The Red Sox need a starter with Rick Porcello off to free agency. They also need starters who can fill in for Nate Eovaldi, David Price, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Chris Sale during the course of the season when they go on the injured list, which seems inevitable with that group.
But where will the Sox find these starters? The only other pitchers on the 40-man roster with substantive starting experience are Brian Johnson, Hector Velazquez, and Ryan Weber.
The farm system offers only a few possibilities and free agency is expensive. Employing a Tampa Bay-style opener would make a lot of sense for the Red Sox — and not just because new chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom came over from the Rays.
Using an opener is not the same as having a bullpen day. The idea is to use a reliever to start the game and get 3-6 outs before having a second pitcher come in and work 3-5 innings. The Rays used that format to help develop their pitching prospects while at the same time remaining competitive.
“The overriding goal was trying to put them at the appropriate intersection of where they are competitively and the needs of our team,” Rays senior vice president and general manager Erik Neander said. “What allows them the best chance to find their footing as a major league player.”
The Rays used an opener 41 times over the first 137 games but only twice in 25 games in September. By then, pitchers such as Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough had built up enough experience, skill, and confidence to work as conventional starters.
Overall, the Rays finished 27-16 with a 3.87 earned run average in games started by openers.
“Every situation is unique. But with respect to our situation the last couple of years, we identified pitchers we thought were ready to have major league opportunities. But it wasn’t something that was going to come with an expectation of six or seven innings,” Neander said.
Ultimately, it was the best way to give young pitchers a chance to find success.
“Confidence is so powerful,” Neander said. “We’ve seen that in how they responded.”
The Red Sox have a number of pitchers who could benefit from coming into games following an opener. In addition to Johnson, Velazquez, and Weber, they recently added 27-year-old lefthander Kyle Hart to the 40-man roster.
Hart was 12-13 with a 3.52 ERA in 27 games last season for Portland and Pawtucket. He’s probably not ready to be a conventional starter but could help the Sox by filling the gap between an opener and the late-inning relievers.
Righthander Tanner Houck is another starter who would benefit from that approach, especially given his solid work in the Arizona Fall League and for Team USA. Another prospect, righthander Bryan Mata, could be ready to try it come June or July.
The Red Sox intend to use Darwinzon Hernandez as a reliever. But isn’t it worth seeing if the big lefty could handle more?
With new pitching coaches Dave Bush and Kevin Walker coming up from the minor league staff, it’s good timing for the Sox to give this a shot.
BACK IN THE SADDLE
Cherington gets second chance
Theo Epstein, breaker of two historic curses, will be in the Hall of Fame. The same is true of Dave Dombrowski, a GM for 30 consecutive years who had a role in putting together two World Series champions.
Ben Cherington was the man in the middle, his tenure as GM of the Red Sox lasting less than four seasons. It produced a delightfully unexpected World Series title in 2013 but otherwise three last-place finishes.
That Cherington, 45, is getting a second chance with the Pittsburgh Pirates is fitting. He deserves it after going through plenty of turmoil in Boston. Yes, he made some mistakes in prominent deals. But some of those deals were forced on him.
Cherington waited patiently until the right chance came along. The Pirates, who need rebuilding from the ground up, fit his skills.
“This was the only one and, really, the perfect one to consider,” he said after being introduced in Pittsburgh.
Cherington still has plenty of friends at Fenway Park and his return was celebrated. But it also could mean some changes for the Sox.
Dana LeVangie, now a scout after being pitching coach for two seasons, is a good candidate for the Pirates’ coaching staff.
When Torey Lovullo became interim manager in 2015 following John Farrell’s cancer diagnosis, LeVangie became the interim bench coach and was widely praised for his work in preparing the team. LeVangie could fit the Pirates as a bench coach, pitching coach, or bullpen coach.
Every indication is Chaim Bloom has been welcomed into the organization by the baseball ops staff and quickly gained their respect and confidence. But if Pittsburgh offers a chance for professional advancement, a staffer or two could join Cherington.
