FORT MYERS, Fla. — The 1971 Baltimore Orioles famously had four 20-game winners and advanced to the seventh game of the World Series. Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, and Pat Dobson all made 30 or more starts and all pitched 224 or more innings. Three of them exceeded 280 innings.
The world champion 2004 Red Sox had five starting pitchers who never got hurt. Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield, and Bronson Arroyo each started at least 29 games and logged no fewer than 178 innings.
Fast-forward to 2020 and a Red Sox team with almost zero reliability in the starting rotation. More suspects than prospects.
These are not the Red Sox of “we have five aces.’’
Since the end of last season, the Sox have said goodbye to two starting pitchers, Rick Porcello and David Price. That leaves Eduardo Rodriguez, Chris Sale, and Nate Eovaldi left from last year’s starting staff (we are not including meatball artist Andrew Cashner).
There has been a lot of noise in recent weeks about the salary-dump trade of Mookie Betts and Price, the MLB cheating investigation that darkens the spring skies over JetBlue Park, the gaping absence of Alex Cora, and new baseball boss Chaim Bloom bringing the magic of Tampa Bay to Fenway Park . . .
If we are going to bring the conversation back around to baseball, it has to be stated that the Red Sox do not have the starting pitching that normally is associated with a contending ball club. Not even close.
Rodriguez, who has battled weight, maturity, and reliability issues throughout his career, comes into the year as the staff anchor. He was a gaudy 19-6 with a 3.81 ERA in 203⅓ innings in 2019. The now-fiscally-conscious Sox rewarded this by beating Rodriguez in arbitration last week. Swell. More savings. They also said goodbye to his True North: Alex Cora.
Next up you have the once-and-possibly-future indomitable Sale, who is starting the first year of a five-year, $145 million contract. Sale came down with pneumonia, and interim manager Ron Roenicke said the stringbean lefty might not be ready for spring training.
That’s minor. What’s major is that Sale is coming off a 6-11, 4.40 season in which he visited grim reaper Dr. James Andrews for elbow issues. Sale said his elbow feels great and he’s ready to return to form. If he does, the Sox will have a dominant, All-Star strikeout king. If he doesn’t, they can keep blaming Dave Dombrowski, even though ownership had to sign off on Sale’s deal.
In the third spot we have Eovaldi, who has a four-year, $68 million contract because he pitched six great innings of relief in one game (which the Red Sox lost) of the 2018 World Series against the Dodgers. Ever-injured, Eovaldi was good for a 2-1 record and a 5.99 ERA in 12 starts in 2019. He pitched 67⅔ innings. Iron Joe McGinnity he is not.
The No. 4 starter would appear to be Martin Perez, a 28-year-old lefty who went 10-7 with a 5.12 ERA for the Twins last year. When he pitched for the Rangers in 2018, Perez’s ERA was 6.22. In other words, this guy might make you long for the days of Cashner.
The Sox at present have no fifth starter. As in, “Daniel Simpson Day has no grade-point average. All courses incomplete.”
Flamethrowing Darwinzon Hernandez, a 23-year-old Venezuelan lefty who fanned 57 with 26 walks in 30⅓ innings last year, is a fan favorite to fill the spot.
I asked Bloom if he’s comfortable with his starting staff.
“I don’t know if you’re ever comfortable,’’ said the young chief baseball officer. “You always want to upgrade them, and it takes so much pitching to get through a successful season, so we’re always looking to add.
“I know that we obviously took a starter out of our rotation [Price], and we like a lot of the guys that we’re eager to get a look at them as the spring rolls on, but you’re always looking to add and thicken the group.’’
More likely, we are going to see a soft parade of Tampa-like openers — tall, faceless pitchers who throw 98 m.p.h. for one inning, then disappear into the ether. It is the Tampa Bay Way, and it’s coming soon to a ballpark near you. If you like long games, The Opener is for you.
Regarding the dreaded openers, Bloom said, “It’s a possibility. I know Ron has talked about that. You’re going to want to do whatever you think gives you the best chance to win with the group that you have, but it’s also on us that we’re adding as much depth as we possibly can.’’
No doubt the Red Sox rotation and roster will look a lot different in April than they do right now. Sox clubbies need to prepare for a lot of locker-stall additions and stitching new names on old uniforms. The 2020 Red Sox will start pitchers you have never heard of, and many of them are not in Fort Myers this week.
This is what a bridge year looks like, people. Get used to it.