the front office prior to the lockout, likely in large part because it was the main area of focus for many front offices around the league. After adding Michael Wacha, Rich Hill, and James Paxton, it seems more likely than not that they are done in terms of major-league additions to the rotation, at least barring a surprising trade of some sort. Where they stand now, after going with a quantity-based approach we talked about earlier in the winter, is with a potentially dynamic one-two punch at the top with Nathan Eovaldi and Chris Sale, albeit with risk associated with each pitcher.
It is worth looking at some point at that one-two punch and whether there is enough there given the risk, and fortunately we’ll have plenty of dead time this winter to talk about that. For today, though, I want to focus some more on the other starters, and specifically the large number of potentially viable options outside the top five. Perhaps the single component of roster-building this organization has failed at the most over the last decade or two has been an inability to develop pitching and keep a stream of viable depth options available in the high minors. That pipeline has been developing, though, for the last couple of seasons, and they’re finally in a relatively good position (relatively because, as we know, you can never have enough depth) with their starting pitching waiting in the wings.
Beyond Eovaldi and Sale, right now the most likely pitchers to finish out the rotation, not necessarily in this order, would be Nick Pivetta, Rich Hill, and Michael Wacha, all veterans with varying amounts of certainty and upside. You can do worse than that group, but it’s also a bit nondescript taken together. But looking beyond those three, there are so many exciting options who could contribute at some point this season. Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock figure to be the first line of defense, with each starting the season in the bullpen if everyone is healthy. In Triple-A, Connor Seabold and Kutter Crawford should more or less be ready to step in right away, with Josh Winckowski and Brayan Bello not being too far behind. Players like Bryan Mata, Jay Groome, and maybe even Brandon Walter could be late-season options as well, to say nothing of Paxton, who should be in the rotation at some point in the second half.
Granted, nothing works out according to plan at any spot on the diamond, much less in the rotation, so we’re not going to sit here and claim that every pitcher above will be viewed in the same light or better at this point next year as they are today, but given the number of options chances are good at least a handful will be able to serve as major-league depth, if not filling a larger role. And with all of that depth on hand, there are a lot of advantages the team can tap into.
The first and most obvious is with respect to rest, which seems particularly important with this group. The Red Sox have a lot of pitchers who could probably use an extra day of rest through the season, or perhaps even just a skipped turn in the rotation. Sale is coming off Tommy John. Eovaldi has an extensive injury history. Hill is 42. All of the young pitchers will have their workload monitored. Boston was able to stay remarkably healthy last season in the rotation, but that also means a lot of their pitchers threw a lot of innings. It’s a nice luxury to at least be able to consider skipping a starter here and there while being confident in whoever would step into that role. And along similar lines, if a pitcher is on the borderline of whether or not they need to hit the injured list, they can more comfortably err on the side of caution.
And then there’s the actual performance component of this whole deal. Last season, both Martín Pérez and Garrett Richards had their moments in the first third of the season, but as we were approaching the halfway point it was clear their time in the rotation had run out. However, in part due to injuries to depth options like Houck and Seabold, they didn’t have a good enough replacement option to actually make the move. Injuries will happen again, but having more potential options available should allow them to utilize a shorter leash with some of their back-end arms. If, say, Wacha isn’t getting it done in mid-June, they should feel much more comfortable pulling that plug than perhaps they were in years past.
It’s not just the on-field staff that has more options with all of this depth, either. Chaim Bloom and the rest of the front office can feel comfortable trading some upper level pitching depth to address other needs. That wasn’t necessarily the case in the past, when these kinds of options were fewer and farther between on the roster and trading one would be robbing Peter to pay Paul. This is certainly not to say they should be aggressively shopping any of these pitchers, but as a hypothetical, if they can get a good, controlled corner outfielder to replace Hunter Renfroe with Seabold as a key piece going the other way, they can feel comfortable with that deal knowing Houck, Whitlock, and Crawford are still there as depth options with upside who are ready to contribute right away.
They could also just feel more comfortable not viewing one of these specific pitchers as a starter as all. I don’t think I’d necessarily be advocating for this path to take, but it’s at least worth consideration. It feels to me that the amount of work that needs to be done in the late innings for this team is being underrated, but that feeling would subside by quite a bit if one of Houck or Whitlock went into the season just focusing on one- or two-inning outings in high-leverage spots. Looking at things longer-term makes me pause on that consideration a bit, but the point is they can at least consider that option knowing there are a relative ton of options beyond that specific pitcher.
This is a different kind of feeling than we’re used to as Red Sox fans, who have historically had plenty of young position players coming through the system about whom we get excited, but not so much in the pitching department. And to be fair, none of these pitchers appear all that likely to be top-of-the-rotation studs (though the more options that are presented, the more likely it is one reaches that 90th percentile outcome). But a whole lot of them look like they can be viable back-end arms, and that they can be that as soon as this season. The questions with that top-two aren’t addressed here, but this depth does a lot for the whole group and gives the organization more choices they can feel comfortable making.