Putting together a 2021 rotation for the Red Sox is essentially a math problem.
The Sox averaged roughly 900 innings from their starting pitchers from 2016-19. So that’s a good number to build back from in examining their needs for next season.
Even if the Sox use an occasional opener, one way or another they’ll need 900 innings from starting-pitcher types.
How to get to that number is where it gets complicated.
Let’s start where we left off. The Sox had 11 pitchers make two or more starts last season. Six are no longer on the 40-man roster.
Martin Perez is a free agent and Ryan Weber was designated for assignment.
Zack Godley, Kyle Hart, Mike Kickham, and Andrew Triggs all cleared waivers and were sent outright to Triple A Pawtucket.
The Sox still have Colten Brewer, Nate Eovaldi, Tanner Houck, Chris Mazza, and Nick Pivetta.
Brewer had a 6.91 earned run average in four starts last season, putting 29 men on base in 14⅓ innings. Back to the bullpen he goes.
Eovaldi is the only established major league starter in that group. But he has not pitched more than 124⅔ innings in a season since 2015.
Eovaldi has been on the injured list at least once for five consecutive seasons, and he turns 31 in February. Pencil him in for 115 innings given that history. Anything more is a bonus.
Houck made three starts and gave up one earned run over 17 innings while striking out 21. He will get every opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation.
But it’s worth noting that Houck was 15-19 with a 4.07 ERA in 50 minor league starts and still needs a reliable third pitch.
At 24, Houck is still developing, and it would be a mistake to think three starts in the final two weeks of the season for a last-place team means he’s ready.
But let’s be optimistic and give him 15 starts and 85 innings.
Mazza made five starts, three that were actually pretty good. It’s unlikely that a 31-year-old career minor leaguer will suddenly make the rotation, so pencil him in for 25 innings as a spot starter.
Pivetta pitched well in two starts after coming over from Philadelphia. He is otherwise 18-28 with a 5.42 ERA in 71 major league starts.
Maybe a fresh start will unlock Pivetta’s talents. But he profiles more as a multi-inning reliever and spot starter. Let’s give him seven starts and 35 innings.
We’re up to 260 innings. Eduardo Rodriguez is into his offseason throwing program and said he believes he will come back strong from missing last season because of a myocarditis, a heart condition triggered by COVID-19.
Rodriguez gave the Sox 34 starts and 203⅓ innings in 2019. It’s a given the Sox will be cautious with how he’s used, so let’s deduct 30 percent and count on Rodriguez for 142 innings.
Keep in mind, prior to 2019 his career best was 137⅓, so 142 could be a reach. But Rodriguez showed a commitment to durability in 2019 and having Alex Cora back will be good for him.
Chris Sale is expected to return from Tommy John surgery at “midsummer” according to Chaim Bloom. If we read that as the All-Star break, let’s give Sale 13 starts and 70 innings.
The only two starter prospects close to the majors are Bryan Mata and Connor Seabold. They have yet to reach Triple A and were limited to alternate-site games last season. But they could arrive by August or September and help the cause.
Put them down for 35 innings and toss in another 40 from various non-roster hopefuls who will be at spring training and get opportunities over the course of the season.
That’s 547 innings — or 353 shy of what the Sox need.
The good news is that the free agent market is loaded with starting pitchers, and piecing together those innings shouldn’t be insurmountable.
Trevor Bauer would come at a high cost and the loss of a draft pick. But Chris Archer, Cole Hamels, Anthony DeSclafani, J.A. Happ, Corey Kluber, Jon Lester, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Minor, Garrett Richards, Jose Quintana, Michael Wacha, Taijuan Walker, and Alex Wood are in the group where deals of 1-3 years should be workable.
The trade market is not expected to be as robust, as most teams will cling to their starters. But the Rays, forever in search of maximizing the value of their players, are taking offers on Blake Snell. The Reds are doing the same with Sonny Gray.
The easy solution for the Sox would be to obtain two or three pitchers who can be projected for 170-180 innings.
It’s still too early to project who those pitchers will be. Agents describe the Sox as having checked in on most every starter.
The Sox fell into a pattern of misery quickly last season, the entire roster beaten down by an unreliable rotation. It felt like they started every game down, 2-0. Only the Tigers got fewer innings from starters.
It’s Bloom’s job to make the math work for next season and bring pitchers to spring training capable of those 900 innings.