The starting pitching rotation will look much different for the Boston Red Sox in 2021, and that’s a very good thing.
Last season, Red Sox starters ranked 25th in all of baseball in ERA, 29th in FIP, 20th in strikeouts per nine innings, 29th in innings pitched and dead last in wins above replacement. Even on nights when the Red Sox weren’t using an opener, Ron Roenicke had to dip into his bullpen far too early, and obviously, the record indicates just how successful that ends up being.
However, as spring training begins in Florida, there’s at least some reason to believe the Boston starting rotation will look better this season. As mentioned, that’s not especially difficult, but Chaim Bloom and the Red Sox baseball operations department has made it among their top priorities to add quality innings to the rotation.
Speaking of, assuming full health, this is what Boston’s rotation currently looks like entering spring training.
Assuming Boston goes with a rotation of five actual starters — bullpen games can’t be ruled out — these three pitchers likely will battle for the final rotation spot. This, of course, is until Chris Sale returns from Tommy John surgery (if he returns, for the pessimists) at some point midway through the season.
The ceiling is actually pretty high for that group, but they’re gonna need a very big ladder to get there because it’s a pretty low floor, too. Here’s the best-case and worst-case scenario for Red Sox starters in 2021.
Rodriguez is fully recovered from COVID-19 and a bout of myocarditis that cost him the entire 2020 season. With full health and power, Rodriguez returns to his 2019 form that saw him finish sixth in Cy Young Award voting.
He assumes the role of ace until Sale returns, which happens around the All-Star break. The time off actually does Sale good, and his increasingly typical second-half skid is moot considering he misses the first half.
Eovaldi proves 2020 was no fluke, and his strikeout numbers continue to rise while he limits the walks. He largely stays healthy and is a formidable No. 2 who becomes a front-line No. 3 option when Sale gets back.
Richards, a Statcast darling with ridiculous stuff, finally stays relatively healthy and logs a career-high in innings. If that happens, he becomes one of the best back-end starters in the league.
Perez, finally slotted into his true role as No. 5 starter, eats innings when needed and looks OK — which is more than enough from a back-end starter.
Meanwhile, Andriese and Pivetta fill in when needed, perhaps even allowing Boston to go with a six-man rotation. That allows Houck to start the year in Worcester, where he can log innings as a starter and be ready at moment’s notice to head East on the Pike.
Sale missing the entire 2021 season — or the Red Sox being so far out of contention they don’t rush him back — would be less than ideal. As for pitchers who actually will break camp with the club, there should be a good deal of skepticism regarding Rodriguez. We just don’t know what his health will be.
Health certainly hasn’t been a strong point for Eovaldi or Richards, either. If either (or both) of them misses a good deal of time, you’re likely looking at a situation similar to last year where Perez leads the team in innings pitched.
Andriese has a career 4.23 FIP and has never logged more than 127 innings. For as good as someone like Pivetta looks at times, the Phillies were willing to deal him for bullpen rentals because he hasn’t yet fulfilled his potential. And even if Houck is ready to be a rotation stalwart, Boston likely will be in trouble if it has to turn to him to log big innings this season.
It’s Sale, and it’s pretty obvious, right? The Red Sox reportedly will take it slow with Sale’s Tommy John rehab, but he also had a neck issue crop up this winter. The Red Sox said following the 2020 season they’re hopeful and confident Sale can return by midsummer.
If they can just get league-average pitching, the offense should be good enough to keep them afloat until he returns. Then, assuming no complications, he returns for the stretch run as a major shot in the arm. But setbacks obviously happen, and the Sox have so much invested in Sale, it makes sense to take a cautious approach.
If Sale comes back and looks anything like his best self, the Red Sox should contend for the playoffs. If he doesn’t, it might be another lost summer — for the player and the team.