Although the Boston Red Sox are not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, it is time to accept that the season is over. As the team plays out the string and the kids continue to play well, Rick Rowand takes us on a journey exploring Dave Dombrowski’s options with regards to the starting rotation.
Since Dave Dombrowski joined the Boston Red Sox on August 18 as the new President of Baseball Operations, information about the future direction of the team coming from Yawkey Way has been almost non-existent, which is to be expected. But it leaves people like us with idle hands and idle minds. It’s like living in the the devil’s workshop on steroids. So, except for articles on moves like the De Aza trade or Papi edging closer to 500 home runs, we get to make slightly educated guesses on what Dombrowski will be doing to remake the current team for 2016 and beyond.
We’ll be breaking this down into a series of articles including the coaching staff, the everyday players and the bullpen but we will begin with the starting rotation.
The Sox started the season touting their, “Ace! We don’t need no stinkin’ ace!” strategy, but the inconsistency of the starters, the ineptitude of the pen overall and the lack of offense doomed that strategy to failure. It hasn’t been until recently that the majority of the starters and the offense have been living up to expectations. Dollar late…
With that in mind, let’s look at the rotation as it’s currently constructed:
The Red Sox acquired the left-handed Miley in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks in December of 2014 for Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster and Raymel Flores. Arbitration eligible, he signed a contract extension with a potential value of over $31 million in February. The first three years are guaranteed and he’ll be paid a total of $19.25 million through 2017, with a club option for 2018 at $12 million or a buyout of $500K.
Miley was traded for to be an innings eating ground ball pitcher and so far he’s done nothing to prove Ben Cherington wrong in acquiring him. Since 2012, when he started 29 games he’s had two years with 33 starts each. So far in 2015 he has 27 starts. He’s averaged 199 plus innings over that stretch and currently has 159 2/3 IP. His FIP is a little lower than it’s been for the past two seasons, 3.82 compared to 3.98. His ERA and BABIP are close to what they were last season, 4.57/.313 in 2015 and 4.34/.317 in 2014. He’s averaging 5.9 innings per start and has only failed to get out of the fourth inning four times this season.
While he doesn’t light the world on fire, at a salary of $3.5 million this year, $6 million next year and $8.75 million in 2017, Miley is a starting pitcher that fits in well at the back end of a rotation and is worth far more than what he’s being paid.
It was a busy offseason for GM Ben Cherington as he traded Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Wilson and Gabe (no relation to Alex) Speier to the Detroit Tigers for Porcello. Porcello was traded away because of what he might command as a free agent after the 2015 season. Coming off a career year in 2014, he was young for a pitcher getting ready to enter free agency, still just shy of his 26th birthday. Young starting pitchers with Porcello’s stuff are rare commodities and he was expected to become the latest $100 million dollar man. The Tigers also had a need for an outfielder with an above average bat and Cespedes fit what they were looking for.
For many of the same reasons he was traded, the Sox signed Porcello to a four-year contract extension worth $82.5 million which runs through the 2019 season. Little did anyone know that Porcello would take two steps back this year raising his ERA by close to two runs from 3.43 to 5.47 last year and his FIP from 3.67 to 4.53.
Besides Kelly, Porcello has been the most frustrating starter on the staff with just one very good stretch from April 24 through May 16, during which he allowed only ten earned runs in five games while pitching 31 2/3 innings. He was finally placed on the 15-day DL in August for a strained triceps after a stretch that was more bad than good.
In his first game back from the DL, Porcello once again looked excellent, going 7 innings while allowing no runs. Last night against the Yankees, Porcello went 8 innings with one earned run and 13 strikeouts.. Maybe he really was injured. And while everyone hopes that this signals a return to his form from earlier this season, one thing Porcello has shown is that, this year, he’s the master of inconsistency.
Joe Kelly, along with Allen Craig, was traded to the Sox for John Lackey at the 2014 trading deadline by the St. Louis Cardinals and was viewed by almost all as the target of the trade with Craig being the cost of doing business. The Cardinals converted Kelly to a starter when he joined their minor league system in 2009 from the closer role he had in college. Kelly possesses one of the most electric arms in major league baseball and routinely hits 97-mph with great movement.
