First in a series
The rotation wasn’t entirely to blame for the Red Sox failing to make the playoffs last season. The early inconsistency of the bullpen contributed to the team’s slow start and the Sox got less production from several spots in the lineup than was expected.
But ultimately, poor starting pitching is what left the Sox home in October and will be among their biggest challenges to correct next season.
Red Sox starters had a 4.95 earned run average — 5.33 if you discount Eduardo Rodriguez’s strong season.
At a cost of $85 million, Nate Eovaldi, Rick Porcello, David Price, and Chris Sale were 28-29 with a 4.97 ERA over only 483⅓ innings. The Sox were 45-46 in games they started.
President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, who signed Sale and Eovaldi to lucrative contract extensions before the season, was fired in September. The Sox then demoted pitching coach Dana LeVangie after the season.
Porcello is a free agent and if he does return to the Sox, it would likely be on a low-cost, short-term deal following the worst season of his career. Porcello had an unsightly 5.52 ERA and allowed 198 hits over 174⅓ innings.
It’s more likely the Red Sox will let Porcello seek redemption elsewhere and fill his spot more creatively. During his tenure with the Tampa Bay Rays, new chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom helped conceive using “openers” instead of conventional starters.
Considering Sox starters had a 5.50 ERA in the first inning last season, it could make a lot of sense to try that method.
But the primary issue for Bloom, manager Alex Cora, and new pitching coach Dave Bush will be the health of Eovaldi, Price, and Sale.
Eovaldi has not started more than 21 games since 2015 and it now appears rash that the Sox committed $68 million to a pitcher who has averaged 101 innings over his last three seasons.
The righthander was limited to 12 starts in 2019 because of elbow surgery. He had a 6.13 ERA in those games.
The Rays signed Eovaldi while he coming back from Tommy John surgery in 2017 then traded him to the Sox after 10 starts in 2018. So Bloom is familiar with him.
Eovaldi turns 30 in February and is a good candidate to bounce back. The same can’t be said of Sale, who turns 31 in March.
The lefthander has thrown 1,535⅓ innings over the last eight seasons, sixth among all pitchers. He also has been on the injured list three times over the last two seasons, missing 12 starts in all.
Sale averaged 95.1 miles per hour with his fastball in 2017. It was down to 93.7 in 2019.
Some pitchers adjust for lost velocity by incorporating other pitches or angles. But Sale is primarily a fastball/slider pitcher with an occasional changeup.
That the Red Sox signed him to a five-year, $145 million extension without first seeing him pitch at least half the season was curious if not foolhardy. Sale finished the season on the injured list with elbow inflammation, an issue the Sox claim has abated. Their expectation is Sale will be ready for spring training.
The 34-year-old Price, who throws five pitches, is a better candidate to ease gracefully into the later stages of his career. But he also has become a pitcher who clearly benefits from extra days of rest.
Price had a 6.91 ERA in 10 starts with the usual four days of rest last season. When he had at least one extra day, Price’s ERA fell to 2.77 over 11 starts.
That would be a little easier to accept if he wasn’t making $96 million over the next three seasons.
The wrist injury that caused him to miss most of the final two months has healed.
The Sox believe the extra month of pitching in 2018 contributed to the decline of their rotation a year later. So one benefit from missing the playoffs could be a collective revitalization.
Rodriguez was the one starter the Sox looked forward to last season. He was 19-6 with a 3.81 ERA, posting career bests in wins, starts (34), innings (203⅓ ) and strikeouts (213).
The lefthander said before the season that his goal was to make every start, something that eluded him prior. Once he did, success followed. Rodriguez could emerge as the team’s ace in 2020.
The Sox lacked depth last season. Swingmen Brian Johnson and Hector Velazquez, who Cora repeatedly praised in 2018, were 1-5 with a 6.00 ERA in 15 starts. Johnson, who is out of minor league options, could benefit from going full-time to the bullpen.
The Sox tried to patch holes by trading for Andrew Cashner and signing Jhoulys Chacin off the street in August. The veterans combined to make 11 bad starts.
When the Sox dipped into Triple A, it was for journeymen like Ryan Weber and Josh Smith.
In what would be a rarity for the Sox, there is a chance their farm system could provide some help.
Righthander Bryan Mata, who doesn’t turn 21 until May, had a 3.43 ERA over 21 starts last season.
His transition from Single A Salem (3.16 ERA, 1.09 WHP over 51⅓ innings) to Double A Portland (5.03 ERA, 1.45 WHP over 52⅔ innings) was rocky. But it’s reasonable to think Mata could present himself as a candidate next season. The tools are there, including a fastball that hits 97.
It’s uncertain where righthander Tanner Houck will fit. The Sox shifted him to the bullpen in Triple A last season then he started six games in the Arizona Fall League with solid results.
Noah Song was 11-1 with a 1.44 ERA for Navy last spring then had a 1.06 ERA in 17 innings for Single A Lowell followed by a selection to Team USA for the Premier 12 tournament.
It’s as yet undetermined whether the Navy will allow Song to pursue his baseball career next season. But if he can, the 22-year-old could be a quick mover. He’s better than the Sox expected when they drafted him.
Righthander Thad Ward, a 2018 draft pick from Fort Myers via Central Florida University, had a 2.18 ERA over 25 starts and 126⅓ innings in Single A. He could start next season in Portland.
Jay Groome, now 21, has pitched only 66 innings [with a 5.59 ERA] since being a first-round pick in 2016. He still has a chance to become the homegrown starter the Sox have long sought. But it won’t be next season.
Projected pitching rotation
Primary 2019 starters: LHP Eduardo Rodriguez, RHP Rick Porcello, LHP Chris Sale, LHP David Price, RHP Nate Eovaldi.
Projected 2020 starters: Sale, Rodriguez, Eovaldi, Price, TBD.
Major league depth: RHP Hector Velazquez, LHP Brian Johnson, RHP Ryan Weber.
Prospects to watch: RHP Bryan Mata, RHP Tanner Houck, RHP Noah Song, RHP Thad Ward.