The Red Sox, as we sit here today on Wednesday, are having a good season. Full stop. End of discussion. These things are inevitably discussed in relation to preseason expectations, and for the Red Sox the preseason expectation was to hang around .500 in the best-case scenario and maybe make some noise in the wildcard race for a bit. But so far, thanks to a great core in their lineup plus surprises on the pitching staff, they are just a half-game out of first place in a loaded AL East, and they’ve spent the bulk of the season so far in the pole position. Things are by and large good, even with Tuesday’s game having just happened, and by and large they’ve earned it.
At the same time, they’ve also gotten to where they sit now in part due to some extremely good fortune on the injury front. They’ve really stayed remarkably healthy in this season, with just a few short trips to the injury list coming all season. This is especially striking this year, as injuries around the league are up in a big way coming off the shortened 2020 campaign. For more illustration on this, you can compare the Red Sox to other clubs using Baseball Prospectus’s new injury ledger. And even if you want to drill down even more to that, the pitching has been remarkably healthy.
If we were to transport ourselves back to February (not that most anyone would have even a little interest in doing that), we would remember that coming into camp the biggest concern with this roster was the durability of the rotation. They had five guys coming into the season who had some combination of injury concern, workload concern, and performance concern. And despite all of that, the starting five has remained perfectly healthy to this point. (Don’t worry, I’m knocking on all the wood I can find.) It’s been a major part of their success so far.
And yet, hidden beneath that astounding amount of health from such a shaky group, the Red Sox have suffered some injuries on the pitching staff. The only thing is these injuries have come to their depth, not to their main players. If you can choose, you would surely choose to keep the starters healthy over the depth, but the Red Sox pitching depth is pretty depleted at the moment. And again, if we’re still back in February, the biggest positive differentiator you could point to on this roster compared to last year’s is that pitching depth. They had some guys to step in if/when those major-league injuries occurred who could at least hold their own. Those are the guys who are largely injured now.
There were four prospects who were in a position to help at the major-league level this year who are all hurt to some degree right now. Those guys are Bryan Mata, Tanner Houck, Connor Seabold, and Eduard Bazardo. Now, Mata is the only player who will not pitch all season (and he also likely wasn’t going to serve as depth until the second half at the earliest), but the point is at this moment in time they are shallow on the pitching staff. And to exacerbate those issues, they also have a complicated 40-man puzzle to work out if they do end up needing to dive into that depth at any point before those other three (Houck, Seabold, and Bazardo) get healthy. So it’s shallow depth, and it’s complicated to reach.
Let’s start with that first part though and just focus on the talent. Houck and Seabold were clearly the top two starting pitching depth options in the minors. Now, if one of the starting five gets hurt, Matt Andriese likely goes to the rotation, which is not only a downgrade there but also results in a downgrade elsewhere. Beyond Andriese, assuming they don’t want to stretch Garrett Whitlock out for that role this year (and I don’t think they do), you’re looking at Daniel Gossett or Ryan Weber or Stephen Gonsalves or Kyle Hart. That’s a 2020 group, to be frank about it. And to make matters worse, the Red Sox are about to hit a brutal part of their schedule with 10 straight games against either the Astros or Yankees starting at the end of this month. They can’t afford to have to rely on one of these options through that stretch.
Things don’t get much better in the bullpen, either. If a reliever goes down, or if Andriese has to transition to the rotation, you’re looking at depth options like Colten Brewer, Brandon Brennan, Brandon Workman, Kevin McCarthy, Austin Brice, John Schreiber, Marcus Walden, etc etc. Again, not a group of names in whom you have a ton of confidence.
And it’s not just as simple as choosing the best option out of those names, either, because again there are 40-man issues. One of the aspects of the organization right now that I think at least I underrated before the season is that they have a whole lot of 40-man space taken up by guys who are not in the plans for this season at all, or at least not until the latter portion of the season. That would be guys like Mata, who will obviously not pitch at all this season at any level, but also Jay Groome, Hudson Potts, Jeisson Rosario, Connor Wong, Ronaldo Hernández, and even guys like Marcus Wilson and Jonathan Araúz who could come up if needed (Araúz already has) but the team would prefer they stayed down getting consistent at bats.
So there are a lot of “wasted” 40-man spots right now, and not a whole lot of those depth options mentioned above are on the 40-man. Right now, the only healthy pitchers on the 40-man roster who are not in the majors are Groome, Brewer and Brennan. Groome is obviously not coming up, while both Brewer and Brennan are relievers who present little in the way of upside. So if a starter goes down, theoretically they could call up Brewer or Brennan with Andriese going to the rotation, but that may not be the best move in terms of talent. They may want to give, say, Workman a shot.
Then they would need to solve the 40-man puzzle. One temporary solution could be to call up Potts and put him on the 60-day injured list as he has not played all season. But they would only do that because he’s likely to be back in a month or so, so he’d only accrue that much service time. They won’t do that with Mata, who would accrue service time until he was healthy again.
At the end of the day, these are the kinds of things that have a tendency to work themselves out, and I’m sure the Red Sox front office has some plans in place in case an issue does come to pass and they have to make moves. But really, the best plan is to cross your fingers and hope everyone continues to stay healthy. At least until they get some depth with upside back in the form of health for Houck, Seabold, and Bazardo. Because until then, they don’t have much upside waiting in the wings and they don’t have a lot of easy ways to get to the depth if they need it.