Saturday, February 27, 2016

Red Sox Rotation Preview

We will continue our pre Grapefruit League look at the 2016 Red Sox by examining the starting rotation.

There is no question the starting pitching should be better than 2015, perhaps much better.  But there are still questions.  In this camp there are nine pitchers who could start for the Red Sox at some point during the year.  If you want to make it an even ten candidates, you can include 28 year old journeyman, Sean O'Sullivan who is in camp as a non roster invitee and likely Paw Sox starter. Sean has started 52 MLB games from 2009 through last year with four different teams. However if Sean O'Sullivan is starting games for Boston in 2016 something has gone terribly wrong.

Every one of the other nine started for Boston last year except for numbers one and nine.  Let's start at the top.

1. David Price.  Can a team win without an ace?  That is a debatable topic, but one thing is clear: the 2015 Red Sox could not.  The " He's an ace" tee shirts are gone as are two of the five 2015 starters: Wade Miley and Justin Masterson. New Sox boss, Dave Dombrowski went out this winter and signed the best free agent ace available( with apologies to Zack Greinke).

There is not one thing negative to the David Price resume (OK, maybe those nagging post season stumbles, but let's hope he has a chance to address that in 2016).  Price's career numbers include a 104-56 won-loss record with an ERA of 3.09 with a WHIP of around 1.10.  In 2015 splitting the season between the Tigers and Jays, Price was 18-5 (9-4 in Motown and 9-1 leading the Jays to the AL East title) with an ERA of 2.45 with a WHIP just over 1.00.

Beyond the raw numbers, Price has thrived during his career in the American League, almost entirely as a starter in the AL East.  So he will not be a stranger to the division.  And everywhere he has played, managers and teammates swear by the high level of teammate Price is.  And he is willing and able to take the reins as the leader of the rotation.  This will take the pressure off all the other starters to a degree.  And maybe most importantly provides a mentor to Eduardo Rodriguez, who at age 23, has all the ability to become a Price-like hurler himself.

2. Clay Buchholz.  Yeah, we all know Buchholz cannot stay healthy and give a staff 200 innings a year.  But here is a novel idea, does this team really need 30 starts from Clay Buchholz?  Hey, if he gives you those 30 starts with 180-200 innings, great.  He will be your number two (or even 1A) behind Price.  But with Buchholz if the Sox can get the quality he usually provides when healthy, so what if he makes 18-20 starts and then cedes his rotation spot to one of the young lefties we will discuss down the page. There is a chance even if Clay pitches well, he could be the fourth or fifth stater on this team.  This Sox team has enough depth to survive not getting 180 innings from a back of the rotation starter.

3. Rick Porcello.  Rick (whose given first is Frederick, by the way) did not have a successful maiden voyage on the USS Red Sox. His ERA of 4.92 lead to only a 9-13 record. It was the first time in his seven seasons he had not reached ten wins. But after a brief DL stint and changing his pitching style back to the Detroit version, Porcello finished 2015 on an up note.  With these changes and any pressure Porcello may have felt trying to be the ace gone with Price's arrival, look for a return to the 13-15 wins he usually produced with Detroit.

4. Eduardo Rodriguez. Rodriguez, who will not turn 23 until the opening week of the new season, burst onto the big league scene in 2015. His record was 10-6, an ERA of 3.85, with 98 strikeouts in 121 innings.  The ERA could have been significantly lower, but for two or three games in which E-Rod was found to be tipping pitches and he was lit up.  However, the work has been put in to eliminate the tipping flaw, and the youngster is poised to continue on the road to stardom.

In Alex Speier's always informative blog called 108 Stitches (if you are not signed up for this you should do so now) he recently looked at 25 other young left handers of the past who had similar debut seasons. Two of them, Andy Pettitte and Cole Hamels burst into stardom as sophs and 10 of the 25(40%) increased their WAR by more than 50% in year two (Rodriguez has a WAR of 2.5 in '15).  Especially with David Price as a sounding board, do not be surprised if E-Rod is the number two starter on this staff.

5. Joe Kelly.  As with Porcello, Kelly was compiling a disappointing 2015, so poor that he was optioned to AAA.  But then in August into September Kelly rattled off wins in eight straight starts, and looked like the light had finally come on for the hard throwing righty.  Kelly used his other pitches along with the 98 mph heater, and got startling results.  Kelly enters the season as the number five starter, but if his late '15 campaign was not a fluke, he could pitch as effectively as any other starter.  If he cannot replicate the results and the pitch mix of that eight game streak, Kelly may join the Sox bullpen.

6. Steven Wright.  If the Red Sox truly want Wright to be the first weapon in their rotation's depth, he will need to make the team out of Florida.  Wright, who is now 31, has no more options left, so the Sox cannot stash him at Pawtucket without putting him through waivers first.  It is very doubtful Wright would clear waivers, so he either needs to win the fifth starter role in camp or be the last man in the bullpen. Wright, who has a career 3.95 ERA in 26 games, is likely to begin the campaign in the pen, barring an injury to another starter.

7. Henry Owens.  The heralded former first round pick made his MLB debut in 2015.  Henry made eleven late season starts going 4-4 with an ERA of 4.57.  At times the change up that Owens is renowned for made big league hitters look as bad as the minor leaguers.  But as the numbers showed, Owens had a mixed debut.  But he did show promise and as Henry continues to mature and fill out his 6'6" frame, his fastball still could move up a tick or two or the radar guns. Owens, who will not turn 24 until July 21, is likely to begin 2016 back in Pawtucket gaining more experience.  But if he should dominate AAA, like he has some other levels, Henry could be pounding on the door back to Boston by mid-season.

8. Brian Johnson.  Johnson also made his MLB debut in 2015 and had the same opportunity  as Owens right in his hands.  Johnson pitched 4.1 innings and gave up four runs versus the Astros and then was surprisingly sent back to Pawtucket.  It turns out Johnson was having some arm problems, eventually diagnosed as ulnar nerve irritation, and he missed the rest of the season.  Fortunately Johnson was deemed not to need surgery just rest. So he enters 2016 expecting a return to the Paw Sox rotation. His reputation as a pitcher is someone who consistently performs and repeats his delivery pitch after pitch, start after start.  Scouts do not see Johnson as a front line hurler, but they do see someone who could be in the middle to back of a rotation for a decade or more in the big leagues.  Expect Brian Johnson to get more than just one start for the Red Sox this year.

9. Roenis Elias.  The 27 year old lefty was signed by Seattle out of Cuba in 2011.  Elias has pitched the last two seasons for the Mariners, going10-12 in '14 and 5-8 last year. His career ERA is 3.97 and he has started 49 games (out of 52 appearances).  If you are looking for a sleeper candidate to break out and really help the 2016 Red Sox this could be your man.

Elias, the second piece acquired in the Wade Miley to Seattle trade (reliever Carson Smith was the top target), may be placed in the bullpen as the Sox look for another lefty out there.  But as noted above Roenis has only come out of the pen three times in 52 MLB games.  The conventional wisdom has Elias beginning the year starting at Pawtucket, along with fellow left handers Owens and Johnson.

Elias may well be one of the intriguing stories to watch for from Fort Myers.

I am upbeat about this rotation.  But as a last note, if this Red Sox team is contending come trade deadline time(which this year by the way is August 1, rather than July 31) you can fully expect Dave Dombrowski to use the Red Sox resources to acquire another starter if this group is not providing enough firepower to fuel a championship drive.

In our next post, we will examine the rebuilt Boston bullpen.

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