The 2017 Boston Red Sox finished 10th in Major League Baseball in runs scored and 26th in slugging percentage. But even with J.D. Martinez in tow, the fortunes of the 2018 edition will be closely linked to the successes and failures of the starting rotation.
On paper, they’re one of the more formidable groups in the league, boasting Cy Young Award winners, All-Stars, and some hefty financial commitments. And with the Sox unlikely to win games by simply outscoring opponents, they will also be heavily relied upon to silence some of the league’s more formidable lineups, including Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and the New York Yankees.
Red Sox lore is littered with teams that could’ve, should’ve been something special but wound up on the wrong side of history. A lack of pitching has often been the culprit, and injuries have certainly played a role. Rare is the season like 2004, when Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield and Bronson Arroyo started 157 out of 162 games. Successful teams can live in the gray area, perhaps not touching the ceiling, but avoiding the cellar.
Even during that World Series campaign, Martinez had a down year by his standards, posting a 3.90 ERA. Statistically, Lowe was one of the worst starters in baseball. But both were nails in the postseason. And we all know October has not been kind to Boston pitchers the last two years.
Let’s take a look at the key questions facing the Red Sox rotation this year.
1. Can Chris Sale Keep it Together?
There is little doubt the 6-foot-6, 180 pound lefty is one of the elite talents in the game, and there were a litany of reasons for team president Dave Dombrowski to empty the cupboard to get him. In six seasons as a starter, Sale has led the league in strikeouts (last year), twice paced the circuit in complete games, and is currently MLB’s all-time leader in strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s been selected to six All-Star teams.
But the All-Star Game happens in July. For all his superhuman exploits, Sale becomes something less than electric the second half of the regular season, posting just a 3.49 ERA in the months of August and September. The drop-off was even more pronounced last year for the 28-year old, as he went 4-5 with a 4.69 ERA his last 12 turns in the rotation, including a savage beating at the hands of the eventual World Series champion Astros in the American League Division Series.
Something happens to Sale as the season wears on. You can see it in his arm slot, in the hanging sliders that opposing batters hammer over the outfield walls. His lights-out performances don’t disappear completely, but they’re more regularly accompanied by duds.
Outgoing skipper John Farrell paid lip service to the fact that the Sox gave Sale extra days of rest last year when they had the opportunity. But he still led the AL in innings pitched and threw nearly 500 more pitches on the season than AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber. He also impressively became the first AL starter since Martinez to strike out more than 300 batters in a season. Sale clearly wants to be a workhorse, and so did Martinez back in the day. But even at the height of Pedro’s powers, he started a combined 58 games for the 1999 and 2000 Red Sox. Sale is nearly a foot taller than the diminutive Dominican dynamo, but it’s clear that he, too, should be handled with care.
Ask Sale about the phenomenon and he’s dismissive. He told the Naples Daily News, “I don’t read any of that stuff. I let other people talk about it.” But a revamped offseason approach exhibits a clear acknowledgement of the team’s concerns, particularly under a new manager and pitching coach. Sale started throwing later this winter, and his spring training workload was more conservative than in years past, as he tossed just 14 and 2/3 innings across four appearances. Granted, he was removed from his most recent outing after taking a comebacker off the hip, but it’s clear the Sox and Sale have something different in mind for 2018.
2. Will David Price Be Standing In October?
The Red Sox want Sale to be their ace, but probably not a classic workhorse. Can David Price be that guy again? Though the overall body of work was tepid, he preceded his teammate by tossing 230 innings to lead the league in 2016. Price and Porcello submitted a decent facsimile of “Spahn, Sain, and Pray For Rain,” at least until Cleveland took both pitchers to the cleaners and unceremoniously vested David Ortiz’s retirement plan in the 2016 postseason.
Then, last spring, the elbow started acting up and suddenly Drew Pomeranz was Boston’s second-best starter behind Sale, as Price took time to heal and Rick Porcello’s home run woes sent Fenway fans into the Witness Protection Program. Price made just 11 starts and returned late in the year to the role of relief ace, posting 19 strikeouts against eight hits, four walks, and zero earned runs in 15 and 1/3 innings across September and October. He was sharp, he contributed in the postseason, and it was just enough to hope for better things in 2018.
The left-hander put in the work this offseason, kicking off his workouts with Red Sox staff in December, and he told Dan Shaughnessy his elbow feels “normal.” Previously, we learned of his magical healing powers.
