An offseason of change for the Red Sox officially got underway Monday morning, when team CEO/president Sam Kennedy held a season-ending news conference, followed by another led by assistant GMs Brian O’Halloran and Eddie Romero (two of the organization’s four transitional leaders), alongside manager Alex Cora.
Much of the focus of the roughly hourlong availability revolved around the Red Sox’ spending plans and how those might affect the organization’s ability to retain Mookie Betts and/or J.D. Martinez.
Yet there was scant dialogue about the primary issue that undid the just-completed 2019 season, and the one that may have greater sway over the team’s 2020 fortunes than any other.
“It’s pretty simple,” one Red Sox executive recently said in contemplating whether the disappointment of this year might be repeated next year. “If those three guys are healthy and good, we can be really good. And if they’re not, then we probably won’t be.”
Those three guys — Chris Sale (6-11, 4.40 ERA in 25 starts), David Price (7-5, 4.28 ERA in 22 starts), and Nate Eovaldi (2-1, 5.99 ERA in 12 starts) — were neither particularly healthy nor performing at anything resembling their peak levels in the 2019 season.
The impact of their performance struggles and injuries, meanwhile, was magnified by a jarring lack of depth, the insult on top of injury that rendered success almost impossible.
Of course, part of the reason for the lack of depth relates to the sizable contract commitments — the trio will count for roughly $73 million against next year’s luxury-tax threshold of $208 million — that limit the financial flexibility not only to retain stars such as Martinez and Betts, but also to build rotation depth.
The consequences of the frequent short outings by fill-ins created a strain that extended beyond the rotation.
“We, as an organization, should have given Alex and the pitching staff more depth. We should have addressed that, whether it was before the season or during the season,” said Romero.
“There’s an amount of tax that it puts on your bullpen. It stresses them out. They were great early on, but fatigue is a real thing and it affects performance.”
Some of the ugly details on the rotation: The Red Sox rotation had a 4.95 ERA, 20th in baseball and considerably worse than that of any playoff team. (The Yankees had the worst rotation ERA of any postseason team at 4.51.)
Meanwhile, the fact that Sale (elbow), Price (elbow, wrist), and Eovaldi (bone chips, biceps tendinitis) all had injuries casts a bit of a cloud over the team’s prospects. Some of the injuries — Eovaldi’s bone chips, the cyst on Price’s wrist likely fall into the category of one-time-only concerns. But others — the elbow and biceps injuries — will loom.
Meanwhile, all three of those anticipated rotation anchors will be in their 30s next year, with Eovaldi entering his age-30 season in 2020, Sale moving into his age-31 campaign, and Price pitching at 34. The clock moves forward.
“It comes with the territory of pitchers aging,” assistant GM Zack Scott said of concern about injuries.
“We’re always concerned about [depth in case of injuries]. But all of those guys are going to be ready for spring training. There’s no concern. It’s not like we know, ‘This guy is going to be out all year.’ ”
Indeed, all of the Sox decision-makers have been consistent that the team anticipates the arrival of Sale, Price, and Eovaldi as healthy pitchers for the start of spring training.
Despite their struggles this year, that still-talented trio could join 2019 breakout starter Eduardo Rodriguez to form a formidable rotation that ranks as one of the best in the American League.
“The players we signed under [Dave Dombrowski’s] leadership are great players,” said O’Halloran, when asked about the impact of last winter’s signings of Sale and Eovaldi on the team’s future payroll. “We’re glad to have Chris Sale on our team in 2020 and beyond. The same for Nate Eovaldi.”
“We expect [Price] to be a horse, and we expect him to be healthy,” Romero added. “He’s feeling better already. He’s going to be a stalwart in the rotation.”
That may prove accurate — but after 2019, the admitted failure to create starting depth cannot be repeated moving forward, particularly given the demographics of the rotation.
“We always try to build around [depth],” said Scott. “As pitchers age, pitcher injuries tend to be a compounding issue. They’re not just one-offs.”
But how can the team create depth?
The team’s starting pitching prospect pool is getting deeper but likely doesn’t offer immediate answers.
Bryan Mata, a 20-year-old righthander who finished the year in Double A, looms as a potential depth option, but not before late 2020 or even 2021. Righthander Tanner Houck, 23, is working as a starter in the Arizona Fall League, though most evaluators believe his greatest impact will be as a reliever, the role in which he finished the year in Triple A Pawtucket.
The Red Sox need a fifth starter and upgraded depth behind it.
They’ll sit out of the Gerrit Cole sweepstakes. Maybe they can make a run at Rich Hill or Rick Porcello on short-term deals, though the Sox face payroll considerations that might keep them out of those markets.
The international professional market has yielded some excellent finds for relatively modest investments in recent years, such as Miles Mikolas and Merrill Kelly.
The minor league free agent pool tends to feature pitchers who are ideally employed as little more than an in-case-of-emergency-break-glass spot starter. And even then, with established starters who are guaranteed four spots, the Sox typically struggle to persuade the best non-roster targets to sign with them.
All of that suggests that the Sox need to be innovative while looking for the sort of low-cost rotation additions that they’ve struggled to find in recent years.
The idea of trading established standouts might not be merely a payroll concern — there’s a rotation deficiency that the team might need to address by dealing established talent.
“We’ll obviously look to be creative in the trade market, look at free agents out there,” said Romero. “There’s no reason not to explore every avenue to seek upgrades.”
In fact, based on the evidence of a lost season that required a front-office postmortem on Sept. 30, there is every reason to explore those avenues.