The Bruins are steamrolling, the Celtics are surging, the Tom Brady Watch is raging from airport boarding lines to sports talk phone lines. Meanwhile, the Red Sox are in Fort Myers, Fla., biding their time, solving for a winning equation that doesn’t include Mookie Betts or David Price.
It’s hard to know what to make of the 2020 luxury tax-resetting Red Sox, but following a week in sunny and blustery southwest Florida, this much is clear to me: This iteration of the Sox will go as far as the three arms at the top of the starting rotation — Chris Sale, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Nate Eovaldi — can take them.
On a team whose potential is tough to peg, there is no area of projection murkier than the starting rotation. It could fall anywhere from dominant to disastrous.
Nobody questions the talent of the top three. They have the right stuff to headline a formidable rotation and cover for the lack of an identifiable fifth starter and a pedestrian fourth, Martin Perez, with an inflamed earned run average. We’ve seen that with Rodriguez, coming off a breakout 19-win season, mowing down the Yankees Saturday with six strikeouts in three innings, and Eovaldi, fanning four Braves in three innings Sunday.
The issue is the ephemeral and fickle nature of their health, exemplified by spindly ace Sale already ticketed to the injured list after ending last season idled on it. For a club wisely focused on sustainability in the Chaim Bloom era, it’s unclear whether the starting rotation can sustain playoff contention. If Sale, Rodriguez, and Eovaldi end up in the familiar territory of the breakdown lane, then a return trip to the postseason is doomed to crash and burn.
While Betts is the most noticeable missing piece, it’s misery agent Price’s pitching that could prove more difficult to fill. Even without Markus Lynn Betts, offense won’t be an issue, not with Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, Rafael Devers, and a properly recalibrated Andrew Benintendi. Last year, the Sox scored 901 runs — more than they did during their 2018 World Series-winning season (876) — and slugged a club-record 245 home runs. They return 197 of those homers.
Run prevention (where have we heard that phrase before?) prowess proves trickier to project. Patriots coach Bill Belichick is fond of saying that reliability is more important than ability. The Sox’ top three starters possess a lot of the latter and not enough of the former. If the Sox had loaded the trio onto the baseball big rig transporting equipment south on Truck Day, they would have slapped “handle with care” and “fragile” stickers on them.
Sale is simultaneously a Cy Young Award winner and a hardball hiatus waiting to happen. The only thing that has kept him from claiming his rightful hardware is that he appears hard-wired to falter physically before the finish line. Last season, elbow trouble truncated an uneven season (6-11, 4.40 ERA, but 13.3 strikeouts per 9) in mid-August.
Now, pneumonia has stunted Sale’s spring training progression, making 15 pitches of live batting practice Sunday a momentous milestone. This is not what the Sox were looking for in the first year of Sale’s five-year, $145 million extension, a deal that’s a steal if Sale can stay healthy. But that’s a Tacko Fall-sized if.
“I know that on the outside looking in, this is not good. Any time you go on the IL, there is going to be some blowback with this too,” said Sale, when his earmarking for the IL instead of Opening Day in Toronto was announced last Thursday. “I get it. But I have too much respect and faith in these guys who are in my corner to ever second-guess them with any decision we make about the team, about me personally, or anything moving forward.”
Clearly, the Sox are taking all precautions. They invested too much in their Fabergé egg of an ace to do anything else. Sale started two weeks behind, so he must stay behind. As chief baseball officer Bloom said, “He’s so important to us that we shouldn’t be cutting corners with him.”
No matter what the Sox try with Sale, his track record indicates an in-season IL stint is ineluctable.
The 26-year-old Rodriguez is the presumptive Opening Day starter with Sale unavailable, but wobbly knees and an unprecedented workload last season make the lefty a candidate to redline. He tied for the major league lead in starts (34) and threw a career-high 203⅓ innings. However, he accomplished all that in a rotation that boasted Price and Rick Porcello. It’s unclear if Eddie Money’s body or psyche can bear the burden of being counted on as a co-No. 1.
“I’ve been feeling like that since I got to the big leagues, and I’ve been a starter. Every time you go out there, you got a weight on your shoulders,” said Rodriguez. “You got to go out there and get six or seven innings all the time, no matter if you’re No. 1 or No. 5. Every time you go out there, you got the team on your back.”
That sounds good, but being a lifeline on a team with little pitching leeway is different than being the kid brother fourth starter on an 84-win team just willing the curtain to close on the season.
That leads us to Eovaldi, he of the triple-digit fastball and the dubious eight-figure salary. The Sox bought at the top of the market when former president of baseball operations/professional free spender Dave Dombrowski lavished a four-year, $68 million deal on Eovaldi after he shined as a rental for the ’18 Sox.
No doubt the Sox have buyer’s remorse.
Eovaldi has all-world stuff and heart. That’s never been an issue for him. His availability has. He was limited to just 23 games and 12 starts in 2019 by surgery to remove loose bodies in his elbow, posting a 5.99 ERA.
The righthander has all but turned the IL into a timeshare. He has been shut down or sent there every season since 2015. He’s like a sports car with a faulty fan belt. He looks built for speed but is bound to break down.
The odds of all three pitchers remaining healthy the entire season is supermodel slim. That puts the onus on Bloom. He’s going to be responsible for piecing together the other two-fifths of the rotation and foraging enough depth to survive injuries to the trusted triumvirate.
Patchwork roster-building on a budget is a specialty of the Tampa Bay Rays, the baseball think tank that groomed Bloom. He’s going to need those skills. It would have helped if he had procured pitching in the Betts-Price sell-off.
Maybe, one of the Sox young pitching prospects, Darwinzon Hernandez, Tanner Houck, or 20-year-old Bryan Mata, will morph into the mound version of Rafael Devers, bailing Boston out of its starting pitching predicament. Or the Sox will go full Fenway Rays with Openers.
The mound is lining up as the hump these Sox can’t get over.