Ryan Weber achieved an undesirable sort of distinction on Friday night against the Yankees. With his second straight outing of 3⅓ innings, two homers allowed, and nary a strikeout, he became the first Red Sox pitcher since 2012 to make two straight starts of at least three innings without punching out a batter.
Weber — now 29 and in his 12th professional season, with a resume that featured just over 100 big league innings — wasn’t supposed to be his team’s No. 3 starter at the start of the season. His track record as someone with an ability to throw strikes but without swing-and-miss stuff represents a decent fill-in option rather than a rotation staple.
But the trade of David Price, surgery for Chris Sale, and a COVID-19 infection for Eduardo Rodriguez — followed by a related heart issue — pushed Weber into that No. 3 rotation spot. His outings against the Orioles and Yankees — with nine earned runs, seven walks, no strikeouts, and four homers allowed in 6⅔ innings — have done nothing to suggest he stands on the cusp of a late-career breakthrough.
Instead, his struggles raise an obvious question: Don’t the Red Sox have any better options? Is there a Plan B?
Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke confronted that question after his team’s 5-1 loss to the Yankees in the Bronx on Friday night. The answer was telling.
“Who do we have that we can say that we’re going to put in that’s going to be better than Ryan?” he responded.
It’s a fair response, with more questions than answers about the rotation provided by the remainder of the weekend schedule in New York.
On Saturday, the team will feature righthander Zack Godley — a pitcher who was released by the Tigers during July training camp (albeit one who threw very well in long relief against the Mets this week). And on Sunday, the team will rely on that most uninspiring of acronyms, TBA, to close out its series against the Yankees. Roenicke said that the Sox have to see how Saturday unfolds before they can make a determination for the starter in the series finale.
The rotation of Weber, Godley, and TBA in a series against the Yankees in the first week of the season is startling, and speaks to the most unsettled Red Sox rotation since at least 2012 — the last time the team conducted an open audition for multiple rotation spots in spring training. Those last three spots feel like they’re occupied by placeholders — at best, pitchers (or initials) who might be able to catch a wave even if they don’t necessarily represent longer-term solutions.
Yet given the lack of upside of a pitcher like Weber, it seems fair to wonder whether the Red Sox might soon start offering opportunities to others for whom big league opportunities could at least help build a stronger pitching future — and who could potentially upgrade the team in the shorter term. If ever there was a year to be aggressive with opportunities for call-ups from the minors, this may be it.
The Sox don’t exactly face a choice between pitchers with well-established performance floors and young pitchers with greater upside but the expectation of volatility before they can reach it. The team has veterans whose holds on big league jobs are tenuous at best.
Meanwhile, they have a chance to integrate young pitchers in a somewhat controlled setting — one not where their eyes will bulge out of their heads while encircled by 45,000 fans at Yankee Stadium but instead where there is an empty ballpark. In many ways, given the state of the rotation, this seems like an ideal season in which to gamble and experiment with young pitchers who have a chance to raise the ceiling of the pitching staff in 2020 and to give the team greater certainty about their potential contributions in future years.
For now, the next pitchers in line for starting or bulk innings roles appear to be lefties Kyle Hart (stretched out to five innings) and Brian Johnson (expected to throw three or four innings in Pawtucket on Saturday). But while those two pitchers may be called upon in the near term, there are others who likely deserve looks sooner than might be the case in an ordinary season.
In that context, the decision to stretch out lefty Darwinzon Hernandez — a strikeout machine in his big league relief audition last year — makes considerable sense. The Sox have a chance to see whether the lefty with electric stuff can navigate a lineup once or twice in this experimental season.
He’s not the only one who will merit such an opportunity. Righthander Tanner Houck, a 2017 first-rounder, is able to do something that Weber has not: Consistently get swings and misses from batters on at least one side of the plate (righthanders).
Could he be a meaningful contributor this year, or in future years, against the likes of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton? Is he best suited as an opener, a middle-innings reliever, or a starter? It’s probably worth finding out in the big leagues sooner than later, though for now, Houck has only been stretched out to a couple innings of work.
Meanwhile, Friday offered a glimmer of promise at the Red Sox alternate training camp in Pawtucket, where righthander Bryan Mata — the organization’s top pitching prospect — blew away hitters in a couple innings of work. The 21-year-old showed off a 94-98 m.p.h. fastball, cutter, and curveball that suggested the raw materials of someone with a chance to be an important piece of a deeper Red Sox pitching staff in the future. The Sox will benefit in 2021 from seeing how Mata’s stuff plays against big league hitters at some point this year.
The goal of unusually aggressive promotions is simple: The Red Sox need to accelerate the timeline to the point where their decisions about struggling rotation members aren’t guided by an absence of options.