ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — Can a six-man rotation work?
Well, Franklin Morales kicked off the second half Friday night pitching five shutout innings in Boston’ s 3-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field.
So far, so good.
Nobody has a good read on how long the Red Sox’ rotation will involve six starters, or even how workable it will be. In fact, the Sox are trying to determine how every pitcher will be used and how many days off will help (or hurt) each of them.
This is becoming an important issue because starting pitching was a point of contention over the first half of the season. The bottom line is that Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz must pitch like the Big Three in order for the Sox to reverse their fortunes. That would allow Morales, Felix Doubront, and Aaron Cook to have less pressure put on their starts.
Sox general manager Ben Cherington is still on the lookout for a good starter and he doesn’t seem to be afraid to pull the trigger if he finds one that could make a difference.
So the Big Three have a couple of weeks to straighten up or Cherington will probably throw himself into the running for pitchers such as Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Jason Vargas, Zack Greinke, and Cole Hamels.
The Sox have made the decision that, because of the second wild card, they will be buyers — unless the next couple of weeks dictates otherwise. They have a brutal schedule coming up, but the approach is not to look at the schedule en masse, but to take each game as it comes.
They did just that on Friday when Morales bested Jeremy Hellickson, although Morales lasted only five innings because his pitch count was 95.
Managing the staff to get the most out of every starter seems to be the goal from here on out. Pitching coach Bob McClure is going to be more involved in designing a plan for each of the six starters. He’s already looking at Lester needing to stay on a five-day cycle, because that’s what Lester prefers. He feels Morales, a converted reliever, and Doubront, who has already surpassed his high innings total, could benefit from extra rest.
McClure said he’s trying to determine where Beckett falls, based on his health and his ability to bounce back. The Sox ace has had shoulder issues and extra rest may benefit him, but Beckett is also a creature of habit and has been used in a five-man rotation throughout his career.
Cook, who has past shoulder issues, could also benefit from a six-man rotation.
How all of it works will be an interesting exercise. The fact is, the Red Sox can’t mess it up.
Bobby Valentine, who continues to get kicked around in the media by an anonymous player or two, has put together a good bullpen that’s been able to bail out starters.
That happened Friday night as Morales got his pitch count up quickly thanks to a 33-pitch fourth inning in which he walked the bases loaded.
Morales has to have very good fastball command to be on, and he had that for most of his outing. He hit 94 miles per hour consistently, but he also got up to 96 and 97. Morales has average to below-average offspeed stuff, but his curveball was decent Friday and he was effective with it.
“I had good fastball command tonight,” he said. “I’m just trying to give our team the best I can for as long as I can. I felt great. I wished I could have gone longer, but that’s what I want to do.”
Just how good Morales could be is an unknown, but with his electric fastball, he has a chance to be a top lefty.
Morales is 26 years old and was a starter with the Rockies. A pair of longer relief outings convinced Valentine that he would be effective starting for the Sox.
He’s been able to hold his velocity from the first pitch to the last pitch, which is impressive considering his lack of starting experience since 2008. It’s what Daniel Bard was unable to do in his conversion from reliever.
McClure feels confident he can manage Doubront’s innings without having to shut down the talented lefty. With a six-man rotation and the management’s ability to pick spots to rest him, Doubront could continue to be an effective starter.
Teams have inquired about the availability of some of Boston’s starters, Lester and Cook, in particular, but right now Cherington doesn’t want to hurt his inventory.
The Sox always have the option of moving Morales back to the bullpen, if they feel they need to stick to a five-man rotation or if another pitcher joins the rotation.
The bullpen is certainly affected by all of this. They have done yeoman’s work to this point, pitching four innings of four-hit, one-run ball Friday.
The way it would work best is if the team could use the bullpen less when Lester, Beckett, and Buchholz go, and then have it all in for when Morales, Doubront, and Cook start.
But the way you draw it up isn’t always the way it works.
To this point, Beckett, Lester, and Buchholz have not been bullpen-savers and until that happens, the Sox are going to be trying to tweak it.
If not, Cherington will likely act and bring in a dependable starter to add stability.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.