Kaufman: The Red Sox’ Rotating Playoff Rotation

BOSTON (CBS) — With 17 games left to play in the regular season entering Thursday’s rubber game with the Athletics at Fenway, many Red Sox fans are looking ahead to a second straight trip to the postseason and likely another division crown, clamoring, “What’s the playoff rotation?!”

You’d have been looked at cross-eyed had you suggested in spring training that Boston’s top three starters wouldn’t include a healthy reigning Cy Young winner or a former ace making $30 million, but here we are.

As of this moment, we can all agree on one thing: Chris Sale, a candidate for his first Cy Young, will take the ball in Game 1.

After the southpaw, debate. Lots and lots of debate.

It would have been laughable to advocate for Drew Pomeranz as Boston’s No. 2 this time last year, but the 15-game winner owns a 3.35 ERA and has had a resurgent season in his first full year calling Fenway home. Banished to the bullpen last fall with a limited workload, the lefty has undeniably been the Sox’ most consistent starter next to Sale — and perhaps more so.

It’s reasonable to suggest Doug Fister, one of Dave Dombrowski’s greatest free agent finds since taking the reins from Ben Cherington, should slot in behind Pomeranz to start Game 3. But that’s no given, especially after getting tagged for six runs on six hits through four innings Wednesday.

Rick Porcello was a model of consistency for Boston in his historic 2016 campaign, when he went 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA and worked at least six innings in 30 of 33 starts while allowing three runs or fewer his final 13. But the follow-up hasn’t gone so well. The Opening Day starter has had his moments, but reliability hasn’t been there during a 17-loss season that’s seen 35 balls leave the park. Though the righty’s generally pitched his usual minimum of six innings, Porcello has permitted at least four runs a whopping 14 times. Of course, it’s worth noting he has a 3.74 ERA on the road this year, which could theoretically lift him from fourth on the totem pole to second if manager John Farrell cares for splits.

Eduardo Rodriguez has struggled to stay healthy, which has been an unfortunate trend of late for the youngster. At points, he would’ve appeared a lock for the playoff rotation, but as of now he could fall anywhere between No. 3 and the bullpen.

Then there’s David Price. The long-suffering playoff performer threw a successful three-inning simulated game on Wednesday and said he felt strong and ready to return, however the calendar may dictate the veteran be limited to relief duties in October – if anything at all. He’s been sidelined since July 22 with his unique elbow.

The point: Trying to nail down Farrell’s playoff rotation with two-plus weeks left in the regular season makes about as much sense as working to determine when the Patriots and Tom Brady will part ways. The answer will ultimately come down to recency bias more than track-record and, in the case of the Sox, no one has much of a history worth discussing.

Sale has never appeared in the postseason, nor has Rodriguez. Pomeranz has pitched twice in relief with a 4.91 ERA. Fister is 4-2 over nine playoff appearances – eight starts. His last start and win came as a member of the Nationals in 2014, but he has a 2.60 career ERA in the second-season. Porcello’s started three games and appeared in nine with a 5.66 ERA and 0-3 record. And most can recite Price’s postseason numbers: 2-8 with a 5.54 ERA in 15 games, but both wins came in relief and the 2012 Cy Young winner has never won any of his nine playoff starts. You’re more likely to be relieved than shed a tear if he’s pitching out of the pen, and that’s if he’s healthy, strong, and fresh enough to toe the rubber in the first place.

Removing Sale from the equation since he’s the only lock for his spot, let’s look at the world of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately:

– Since May 14 – a span of 22 starts – Pomeranz has a 2.87 ERA and he’s only surrendered more than four earned runs once. He’s no innings-eater but has pitched at least five frames in all but one of his last 16 starts and has a 9-1 record and 2.61 mark during that stretch. Provided Pomeranz faces the Astros in the opening round, the former All-Star lefty will try to build off his one successful start June 16 in Houston when he allowed just one run over 6 1/3 frames.

– Fister had a 2.79 ERA over seven starts in place of the injured Price and a 1.50 mark his last four before getting torched Wednesday. It was the fifth straight time the sinkerballer been scored upon in the opening inning. Setting the tone early in playoff starts is obviously important, so that untimely pattern is concerning. Fister’s also beaten the American League leading Indians twice, which only helps his candidacy in that potential matchup.

– Porcello has a 4.64 ERA on the season and, while he’s been marginally better his last dozen starts with a 4.08 mark, he’s given up at least seven runs in two of his last four. He was lit up for seven runs over six innings in Houston June 17.

– Rodriguez has been sharper in two September outings with a 2.25 ERA over 12 innings, but he also let up five runs each of his previous two starts and would need to go on a nice run to finish out the season to instill the confidence deserving of his first playoff start.

The Red Sox will host the Astros for a four-game set to close the season. It’s possible that will begin a stretch of nine straight games between the clubs but, sooner, that series will put Boston in position to line up its playoff rotation provided the AL East has been clinched. The hot hand will determine much of that order.

Unfortunately, between now and then, it’s fruitless to assume how the arms race will play since there will be jockeying each time Fister fumbles or Porcello puzzles opponents. In any case, there will be plenty of second-guesses if that first-round series plays out anything like last year’s with Terry Francona’s Indians.

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