We all know about Price’s difficulties in the postseason. He’s still looking to win his first career playoff start. Here’s hoping the combination of hard work and optimism gets him there.
3. Will the Real Rick Porcello Please Stand Up?
Rare is the pitcher who goes from leading the league in wins to leading the league in losses. And yet, Rick Porcello managed to do it on back-to-back AL East-leading teams. Porcello’s three years in Boston have been an absolute roller coaster. After signing a four-year, $82.5 million deal before he even threw a pitch at Fenway, he went 9-15 with a 4.92 ERA in 2015. But an effective late-season stretch coming off the disabled list (a 3.14 ERA over eight starts, with 57 strikeouts in 57 and 1/3 innings pitched) provided a glimmer of hope. In 2016, he blew away expectations and won the American League Cy Young Award, becoming the first 22-game winner for the Sox since Martinez in 1999. While advanced stats suggested he was somewhat lucky, all winners need a little luck.
In 2017, his luck ran out. Porcello ranked in the bottom 15 of MLB in run support at just 4.63 per game. He compounded the problem by allowing the most hits (236) and home runs (38) of any starter, and perpetually seemed to take one step up and two steps back (there’s your requisite Springsteen reference in a baseball article).
We have no idea what to expect from Porcello in 2018. I never thought he was as bad as the guy we saw in 2015, nor as good as the trophy winner the following season. An optimistic comparison might be Derek Lowe, another Boston pitcher for whom the sinker was a key to success. Following 21 wins in 2002, Lowe never again rose to such prominence, but he remained an effective arm into the next decade.
4. Can Drew Pomeranz Do It Again?
If Porcello is unable to assume the mantle of third starter, Pomeranz certainly looks capable. Boston’s third lefty was the team’s second best starter behind Sale last year, as he answered all of the questions that dogged him during his initial stint in Boston. He completed a full season in the AL East, logged a career-high total of innings, and maintained the great strikeout rate found in San Diego following a half-decade of bouncing around. And after yielding 14 home runs in 69 and 2/3 innings pitched in his debut half-season, he gave up just 19 all of last year.
Unlike Porcello, Pomeranz received the best run support in all of baseball last year at 6.6 runs per game. So a repeat on 17 wins might not be a realistic target, particularly starting the season on the disabled list. But if he can take the ball every fifth day and continue to mix his pitches effectively, the former All-Star is an excellent mid-rotation option.
5. Is Eduardo Rodriguez the Next Clay Buchholz?
The guy the Red Sox got in return for Andrew Miller won’t be 25 for another couple of weeks, but he’s already started 65 Major League games. His 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings last season would have been top ten in the American League, had he not failed to pile up the requisite amount of innings to qualify. And that’s the problem. Rodriguez has spent parts of the last three seasons with the big club mostly failing to find a groove that combines consistency with health.
There have been stretches, such as the nine-start kickoff to last season where he went 4-1 with a 2.77 ERA before his knee gave out. There was a solid 14-start run to close out 2016 (following another knee malady). There was the encouraging rookie campaign where he dominated when he wasn’t tipping his pitches.
Again, he's not even 25.
Boston fans would love to see Rodriguez succeed. With knee surgery in his rearview mirror, he’ll start 2018 on the shelf. When he returns, he'll have the opportunity to either break through, or move closer to the Buchholz Zone.
What Happens If/When Someone Gets Injured?
It already happened.
Pomeranz (forearm) and Rodriguez (knee) won't break camp with the club, handing the ball to Hector Velasquez and Brian Johnson, respectively.
Steven Wright just received a PRP injection in his knee and won't be an option until he comes back from that and a 15-game suspension recently levied by MLB. When healthy, the knuckleballer has shown the ability to chew innings and win games. But his health has been a question mark since John Farrell called his name for pinch-running duty 18 months ago.
Johnson looked capable last year in five starts, even firing a five-hit shutout against Seattle. The once highly touted 27-year old will look to remain on the roster in some capacity following a truncated 2017.
Velazquez was the healthiest of the reserves last year and though the Mexican League product's Red Sox and MLB debut was a stinker, he helped the staff with a couple of spot starts and long relief stints down the stretch. He's not a prospect at 29, but the Sox need all the depth they can get.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.