You also could see Cherington find a spot for Farrell, who is a pitching consultant with the Reds but could be ready for a higher-profile job. Farrell and Cherington have a professional relationship that goes back to 2007. Farrell applied for managerial jobs with the Phillies and Angels the last two offseasons. If he wants to get back in uniform, it could have to be as a coach.
La Russa enjoyed time in Boston
It was strange to see Tony La Russa standing behind a batting cage at Fenway South wearing a Red Sox cap during the early days of spring training in 2018. La Russa, so identified as the Hall of Fame manager of the White Sox, Athletics, and Cardinals, looked out of place. His cap was brand new, not a wrinkle in the brim.
Getting to know La Russa a little better the last two seasons was fascinating. He has a long list of stories and friends from across the spectrum of sports, culture, and politics. Asking him a question about baseball would end up with an anecdote about watching a game with Bill Parcells or Bobby Knight.
La Russa, 75, was invited to stay with the Sox after Dombrowski was fired and he decided to fulfill the final year of his contract. He went on both of the remaining road trips, a sign of the high regard Brian O’Halloran and the other assistant GMs had for him.
But when Angels owner Arte Moreno offered him a position similar to what he had with the Red Sox, La Russa changed his mind. Moreno is a longtime friend and working for the Angels meant La Russa could spend more time at his home in the San Francisco Bay Area and his animal rescue foundation.
It was simply a matter of convenience. “There are so many good people here. They’re in great hands,” La Russa said. “It was fun for me to be around Fenway Park so often. It’s special when that is where you go to work.”
A few other observations on the Red Sox:
■ You can partially thank La Russa for outfielder Marcus Wilson, who was put on the 40-man roster Wednesday. Wilson was the player to be named later the Sox received from Arizona in the Blake Swihart trade last March. Wilson was a second-round pick of the Diamondbacks in 2014 when La Russa was the team’s chief baseball officer. When the Sox discussed the trade, La Russa offered some insights on Arizona’s prospects.
Wilson, only 23, had a 1.016 OPS in 45 games for Single A Salem when he joined the Sox. As is typical, Wilson struggled in his first taste of Double A. But he played well in an eight-game stint in the Arizona Fall League. The Sox lack outfield depth in the minors and Wilson could prove helpful as he continues to develop. That’s a better return than expected for Swihart.
■ With C.J. Chatham and Bobby Dalbec now on the 40-man roster, that could mark the end of their time with USA Baseball. The US team, which fell one game short of qualifying for the Olympics at the Premier12 tournament this month, has another chance in March. Commissioner Rob Manfred said owners want the United States to have a strong team. But asking players to take time away from major league spring training will be difficult.
■ Count me as skeptical that Manny Ramirez has truly reformed. His new-and-improved attitude, on display at The Tradition event last week, is almost certainly tied to his Hall of Fame candidacy.
Ramirez has seven years remaining on the BBWAA ballot and to this point has not gotten to 24 percent. That he twice failed drug tests after MLB and the Players Association agreed to start a testing program is something most voters can’t overlook. Quitting on the Red Sox to force a trade is hard to get past, too.
Ramirez knew the consequences of his actions and went ahead. No amount of time can erase that.
■ The Yankees released Jacoby Ellsbury on Wednesday and intend to not pay the remaining $26.1 million left in his contract because he received unauthorized medical care. It is sure to spark a contentious grievance.
It brings to mind the issues the Sox had with Ellsbury in 2010 over how badly his ribs were injured. He accused the team of misdiagnosing the injury then fled for Arizona, claiming he didn’t want to be a distraction.
The Red Sox made Ellsbury only a token offer when he became a free agent in 2013. What a good decision that was. Ellsbury produced 9.8 WAR from 2014-16 and cost the Yankees $127 million. During the same period, Jackie Bradley Jr. produced 15.3 WAR for $19.8 million.
When you add in the money the Yankees spent on replacing Ellsbury, it was an even bigger financial disaster than Pablo Sandoval was for the Red Sox. From 2008-19, the 12 full seasons he had a major league contract, Ellsbury missed 742 games. For somebody as good as he was, it’s hard not to wonder if Ellsbury actually liked playing.
