FORT MYERS, Fla. — For starters . . . the Red Sox have questions about their starting rotation.
On paper, the Chris Sale-led group is more fragile than a Waterford crystal decanter. All the spring training hand-wringing about Boston’s pitching starts with the starters. The Sox got some good news on Monday. Eduardo Rodriguez (knee) threw a simulated game and pronounced he was “feeling great,” and Jake Gyllenhaal look-alike Nate Eovaldi, owner of a rigged-to-blow right elbow, struck out four and touched triple digits with his fastball in two innings of dominant work across town against the Minnesota Twins.
Still, betting on this team’s bullpen seems like a safer Vegas wager than gambling on the sustainability (buzzword alert) of the rotation. The tables have turned on the mound. Last year, the Sox had to find a way to replace closer Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly. It was a bumpy road out of the bullpen early in 2019, leading to a lot of blown saves at the beginning that left the Sox tied with Oakland for the most in the majors (31). But the Sox turned a perceived weakness into a strength, uncovering a quality closer in Brandon Workman.
The pendulum of pitching doubt has shifted. Now, the relief corps is viewed as the reassuring and deep portion of the pitching staff, and it’s the starting staff that’s in the spotlight and on the spot.
After the All-Star break last season, the Sox ranked top 10 in Major League Baseball in opponent OPS (10th, .720), hits allowed per nine innings (ninth, 7.88), and inherited runners scoring percentage (10th, 31 percent) by relievers.
“Yeah, obviously last year, we were a big question mark and we came out and threw the ball pretty well overall as a bullpen,” said Workman. “I think we actually had one of the better bullpens in the league. That was nice for guys to step up, guys that maybe weren’t as proven as other names, and step up and throw the ball well.
“It’s definitely something we are going to try to build on. We got a lot of the same guys back out there, and I think everybody is expecting to take a step forward.”
The faith in the bullpen starts with the 31-year-old Workman. He emerged as a dominant force last season. His ability to plug the closer’s role created a domino effect that put all the ’pen pieces in the proper place. The Sox previously suffered through Ryan Brasier (seven saves in 11 chances) and Matt Barnes, twice as many blown saves (eight) as saves (four). That duo evoked the cardiac-testing stylings of Heathcliff Slocumb.
Workman went 10-1 last season with a 1.88 ERA in a career-high 73 appearances. The taciturn Texan led MLB relievers in opponent average against, opponent OPS against, and fewest home runs surrendered per nine (0.13, allowing one across 286 batters). He settled into the closer’s role after the All-Star break, recording 13 of his 16 total saves in 15 opportunities. Pitching positively Jonathan Papelbon-esque, Workman earned AL Reliever of the Month honors in September, not allowing an earned run in 12 appearances while recording seven saves.
Workman, who had zero career saves entering 2019, could be poised to cash in as a closer. He’s eligible for free agency following this season. His ascension to bullpen linchpin is remarkable when you consider his promising career ended up in the breakdown lane in 2015 and 2016 following Tommy John surgery. He scratched out a bullpen role in 2017 and 2018, but still made 35 combined appearances in Triple A Pawtucket those seasons.
With Workman allowing Barnes to slot in as one of baseball’s best set-up guys, the Sox can lean on the bullpen until the rotation finds its bearings and its constitution.
Fueled by cold, calculating analytics, baseball has evolved into bullpen warfare. Starting pitching has been deemphasized to a degree. This bullpen features swing-and-miss stuff with Workman, Barnes, lefty Josh Taylor, Health Hembree, and Brasier. Boston relievers led MLB last season in strikeouts per nine (10.5).
But there is always the fear of bullpen burnout, especially since the relief crew might have to compensate for one spot in the rotation every fifth day. The Sox’s fifth starter is as barren as their reservoir of goodwill.
One solution could be to borrow from the bullpen, tapping young flamethrower Darwinzon Hernandez as an opener — a concept popularized by Bloom with the Tampa Bay Rays. Hernandez has the stuff to be a weapon in shorter bursts — he led the majors in strikeouts per nine (16.56) post All-Star break — but lacks the experience and command to feature as a full-fledged starter.
This rotation won’t be confused with the 1971 Baltimore Orioles. Still, the starters aren’t ready to concede anything, even if they appear dicey due to durability doubts.
“I feel like we got the guys that we need to compete,” said Eovaldi. “[Chris] Sale is looking healthy. Eddie is looking good. We got a whole lot of other guys competing for spots as well.”
The health histories of the top three starters require pause, and a bullpen that can pick up the slack for load management and missing innings.
The slight Sale is an electrifying ace when healthy. That’s the caveat. He seems to hit a roadblock every late August/September. A disappointing 2019 campaign was truncated by elbow trouble, and Sale has been stuck in the starting blocks in Fort Myers after pneumonia.
Rodriguez enjoyed a breakthrough 2019, winning 19 games and posting a career-high 203⅓ innings. Eddie Money could be an ace in waiting, but he’s always a breakdown candidate given his knee troubles. That’s why a wave of panic spread across Sox Nation when it was revealed Rodriguez tweaked his good (left) knee last week falling from the mound, resulting in his first spring start being postponed.
Rodriguez put some of those concerns to rest Monday, looking dialed in against Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers in a sim game. Still, the check engine light for Rodriguez always bears watching.
Eovaldi has electric stuff, and a standing reservation on the injured list. He missed about three months after undergoing arthroscopic surgery last April to remove loose bodies from his pitching elbow, the same procedure he underwent in 2018 with the Rays.
Eovaldi was the perfect rental for the Sox in ’18. The Sox should have left it as a beneficial baseball fling. Instead, in the afterglow of a title, they unwisely committed four years and $68 million to Eovaldi, who has twice undergone Tommy John surgery. That deal looks even worse when the Sox are sloughing off payroll in the form of Mookie Betts and David Price to limbo under the luxury tax.
Fourth starter Martin Perez is an innings eater, but has suffered from a chronic case of swollen ERA the last two seasons.
The pressure is on the starters, with Price and Rick Porcello exiled and Betts’s departure casting a pall of old-fashioned defeatist skepticism over the season.
The burden of pitching proof lies with the Red Sox rotation. But the burden of carrying the load rests with a bullpen that has gone from liability to starting place for pitching optimism.