Much like Porcello, Kelly has been the poster child for inconsistency this season and his numbers reflect that with an ERA of 4.97 and a FIP of 4.21. On the surface, those are not good at all, but you need to look closer. In late June, the then frustrated Red Sox sent Kelly to AAA Pawtucket to work on things instead of moving him to the pen. At the time, Kelly had a 5.67 ERA.
Recently, Kelly has been a different pitcher. His first three games back after a late July recall reminded fans why he was sent down in the first place, but since then he’s been very effective. In his past five starts he’s allowed just six earned runs in 32 2/3 innings for an ERA of 1.65. With a month left in the season, Kelly will have ample opportunities to show Dombrowski if this is the pitcher we can expect to see going forward or to show that he’s the same old cup of Joe he’d been prior to this stretch.
Rodriguez joined the Sox system in 2014 when he was part of the trade that sent reliever Andrew Miller to the Orioles. A lefty with a fastball that averages in the 93-mph range with good movement, Rodriguez electrified fans with his performance in his first three games by allowing only one earned run. Things came crashing back to earth in his fourth start when he allowed nine earned runs in just 4 2/3 innings against Toronto.
However, out of his 17 starts he’s only had four bad games and those have helped to drive his ERA to 4.25. In one of those games he was clearly tipping his pitches. To do a little cherry picking here, in his other 13 starts he has an ERA of 1.75, which is why Cherington insisted that he was in the trade that sent Miller to the O’s.
Henry Owens joins Rodriguez as the other left handed rookie in the Sox rotation. He’s only started five games, but has has opened some eyes since his call up. He’s allowed 13 earned runs, but seven of those came in his game against Seattle.
Owens doesn’t have great velocity, but does have good movement and a repertoire of four pitches to go with a deceptive delivery.
The old man of the staff at 32, Buchholz was also the ace until he strained the flexor muscle in his right arm against the Yankees on July 10. Including that game he’d had 18 starts and was dominant in the majority of them. In fact, his ERA of 3.26 and FIP of 2.67 are ranked 24th and 6th among all MLB starters with a minimum of 110 innings pitched.
Unfortunately for the team and fans, Buchholz was placed on the DL shortly after the injury, and despite a PRP injection by Dr. James Andrews on July 22, Buchholz is not going to pitch again this season. The good news is that Dr. Andrews did not recommend surgery.
What to do? What to do?
Based on his history and on statements he’s made, we know that Dombrowski, like most of us, loves power pitchers who can lead the rotation. Unfortunately, the Sox don’t currently have one who fits the traditional definition of an “ace”. The two most likely candidates currently on the roster are Joe Kelly and Eduardo Rodriguez with Clay Buchholz a distant third. Whether the Sox pick up Clay’s $13 million team option or not will be based on what the doctors decide. Dombrowski said:
“If you think he’s healthy ‒ and I’m not the one capable of making that decision, it’s going be the doctors’ decision ‒ picking up his option is a pretty simple thing, because he’s a good big-league pitcher. It’s more a matter of the health perspective. Otherwise it’s an easy decision because he’s a quality big-league pitcher.”
There’s an old adage in baseball that you can never have too much starting pitching and teams prove that to be true every season. The Sox are no different. Other than that, there are no certainties in the rotation. No one, other than Buchholz, has come close to proving that he’s ready to lead the rotation. Miley and the kids are certainly out, which leaves us with Porcello and Kelly, both of whom will need the rest of the season to prove to Dombrowski that they shouldn’t be traded as part of a package for a proven ace. Let’s remember that Porcello was traded once before, but this time the team would need to eat a large portion of his salary.
With the caveat that there are still a good number of starts left in the season for Kelly and Porcello to prove that they belong, I’m very comfortable with the Sox going into next season with this group of starters as it stands now. Providing they can get the power arm they need. The Sox don’t have the bats to bludgeon teams to death like the Blue Jays do. They need a good rotation to give the revitalized offense and the defense a chance to win games for them and they have plenty of prospects in their loaded farm system if it comes down to trading for one. There is a good crop of FA starters who will be available in the off-season. And hey, it’s not my money.