Red Sox Spring Training Primer: Starting pitching will make or break 2020

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com

Monday marks the first full-team workout for the 2020 Red Sox. While the organization will continue to have questions to answer regarding what has taken place off the field in the past few months, the on-field product will have its own questions this season.

How will a roster that has been purged of key pieces bounce back? It will be up to the few young players remaining from the Dave Dombrowski era, along with Chaim Bloom's creativity, to get the Red Sox off the ground this summer. How do those pieces fit into the big picture? We'll learn a lot about that over the next month an a half.

Of course, a lot of how that plays out hinges on the new manager, Ron Roenicke. After being thrown into the job at the last possible minute, he'll have a crucial decision to make right away that will dictate the tone of both this year's camp, and potentially the entire season.

Feb 14, 2020; Lee County, Florida, USA; Boston Red Sox interim manager Ron Roenicke walks around during spring training. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After making the deepest possible playoff run in 2018, Alex Cora came into Spring Training with a simple philosophy...rest. The plan was to limit the workload of both hitters and pitchers to give them extra time to recover from the 14 bonus games they played en route to winning the World Series in October.

While the players might have been rested, they were also rusty. The Red Sox got off to a 6-13 start and never recovered in their pursuit of the juggernaut Yankees. Despite perceived struggles throughout the season, Boston only had a sub-.500 record in three months in 2019: March (1-3), April (12-14), and September (11-15). 

There are two major changes in camp this year, with Cora no longer running the show and the Red Sox having wrapped their season up without a playoff appearance. That being said, the Red Sox lack depth at critical positions, especially pitching. Health will be a concern, but the team can’t afford another slow start this season given everything that has transpired in the last three months. Roenicke has a fine line to walk here.

The Red Sox rotation was thin before the David Price trade, but now they’ll be really stretching things, at least to start the season. Just four of the starting pitchers on the Red Sox' 40-man roster have over two years of MLB service time. Most teams use 10 or 11 different starting pitchers over the course of a season, so it’s crucial for the Red Sox plan early to make the most out what they have, and find ways to add to their depth. They should bring in a veteran arm or two (Andrew Cashner?) at some point during the spring.

Of those four starting pitchers with two or more years of MLB service time, Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez stand out as the elite members of the group, but also as the biggest question marks in terms of availability. Sale missed the end of last year with an elbow injury, and while it was determined he didn’t need Tommy John surgery at the time, it’s worth monitoring as the 30-year-old’s elbow has been considered a ticking time bomb due to his throwing motion. There’s also the compounding issue of his case of pneumonia, which reportedly could cause him to miss the beginning of the season. 

Aug 8, 2019; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale (41) delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

As for Eduardo Rodriguez, he is coming off of the most complete season of his career, having started 34 games and thrown over 200 innings in 2019. However, he missed significant amounts of time in each of his previous four seasons, never throwing more than 138 innings in a year.

How Sale and Rodriguez are managed early on is the most crucial decision Roenicke will have to make. The Red Sox can’t afford to have them break down, but both were slow out of the gate last year after a lightened workload in Spring Training. The reality is, the 2020 Red Sox will only go as far as Sale and E-Rod will take them, so the ball club needs them healthy and on their game.

If Sale, Rodriguez, or any other starter is lost for an extended period of time, the Red Sox will have two options. Use an opener (which they’ll likely have to do regardless) and add Brian Johnson and/or Hector Velazquez to the rotation, or call up 2017 first-round pick Tanner Houck. 

A 6-foot-5 right hander out of Missouri, Houck is currently with the Red Sox as a non-roster invitee to Spring Training, but projects to be ready to make his debut at some point in 2020. He probably should have been ready last year, but in one of Dave Dombrowski’s desperate last-ditch efforts to improve the bullpen, the team rushed him up to Triple-AAA and had him work as a reliever, something he hadn’t done since high school. While he wasn’t awful coming out of the ‘pen, the post-Dombrowski Red Sox moved him back into a starting role in the Arizona Fall League, where he picked up where he had left off.

Feb 14, 2020; Lee County, Florida, USA; Boston Red Sox pitcher Tanner Houck (89) works out during spring training. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Houck isn’t quite ready to crack the roster on Opening Day, but it’s not unrealistic to expect to see him at some point this year. When that will be is another question, likely to be determined by how he performs this spring. If he performs well against major league hitting, he could be up as early as May. If not, his role could fall to an emergency option behind Johnson/Velazquez.

