When you’re looking at reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming 2016 Red Sox season, the starting rotation is high atop the list. David Price is a heck of an addition to any team’s rotation, then there’s the return to health of Clay Buchholz, the return to effectiveness of Rick Porcello, and the generalized return of the young and talented Eduardo Rodriguez and the hard throwing Joe Kelly. And that’s all great. Except if we’re being truthful with ourselves, we know that isn’t really the whole story. Five guys isn’t enough. Five guys is never enough. The season requires more than most rotations are capable of giving.
An example! Last season the Red Sox used 12 different starting pitchers. The season before that they used 11. The World Series-winning season of 2013? Eleven different starters were used. Going back five years, the Red Sox have used an average of over 10 starters per season. So we know there have to be starters waiting to take over rotation slots when injuries and downturns in performance happen. And they will happen because they always happen. So who are those guys slated to step in for the Red Sox? Who are their next five?
The first is probably Roenis Elias. Elias came over from the Mariners with reliever Carson Smith in the deal that cost the Red Sox Wade Miley and Jonathan Aro. We can be plain about this: Elias wasn’t the reason the Red Sox made the deal. He’s a nice throw-in, but nothing else. Smith was the big prize. The reason things are the way they are is that, to date, Elias hasn’t been a very good starting pitcher. I have my curiosities about him as a potential reliever (he’s absolutely dominated left-handed hitters in his career) but all his numbers so far indicate he walks too many guys and gives up too many homers to right-handed hitters, of which there are many more than the lefties he loves to face.
Elias doesn’t have much in the way of upside. He won’t hurt in small quantities, in fact that’s likely his highest and best purpose, but if the Red Sox find him reaching double digits in starts they’ll have done something wrong. That said, he does have the most major league experience as a starter of any of the rest of the available starters the Red Sox might turn to in a pinch. He’s good to have, but bad to use, if that makes any sense.
After Elias … actually, here’s a fun trivia question. Of the 11 pitchers who started games for the 2013 World Series Champion Red Sox, three are still on the roster. One is Clay Buchholz. Name the other two.
And now I’m totally spoiling this. One is Steven Wright. We’ll get to the other in a few paragraphs. So, Wright. If you’re reading this you probably know about Wright. He’s a knuckleballer, heir to the Wakefield crown in Red Sox-dom, but not because he is as good as Wakefield so much as because he has the same repertoire. Like Elias, Wright is a fine stop-gap, but not any kind of long term solution. I mention this because if there’s a major injury the Red Sox aren’t going to be able to rely on Wright (or Elias) for much beyond the time it would take to wait for a trade to be made or, more likely…
Henry Owens! Owens features more upside than either Elias or Wright, though there is some question of whether or not he can succeed at all with his spotty command and his high-80s fastball. If his command improves he’s by far Boston’s best option in this group, and considering how Boston has five guys ahead of him in the rotation, Owens figures to start the season in Triple-A Pawtucket so there will more frequent and less painful chances for Owens to step forward, hone his command, and become that middle of the rotation guy the Red Sox badly want him to become.
After the above three, there are really only two guys on the roster who have a chance to step out onto the mound in the first inning of a game for the Red Sox this season. The first is Brian Johnson, and the second is Brandon Workman. Both are coming off injuries; Workman underwent Tommy John surgery which cost him much of the 2015 season, and Johnson suffered an elbow injury which cost him the end of 2015. Workman will spend most of the season recovering and working to get back after the surgery, so don’t figure on seeing him in a Red Sox uniform until at least after the All Star break, and probably not until well after that. Even so, it’s not entirely clear where he best fits into Boston’s plans. He may not be a starter going forward, even though he has been one much of his career with the Red Sox. Of course, the Red Sox will be able to evaluate him during his rehabilitation, but likely he’s not much of a long term starter option. Think of Workman like Elias. He’s good to have, just hope you don’t actually have to use him.
Johnson is a different story. He seems likely to be healthy, or at least to start out that way, and he’s definitely a starting pitcher. His potential problem is his health. Johnson suffered a nerve issue in his elbow that forced him to miss the final two months of the season. That does not sound good. Still, the Red Sox insist he’s healthy and his upside, especially in this group, is enticing. The strike-throwing left-hander figures to be a back of the rotation guy, maybe a three or four at best, but if healthy he’s the kind of player who the team could plug in with relatively few worries should one of the lesser starters go down for an extended period of time.
On the whole, the team actually has some intriguing depth here. Elias, the starter with major league experience, would likely be the first one called upon should the need arise, but if Johnson gets healthy or Owens takes a step forward, there is some upside here. Of course if something were to happen to one of the top three starters, the Red Sox have enough depth in their minor league system to make a trade for a starter. Still, a time will likely come during the 2016 season when the Red Sox will need a spot start or two, and possibly two in a row, and they’ll need to call upon a pitcher who can give them five or so innings while not blowing the game open. With Elias, Wright, Owens, Johnson, and Workman, the Red Sox seem to have that.
Oh, and the final part of the answer to that trivia question? Brandon Workman. Bet you didn’t guess that.
Photo by Kelly O’Connor/www.sittingstill.smugmug.com