At a time when the Red Sox’ pitching has been nothing short of woeful, a grim present is accompanied by an uncertain future.
The Red Sox pitching staff continued its gruesome summer plummet on Sunday, allowing a second-tier Rays offense to plate a season-high for runs in a 12-4 blowout victory. Every pitching staff has bad days. The Red Sox, however, have had an inordinate number of them.
Sunday’s game marked the 10th this year in which the Sox had allowed 10 or more runs, tied for fourth-most in MLB this year. Despite the fact that the Sox took two of three from the Rays, the blowout defeat left the team in a sour mood.
“Too many games like that, to be honest with you. For how good it was as a series, it’s a bad taste,” said Sox manager Alex Cora. “We can’t have that. It has happened a lot this season.”
It has happened a lot, in particular, over the last two months. While the team has a 4.50 ERA for the season (sixth worst in MLB, second worst in the AL), that mark has skyrocketed to 5.82 since the beginning of July, a stretch in which the team has allowed a major league-worst 320 runs.
A little context: No other team in that time has allowed more than 300 runs. No other AL team has come within 50 runs of that total. Over the same span, the Dodgers have allowed 150 runs — less than half as many as the Red Sox.
Injuries, of course, have played a huge role in the pitching collapse. The concurrent injured list stints of Chris Sale, Nate Eovaldi, Michael Wacha, Rich Hill, Garrett Whitlock, and Matt Strahm proved more than the team could bear.
But the club’s poor performance without those pitchers also offers a reminder about the uncertain state of the staff heading into next year. Eovaldi, Wacha, Hill, and Strahm will all be free agents.
Sale — entering the fourth season of his five-year, $145 million deal — will be a giant question mark after making just 11 starts over the last three years. The future roles of Whitlock and Tanner Houck have yet to be defined.
In other words, there’s very little clarity regarding the Red Sox’ efforts to build a contending pitching staff for 2023.
The Sox essentially have one known quantity when it comes to starters who are under team control next year. Nick Pivetta has established himself as roughly a league-average starter who reliably takes his turn every five games — certainly a valuable trait, though his poor performance against AL East opponents (1-6, 7.24 ERA in 11 starts after Sunday’s five-inning, five-run yield) has been cause for concern.
Beyond him, it’s close to impossible to forecast what kind of pitcher Chris Sale (11 regular season starts in the last three years) or James Paxton (whom the Sox can retain by exercising a two-year, $26 million option after not seeing him throw a pitch) will be moving forward or how often either will be available. Can the Sox afford to gamble on Paxton given what they’ll already have committed to Sale?
The team’s long-term quest for steady contention will rely on the development of a pipeline of young starters. Yet while the team has seen promise at times from Kutter Crawford, Brayan Bello, and Josh Winckowski, the dangers of over-reliance on pitchers who are trying to establish themselves in the big leagues has been on display over the last two months. The team can use the next month to figure out if Crawford or Bello should be slotted into the 2023 rotation, with the other becoming a depth option.
Free-agents-to-be Eovaldi, Wacha, Hill, and David Price (who is costing the Sox $16 million to pitch with the Dodgers) represent $43 million coming off the books. If Paxton’s team option is declined, he’d subtract another $5.8 million from the team’s payroll (unless he exercised a $4 million player option).
The team will have the financial latitude to make interesting choices — whether with a qualifying offer for Eovaldi and/or Wacha, picking up the Paxton option, free agents (Carlos Rodón, Justin Verlander, and Jacob deGrom are all expected to opt out of deals and reach free agency, with several mid-tier options like Tyler Anderson, Jameson Taillon, Taijuan Walker, and others also available), or more likely both. Under Chaim Bloom, the Sox have yet to sign a free agent starter to a deal of more than one guaranteed year; if the team wants to build a competitive rotation in the division, that likely will have to change.
The bullpen, meanwhile, will require its own overhaul. Whitlock, Houck (before his back injury), John Schreiber, and the recent version of Matt Barnes have all looked like solid late-innings contributors. Strahm has been solid and even at times dominant though he’s a free agent after this year.
The multi-innings usage of Whitlock and at times Houck and Schreiber limits their availability in a way that makes the fifth through eighth members of the bullpen more critical.
“It’s been a challenge for everybody,” Cora said of the frequency with which his bullpen has been shorthanded.
As has been the case with the rotation, Bloom and the Sox have tried to focus on low-dollar value bullpen signings in recent years. While that’s yielded two fantastic bargains in Whitlock and Schreiber, the absence of standout bullpen depth has positioned the team poorly for those times when the rotation has been thinned by injuries, inexperience, and poor performance.
The Sox haven’t paid in recent years for late-innings certainty. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they have gotten a heavy dose of late-innings uncertainty, with their 86 blown saves since the start of 2019 tied for the most in baseball.
All of that points to the fact that the Sox need much more than what they’ve gotten on the mound this year — or really, over the last three years, during which their 4.57 ERA ranks eighth-worst in baseball — if they want to legitimize their ambitions of sustainable contention. This offseason represents a pivotal opportunity in their pursuit of that goal.