By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports hub
BOSTON (CBS) — Before pitchers and catchers even reported to Fort Myers last month, Red Sox fans were worried about the team’s rotation depth behind a Big Three of Chris Sale, Rick Porcello and David Price, who last year combined to log nearly 680 innings, posted 56 wins and 650 strikeouts while pitching to a 3.50 ERA.
Dominating numbers — and when you consider it was a relative down season for Price while simultaneously a career year for American League Cy Young Award winner Porcello, you could expect the 2017 combined totals to land in a similar neighborhood. But Boston fans are never satisfied. Just ask Rick Pitino.
Price got hurt, and the rotation became the 2017 edition of “Spahn, Sain and Pray For Rain.” Local masochists mourned the loss of Clay (expletive) Buchholz, placing little faith in the triumvirate of Eduardo Rodriguez, Steven Wright and Drew Pomeranz to weather the storm. The clouds really started to assemble when Pomeranz, too, had trouble staying on the mound, and now the lefty will begin the season on the 10-day disabled list.
Meanwhile, spring training invitee Kyle Kendrick compiled perhaps the most impressive Grapefruit League performance of all, but he’s been dismissed as just another National League guy set to take his place in a long line of imports that came to Boston on make-good terms and ultimately couldn’t hack it: Wade Miller, Brad Penny, John Smoltz, Bartolo Colon. And who’s lurking (along with the recently demoted Kendrick) down I-95? Henry Owens and his 5.19 ERA across 16 big league starts.
So, since we’re here, Red Sox fans – what’s your nightmare scenario?
How about 2009? Coming off a defeat in the seventh game of the ’08 ALCS, with Manny Ramirez gone and David Ortiz hampered by a wrist injury, pitching was supposed to carry the day. They, too, had a Big Three. 2007 World Series MVP Josh Beckett looked healthy and motivated again. 25-year old Jon Lester was coming off a 16-win campaign in which he had thrown a no-hitter. And despite averaging less than six innings a start, Terry Francona had coaxed Daisuke Matsuzaka to a fourth place finish in the previous year’s Cy Young voting.
With Tim Wakefield penciled into his customary fourth spot, Theo Epstein went back to the veteran well, investing $10.5 million to have Smoltz and Penny to duke it out for the right to be the fifth starter. Penny had made just 17 starts with an ERA north of six for the ’08 Dodgers; Smoltz pitched more effectively for the Braves but had undergone midseason shoulder surgery.
To say neither impressed would be an understatement, as they combined for a 9-13 record and a 6.24 ERA in Boston. Fortunately, Buchholz emerged from his cocoon to pitch effectively down the stretch, and Theo traded for Paul Byrd when both Dice-K and Wakefield crumbled to injuries. Lacking their familiar offensive punch to hold up the pitching staff, the Sox were swept in three games by John Lackey and the Angels in the ALDS.
Rodriguez, Wright and Pomeranz are no Smoltz and Penny.
Their record of recent success and upside is exactly what is needed at the back end of the rotation to cushion the blow from the absence of Price (however long that may be). Collectively, they’re overqualified, with two of the three boasting All-Star appearances, and not of the Brock Holt variety. Even if Price misses a significant amount of time, Rodriguez, Wright and Pomeranz are serviceable three-through-five starters in any city in the majors. And, at the very least, we no longer have to endure Buchholz.
Rodriguez, still just 23 years young, has logged almost 230 major league innings. He averaged 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings pitched last year, which puts him in close company with fellow lefties Cole Hamels, Price and old friend Lester. He had a nice 14-start stretch to close last season, is coming off a Grapefruit League slate where he looked sharp, and the southpaw once traded for Andrew Miller appears poised to cash in following a series of fits and starts in 2015 and ‘16.
Wright’s numbers did the talking last season: he was 13-5 with a 3.01 ERA (and an All-Star nod) before an unnecessary injury on the base paths last August. He returned to throw 13 and 1/3 sparkling innings this spring, scattering six hits and allowing just one earned run. Wright’s a knuckleballer, so nobody will ever believe his stats from last year are sustainable over time. But right now, he’s in Wakefield’s spot as the fourth starter.
Your fifth starter out of the chute? Pomeranz. He’s on the DL for now, a move that can be spun as a simple roster management tactic. They don’t need him until April 9. While Rodriguez and Wright are intriguing stories in their own respect, the 28-year old lefty pitching for his fifth organization is perhaps the one to monitor closely. Once the fifth pick in the draft, he was finally healthy enough to nab an All-Star selection last season.
Was it Petco Park? He had a better ERA on the road than at home while pitching for the Padres. Was it the NL West? He actually dominated the Dodgers and Rockies across four starts in 2016, and one of those teams was in the NLCS, while the other had the No. 2 offense in baseball. You can probably attribute his success to the development of an effective cutter, which he threw 13 percent of the time to great results. He finished 10th in the majors in strikeout rate last year, and didn’t fall off that much (10.1 to 9.3) when he joined the vaunted AL East.
The Sox gave up a top prospect (one who was 6-11 with a 4.49 ERA in A-ball last season) to get him; that put a target on his back. He pitched poorly at Fenway, and that magnified things. His elbow wasn’t right at the end of last season, and he didn’t impress at spring training this year. But right now, he’s your fifth starter. If Price comes back, they won’t even need 30 starts out of Pomeranz. And waiting in the wings (for now) is Kendrick.
With all of the panic over the back end of the rotation, let’s not forget Chris Sale is at the front. And Porcello is your No. 2 instead of Buchholz and his hot garbage. With the top two spots locked in (and an opportunity for a healthy Price to grab the third) there’s a lot less risk in counting on Rodriguez, Wright or Pomeranz for innings. If I’m a manager, I’d rather have my No. 4 or 5 guy miss a start than the nominal second starter, which Buchholz was heading into last year. And in 2015, Buchholz was “the ace.” Or was it this guy? Or this guy?
We’ve already resigned ourselves to the fact that Price won’t live up to his contract here, but if he can get back and pitch semi-effectively, this team (and rotation) is still the cream of the AL East. In the meantime, there’s Sale, Porcello, a young gun, Tim Wakefield 2.0, and a guy who was an NL All-Star and made all of 13 starts in Boston last year. These guys are not Smoltz or Penny. They’re not Pat Rapp or Mark Portugal. If you want to worry, there are other things to worry about.
Sean Sylver is a contributor to CBSBostonSports.com who can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @sylverfox25.