Jeter only definite on the Hall ballot
There are 32 candidates on the Hall of Fame ballot the Baseball Writers’ Association of America will vote on. The only no-doubt choice is Derek Jeter and that should create opportunity for players such as Todd Helton, Scott Rolen, Larry Walker, and Billy Wagner to get a better look.
With 11 players elected by the BBWAA over the last three years, the ballot has opened up. Walker, now in his final season of eligibility, climbed from 34.1 percent to 54.6 percent last year. Another 20.5 percent jump would get Walker past the required 75 percent. Curt Schilling’s strong candidacy was set back by his intemperate comments on social media, but has been slowly recovering momentum in recent seasons.
The players tied to PED use — Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens most notably — have made strides, but not enough. Clemens was at 59.5 percent a year ago and Bonds 59.1 percent. They each have three years remaining.
As the voting bloc gets younger — the Hall has been prodding out older writers or others who haven’t covered a game in years — Walker, Clemens, and Bonds will benefit.
The younger voters are more likely to look beyond traditional statistics and be more forgiving of PED use considering both the league and union ignored the problem for years.
Ballots must be postmarked by Dec. 31 and any new Hall of Famers will be introduced Jan. 21.
Globe voters will reveal their choices as a group sometime in January before the Hall’s announcement.
One recurrent theme of this offseason: Drew Pomeranz is going to get paid. The lefthander had an 0.84 WHIP and averaged 15.7 strikeouts per nine innings in 28 relief appearances and threw two perfect innings in the National League wild-card game. Pomeranz, who turned 31 on Friday, should land a deal in the neighborhood of two or three years at $8 million or $9 million a season . . . Japan’s version of the Cy Young Award is the Sawamura Award. It’s determined by a vote of five retired pitchers. Previous winners include Koji Uehara (1999 and 2002) and Daisuke Matsuzaka (2001). The committee decided not to give out the award this season, saying a sub-standard winner would tarnish the “greatness” of the award. It’s the fifth time without a winner since the award was started in 1947. Now that’s conviction . . . Toronto added infielder Santiago Espinal to the 40-man roster. He was the player the Sox traded to the Jays in 2018 to get Steve Pearce. Espinal, 25, could be a big-league backup down the road. But that’s a trade the Sox will never regret . . . In her biography on the Harvard softball team website in 2012, Crimson catcher Eve Rosenbaum was described as a fan of classic rock and the Red Sox. She still likes the old tunes, but her team is the Orioles now. Rosenbaum was named Baltimore’s director of baseball development, a new position that will include aspects of scouting and analytics. Rosenbaum is the highest-ranked woman in baseball operations for the Orioles . . . After reading an item a few weeks ago about Nationals assistant GM Mike DeBartolo, a native of Bedford, loyal reader Joe D’Urso reached out with a reminder that Washington manager of advance scouting Jon Tosches is a graduate of Hopedale High and UMass Amherst . . . Two former Red Sox are doing something important at Sacred Heart University on Dec. 4. John Trautwein, who appeared in nine games for the Sox in 1988, will give two presentations on spreading awareness about teen suicide. Bobby Valentine, now Sacred Heart’s athletic director, invited Trautwein to campus. Trautwein and his wife, Susie, lost their son, Will, to suicide in 2010 with no warning. They started the Will to Live Foundation to help parents and friends become better educated about mental health issues. Trautwein will speak to Sacred Heart’s athletic department before a 7 p.m. program at the Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts that is free and open to the public. Go to will-to-live.org for more details . . . Happy Birthday to Jeff Plympton, who is 54. The righthander played for King Philip High in Plainville then helped the University of Maine advance to the 1986 College World Series before the Red Sox took him in the 10th round of the draft in 1987. Plympton was with the Sox for seven seasons, getting to the majors in 1991 and throwing 5⅓ shutout innings in four appearances. Dwight Evans, Edgar Martinez, Dave Parker, and Omar Vizquel were 0 for 4 against Plympton and he struck out Martinez. A shoulder injury derailed his career, but Plympton stayed involved in athletics. He has been recreation director for the town of Wrentham since 2004 and operates the Crush team in the New England Elite Baseball League.