Evaluating The Red Sox Starting Pitching

The Boston Red Sox offseason was the equivalent of aimlessly splattering paint across a canvas. They put something on paper at least, but a sense of direction was nonexistent.

The veteran signings of Kenley Jansen, Justin Turner, and Corey Kluber are reasonable moves for a fringe playoff team, but it’s difficult to argue that the Red Sox are on the cusp of contending. With most of the 2018 World Series team disbanded, Boston is currently searching for a discernible identity, making these late-career signings feel like a patchwork rather than culture-shifting.

The most significant offseason move from Boston’s Chief Baseball Operator Chaim Bloom was re-signing Rafael Devers to an 11-year $331 million contract. The move makes him the long-term centerpiece the Sox so desperately needed. But without Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and now Trevor Story, the Sox are relying on Devers and a bunch of new faces to push the team back to prominence.

Looking beyond the divisive lineup choices, the Sox pitching staff is still the biggest issue preventing a deep run in the playoffs. After featuring a bottom-tier bullpen last year, Bloom bolstered the troop this offseason by adding Jansen, Joely Rodriguez, and Chris Martin, but their starting rotation situation still feels precarious-especially with Nathan Eovaldi gone and Michael Wacha on the free agent market.

If no moves are made between now and April, Boston would enter Opening Day with a rotation mix that includes Chris Sale, Brayan Bello, Kluber, Nick Pivetta, James Paxton, and Tanner Houck.

Evaluating The Red Sox Starting Pitching

Injury risks galore

Tanner Houck

The outlook for the Red Sox starting pitching is far from stable due to injuries. After only making three starts during the 2022 season, Houck became a stable bullpen threat who finished with eight saves in nine opportunities between June 10th and August 2nd. After posting a 4.32 ERA as a starter in those three starting appearances, Houck went 4-2 in 28 relief appearances with a 2.70 ERA.

Houck’s season, however, ended in August because of back surgery. Entering 2023, it may not be wise for manager Alex Cora┬áto increase Houck’s workload in case those issues linger. Now that they have Jansen, maybe Cora will place Houck in a multi-inning relief role if or when a starter exits early. This would keep his innings down while simultaneously allowing him to succeed in those short-stint settings. With so much uncertainty surrounding the rotation, Houck’s flexibility could be valuable.

Corey Kluber

Similarly, Kluber’s injury history and mileage may cause issues during the grit and grind of the season. The Sox are banking on the two-time Cy Young winner to return to his 2014-2018 form, but the 36-year-old hasn’t been the same since suffering injuries between 2019-2021.

After only starting 24 games between those three years, Kluber posted the third-worst ERA (4.34) of his 11-year career for the Tampa Bay Rays in 31 starts.

The good news is that Kluber pitched a full season in 2022 without a major injury and finished top 30 in WAR. His control was honestly magnificent. Out of 62 pitchers who pitched at least 150 innings in 2022, Kluber carried the lowest walk rate and third-best strikeout-to-walk ratio. If he can stay on the field, he could be a key piece to a team that finished in the bottom ten in strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Chris Sale

The outlook on Sale, meanwhile, is a tad more nebulous when you consider his abhorrent contract, which doesn’t make him an unrestricted free agent until 2025. He operates as Boston’s de facto ace based on his resume, but the seven-time All-Star can barely stay on the field, only starting 11 games in the past three years due to various injuries.

And when he does stay on the field, Sale has a propensity for fading away as the season goes on, especially in the postseason, where he has a career ERA of 6.35. It’s good that the Sox were able to get the best of him in 2018, but his golden years are definitely behind him.

Brayan Bello

The saving grace and hopeful face of this rotation is Bello, the ascendent 23-year-old who signed with the Sox as an international free agent in 2017. The youngster was a strikeout machine in Double-A and statistically became one of Boston’s best starters in the second half of 2022, finishing first in WAR on the team among their starters.

Bello’s mystique has loomed so large that some have even made comparisons between him and Pedro Martinez, which may seem ludicrous on the surface, but I could see him as their ace as early as next year with a bigger sample size.

It’s also refreshing to have a promising young star like him enter into a rotation where the possible quartet of Sale, Pivetta, Kluber, and Paxton have an average age of 34.

What changes could be made?

Pablo Lopez

It’s already been reported that Bloom is still looking for a top-end starter, but with spring training almost upon us, I’m not sure there is much else the Sox could do to reach that goal outside of a blockbuster trade.

There were prior rumors involving the possibility of trading for the Miami Marlins’ Pablo Lopez, who had one of his best years within one of the toughest divisions in baseball, but including Triston Casas in a deal feels counterintuitive. Why trade your best prospect away when you’re toeing the rebuilding line? It just doesn’t make sense when considering the monumental losses of J.D. Martinez and Bogaerts.

Michael Wacha

Honestly, the most logical move the Sox could make in the short term is re-signing Michael Wacha. Sure, his hopes of obtaining a sizable contract may cause pause, but considering the limited options at this point, it makes the most sense.

Despite some troubles while with the New York Mets and the Rays, Wacha posted his best season in a half decade last year, finishing with an 11-2 record and a 3.32 ERA. He virtually was Boston’s ace since no one else was reliable enough. Only time will tell if this type of production continues, but for the time being, it’s probably the best option they have.

Six-Man Rotation

The Sox could also experiment with the six-man rotation they have now and see what sticks. Worse comes to worst, maybe they revisit a Lopez trade at the deadline or shoot for the stars with a Shohei Ohtani offer. Maybe they offer Houck in a trade once they realize he doesn’t fit within the rotation, or maybe they shoot lower and trade for Miami’s Edward Cabrera, who may not have the star-studded power but still adds upside in only his third year (6-4 with a 3.01 ERA in 2022).

Trading Chris Sale

There’s also the possibility of offloading Sale to another team, but I don’t think many teams would find value in that unless prospects were included. Unfortunately, the Red Sox are not in a position to surrender the future, but this is definitely something worth considering.

The next few months will be telling for the Red Sox starting pitching.

Main photo:
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Players mentioned:

Kenley Jansen, Justin Turner, Corey Kluber, Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Trevor Story, Joely Rodriguez, Chris Martin, Nathan Eovaldi, J.D. Martinez, Michael Wacha, Chris Sale, Brayan Bello, Nick Pivetta, James Paxton, Tanner Houck, Pedro Martinez, Pablo Lopez, Triston Casas, Shohei Ohtani, Edward Cabrera