Henry Owens

Mining the Depths of the Red Sox’s Pitching Options

For roughly 48 hours last week, the Red Sox got a glimpse at the cold, barren hellscape that is only having two aces and not three. Let’s quickly recap: David Price has a normal spring training outing, feels fine immediately after, wakes up with sore elbow and forearm tightness, a lot of internet chaos ensues, Price flies to Indianapolis to visit arm-specialist/wizard surgeon James Andrews and becomes the first person in the history of elbows to come away from that meeting with positive news. Somehow, Price and the team thought that the injury was serious enough to consult the world’s foremost expert on Tommy John surgery and came away with a prescription for a week of rest.

Despite a minor medical miracle taking place, the biggest ripple effect the news had on the team was the sudden spotlight placed on its starting pitching depth. There was the indictment of Dave Dombrowski because he traded Clay Buchholz for pennies on the dollar. That was followed by speculation about what it would take to trade for another ace, because apparently that’s the Red Sox’s only move now. Those zesty takes were followed, however, by the most daunting exercise of all: a look at the team’s internal options. The Red Sox have about a half dozen options to turn to in case of a serious injury, and only one of them inspires one ounce of confidence. Quantity certainly doesn’t assure quality, which is ultimately a pickle that the Red Sox know they’re one sore elbow from having to address. From the lot of current Triple-A guys, here’s one (now incredibly relieved that this is a hypothetical exercise) fan’s guess at who would be best option to turn to.

The (hopefully, presuming I cherry-pick the right stats to show) Good

Eduardo Rodriguez/Steven Wright

This one comes with a bit of a caveat, because it’s more likely than not that they both make a significant number of starts this season even with Price being presumably healthy. It’s still too early to tell how the Red Sox are going to handle dealing with the fact that they have two spots for three starters; it seems that Rodriguez is ahead of both Wright and Pomeranz when it comes to health, but Rodriguez is also the only one of the three with options left. There’s obviously a desire for patience and precaution when it comes to Rodriguez, but there’s also no doubt that the Red Sox would prefer to have a lefty who’s shown flashes of being a front-line starter when healthy pitch more frequently than two arms who, while dependable, have significantly lower ceilings (All-Star appearances aside).

In the long run, Wright just feels like the odd man out, which is entirely unfair. Rodriguez is never going to be a spot-starter, and the team will ride with Pomeranz a little longer – whether they want to or not – based on what they saw from him in San Diego and what they gave up to get him. That being said, there are much worse things than having an All-Star caliber knuckleballer as the backup option. Wright is the most versatile of the bunch, which ironically means he’s the most likely to get sent to the bullpen. Baseball sucks sometimes.

The (probably, but maybe not?) Bad

Kyle Kendrick

He gets placed in this tier simply because he’s logged a bunch of major league innings over his career and would presumably limit the damage a tad more effectively than anyone who follows. There’s not a lot that stands out when you look at his numbers, as he’s been roughly a replacement-level pitcher since he broke through with the Phillies in 2007. If there’s something positive to be said about Kendrick, it’s that he’s dependable – only once in his career has he pitched fewer than 100 innings (2009). He doesn’t strike people out (career 12.7 K%) and his walk numbers (career 6.6 BB% and 2.59 BB/9) are neither fantastic nor alarming. He has a tendency to give up homers (career 1.24 HR/9 and 12% HR/FB), although playing in Colorado last season surely played into the career-worst performance he put up in those categories last season. He’s a prime candidate for some small bounce-back this season, but even a positive regression to career norms isn’t thrilling anyone.


Brian Johnson

I’m aware that having Johnson this high up could be seen as a stretch and I’ve admittedly always been higher on him than is probably accurate, but hear me out: when Johnson isn’t hurt, the numbers say he could be a useful insurance policy. Staying healthy has always been his biggest battle, but it wasn’t that long ago when he was putting up 118 innings of impressive baseball (1.75 ERA, 3.15 FIP, 7.55 K/9 in 2014) in Double-A. Take this for what it’s worth, but the reports about Johnson from camp so far have been overwhelmingly positive. David Price he is not, but it only gets worse from here, so for now, a healthy Johnson should – but probably won’t – get a crack at the majors before any of his Pawtucket teammates.

Hector Velazquez

For the time being, Velazquez represents the least reliable yet most intriguing option in this tier. He’s only pitched in Mexico, and his numbers, barring last season, are incredibly average. To his credit, he put up a 2.79 FIP while striking out just over eight batters per nine innings and walking a hair above one (!) batter per nine as well. Those are good numbers, and numbers that the Red Sox would be thrilled with from a depth/bullpen option. He throws hard, but so did Daniel Bard (is that comparison less sad if it rhymes?). Velazquez represents an intriguing option who’s more than likely going to end up spending most of the season in the minors with an outside shot of helping the bullpen at some point later in the summer.

The Ugly

Roenis Elias/Henry Owens

I’ll group these two together because you’re not any more interested in reading separate entries for these guys than I am writing them. It’s sad that we’ve arrived here, considering there was, at one point, pretty substantial (albeit cautious) optimism for both of these guys not too long ago. At this point in both of their careers, they simply just don’t have the command to be successful or even viable major league options. Owen’s well-documented struggles have helped distract from the slightly-less-horrible-but-still-concerning stats that Elias has been putting up under essentially the same workload. While a look at their numbers suggests that they’re more similar than not, previous call-ups over the last season or two suggest that the team still views Owens as the preferred option. Whether that makes sense or not – Elias is basically Owens with one fewer walk per nine innings – is an argument for another time. Still – either one of them getting substantial innings on the major league roster would indicate that something went very, very wrong. If the Red Sox are truly as all-in as their last two offseason’s worth of moves have indicated, there’s no way they seriously roll the dice with either Elias or Owens.

Photo by Kamil Krazynski/USA Today Sports Images 

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