With Chris Sale’s elbow a question mark, Nathan Eovaldi possibly heading back to the bullpen, and Eduardo Rodriguez only under team control for another year (and who knows how eager he’ll be to come back) the Red Sox need to start thinking ahead both short and long term, and Houck represents the head of the next class of young starting pitchers within the organization. 

Once again, this team will only go as the starting rotation takes them.

Last year’s team was among the league’s best offensively, but is likely to contribute less after downgrading (and I use that term lightely) from Mookie Betts and Brock Holt. Last year’s pitching staff ranked towards the bottom of the league in most major categories, and lost more this winter than it gained following the departures of Rick Porcello and David Price.

If the Red Sox are going to be playing meaningful baseball past the trade deadline this year, they’re going to need superhero efforts from Sale and Rodriguez, an attention-grabbing rookie campaign from Houck, or more likely both. Barring unforeseen circumstances (Martin Perez for Cy Young?), that’s the situation the Red Sox have put themselves in.

More notes for the start of full-squad workouts...

Will Dalbec or Chatham provide infield depth?

What Houck is to the Red Sox pitching staff, Bobby Dalbec and C.J. Chatham are to the Red Sox lineup. Dalbec, the team’s fourth-round pick in 2016, projects to be a power hitting-third third baseman who is an asset in the field. While he’s not about to knock Rafael Devers out of the lineup, one of the two could be moved to first base if Mitch Moreland struggles early. At the very least, the 24-year-old Dalbec could be a platoon for Moreland, given his success against left-handed pitching.

Mar 5, 2019; West Palm Beach, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox third baseman Bobby Dalbec (83) can not handle the ground ball hit by Washington Nationals first baseman Howie Kendrick (47) in the third inning of the spring training game at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Chatham is in a similar situation, but at a different position. The 25-year-old was drafted in the second round by the Red Sox in 2016 as a shortstop, but the organization has begun transitioning him to second base after signing Xander Bogaerts to a long-term contract extension before the 2019 season. With Brock Holt gone the Red Sox have a handful of not-awful-but-certainly-not-great options at second this year, although none possess the youth or upside of Chatham. 

Like Houck, it’s doubtful Dalbec or Chatham will be with the club on Opening Day (although unlike Houck, both are on the 40-man roster). However, there should be chances for both to show up with the big club at some point during the season, and the more they prove this spring the less they’ll have to wait in the minors once the season begins.

Who plays right field?

The Red Sox enter camp needing to replace Betts defensively in right field. With Andrew Benintendi penciled in for left, and J.D. Martinez likely not leaving his DH role, that leaves three primary center fielders in Jackie Bradley, Kevin Pillar, and Alex Verdugo to split up center and right field. 

Sep 9, 2019; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. (19) catches a fly ball hit by New York Yankees designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion (not pictured) during the seventh inning at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

With Verdugo likely to miss the beginning of the season, the battle between Bradley and Pillar becomes an interesting one. Both are considered to be among the elite defensive center fielders in the league, and have made over 90% of their career starts at the position. Based on comments made by Pillar upon his arrival in Fort Myers, it’s likely he’ll be the one giving way to Bradley and moving to right field, although it’ll be a tough task to master the unique contours around the Pesky Pole in time for the regular season. If he struggles during Spring Training games, don’t rule out the Red Sox trying Bradley out there to see if he’s an improvement.

Once Verdugo comes back, he’ll likely become the right fielder, with Pillar sliding into a platoon role as the only right-handed hitting outfielder on the Red Sox roster. There is also a chance either during the spring or mid-season that Bradley and his expiring $11 million contract are traded for desperately needed pitching help. 

Sorting out the bullpen...

Sep 21, 2019; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Brandon Workman (44) throws a pitch during the tenth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox bullpen was their biggest issue last year, and the team did nearly nothing to address those problems this offseason. Former Collegiate Baseball All-American Matt Hall proves to be an interesting addition, although he’s struggled in the majors with the Tigers over the last two years. Ron Roenicke has already announced Brandon Workman as the team’s closer, but beyond that it feels like an open competition, one that will likely run for the entirety of Spring Training and probably into April.

Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Hate mail? Let him hear it on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at [email protected]