The Changing Faces of the Boston Red Sox Pitching Staff

The 2016 season is young, but as usual the Boston Red Sox have found ways to fill it with drama. The bullpen has been somewhat shaky, while the starting rotation seems to be finally settling into a groove. Brandon Magee fills us in on the changing faces of the Boston Red Sox pitching staff after a flurry of transactions.

The PawSox shuttle started in earnest last week with a number of position player moves. This week, the pitchers got into the action. With Joe Kelly being placed on the disabled list, a flurry of moves with the pitching staff could continue with regularity over the next few weeks. Who else may come up to help the pitching staff, and what can be expected from the newest arrivals?

The Transactions

4/19: Noe Ramirez optioned to Pawtucket. Heath Hembree recalled from Pawtucket

4/20: Joe Kelly placed on 15-Day DL. Noe Ramirez recalled from Pawtucket. Marco Hernandez optioned to Pawtucket. William Cuevas selected from Pawtucket. Edwin Escobar designated for assignment.

What it Means

The initial transaction on Tuesday was a quintessential usage of the shuttle, moving one reliever – who had happened to throw 40 pitches in outings on Sunday and Monday – for a fresher pitcher. The fact that Noe Ramirez had not started well in his first six appearances – with a 4.91 ERA and a 1.773 WHIP – likely made the switch that much easier. Heath Hembree, on the other hand, had been brilliant in Pawtucket, allowing two hits in five scoreless innings while striking out nine.

Tuesday’s game, however, changed the equation. Starter Joe Kelly lasted only 2/3 of an inning due to a shoulder injury, and the offense forgot how to hit for a night, leading to the bullpen having to pitch 9 1/3 innings. Heath Hembree, in his first major league action of the season, pitched brilliantly for 3 1/3 innings and was followed by Robbie Ross who also pitched fantastically for 3 innings. However, after throwing 45 and 39 pitches respectively, neither would be available to pitch last night. With Koji Uehara also being given some time off – after appearing in eight of the first twelve games – the bullpen needed reinforcements.

With Kelly being placed on the disabled list, the Red Sox were able to bring back Noe Ramirez one day after sending him to Pawtucket. (One wonders if Ramirez even made it to Rochester where the PawSox were playing.) Ramirez will likely stay in the bullpen for the immediate future while Ross and Hembree get a couple of days off.

William Cuevas, who was the scheduled starter for Pawtucket on Wednesday, got the call to the Red Sox largely because he would be able to throw a starters workload on Wednesday if Rick Porcello got injured or knocked around. Cuevas had a nice 2015, going 11-7 with a 3.17 ERA over 26 games for AA Portland and AAA Pawtucket. Cuevas has had mixed results thus far in 2016, giving up six runs in five innings in his first outing of the season while allowing only three runs in 6 2/3 innings in his second start. Cuevas will not be up for long, as he will be optioned down on Sunday for whomever gets called up to start in Kelly’s place – or earlier for another short-term bullpen piece.

Cuevas, who needed to be placed on the 40-man roster, was the direct cause of the two other transactions. In order to make room for Cuevas, Edwin Escobar was designated for assignment. Escobar, who had a two-game MLB debut with the Red Sox in 2014, struggled coming back from injury in 2015, putting up a 5.07 ERA in 19 games for Pawtucket. Escobar had started off well for the PawSox this season, not allowing an earned run in seven innings of work. The Red Sox will hope that he clears waivers and look to retain him as minor-league depth. Marco Hernandez, who had just made his MLB debut on Sunday, was a casualty of needing to temporarily go to a nine-man pen. Absent injury, Hernandez will not be able to come back to the Red Sox until May 1. However, if a player does go onto the disabled list, Hernandez would be immediately available.

The Near-Future

The next moves are yet to be determined. There will need to be a starter called up to start on Sunday. Three names are under consideration: Brian Johnson, who is slated to start for Pawtucket today, Roenis Elias, who is scheduled for the PawSox on Friday, and Henry Owens, who is currently Saturday’s starter in AAA.

The logical move is Owens. Not only would he be on schedule, but he has also started the season in Pawtucket with three straight quality starts. Owens, in 18 innings of work, has allowed only a pair of runs on eight hits while striking out 25. He has had a problem with walks, having allowed ten total and at least three in each game. Owens finished last season in Boston with a 4.57 ERA in 11 starts.

Brian Johnson also made his MLB debut last season, but ended his season soon after with injury. In his first two starts of this season, Johnson has been slightly pitch limited, throwing only 76 pitches in his first game – going 4 innings – and 85 pitches in his second game – going 5 1/3 innings.

Roenis Elias is the veteran option, having started 20 games in each of the past two seasons for Seattle. Elias, who was one of the Red Sox final cuts in the spring, had a rough first start in Pawtucket – allowing five runs in 3 2/3 innings – before going 5 2/3 innings in his second start of the season.

It is also possible that Johnson or Elias will come up to replace Cuevas or another bullpen piece today or tomorrow.

Longer Term

Now that the pitching shuttle has started, it will continue unabated. Players with options could bounce between the minors and Boston with impunity. It would be no shock to see Ramirez and Hembree continue to be optioned for each other for the rest of the year in order to give the Boston bullpen a fresher option. The Red Sox also have relievers Pat Light and Williams Jerez in the minors who may join the shuttle as the season progresses.

The Red Sox will also have Carson Smith coming back to the team in the near future, which will necessitate moving someone down to AAA.  Eduardo Rodriguez will soon be coming off the DL, and his return will require further moves. There is also the eventual return of Brandon Workman from last season’s Tommy John surgery.

While the 25 men on the active roster are the only players who can play on a given day, the extended 40-man roster is crucial to the success of a major-league team. As can be seen by the flurry of moves that Boston has made in the past eight days, finding the right mix of talent is an evaluation that happens on a daily basis. And as long as this is the case, the road between Pawtucket and Boston will continue to be well-traveled.

Brandon Magee is our minor league expert; he has written about minor league travel, ranking prospects, a first round draft pick, and the MLB First-Year Player Draft.

Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.

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