The way Dave Dombrowski chooses to see it, things will break the Boston Red Sox's way this season as long as the American League East turns into an arms race.
Forget all about the David Ortiz-sized hole in the middle of the batting order. And never mind Giancarlo Stanton teaming up with Aaron Judge in New York. Dombrowski believes the division will be decided by pitching, and the Red Sox president wouldn’t trade his staff for any other.
“If you told me right now that our starting rotation and our bullpen was going to stay healthy during the season, I’d take our chances right now with our club,” Dombrowski says. “I think we can compete with anybody because we’ve got some guys [who] can shut people down when they come out in big games.”
It’s true Chris Sale was the best pitcher in baseball for three quarters of last season before hitting a wall in August. Likewise, Craig Kimbrel had as dominant a year as you’ll see from a closer, at least until Game 4 of the division series against the Houston Astros.
But the Red Sox have bullpen questions in front of Kimbrel, chiefly whether Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg can return from injuries to be reliable setup men. And then there’s the starting rotation, which had the fourth-best ERA in the league last year (4.06) but nevertheless is filled with uncertainty.
As pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, Florida, on Monday and partake in their first workout Wednesday, here’s a look at the biggest issue facing each prospective Red Sox starting pitcher.
Chris Sale: Start to finish
Sale had a 2.37 ERA and gave up 11 home runs in 148 1/3 innings through the end of last July. But over his final 11 regular-season starts, he had a 4.09 ERA and gave up 13 homers in 66 innings. Then, in Game 1 against the Astros, he allowed seven runs on three homers in five innings.
Quite simply, Sale hit a wall. It’s happened before, too. His career ERA before the All-Star break (2.74) is half a run lower than after the break (3.28), while his home-run rate jumps from 0.78 per nine innings to 1.11. And in the final month of the season, those numbers skyrocket to 3.78 and 1.51.
But at least Sale is aware of the problem and intent on fixing it. He “won’t spill the beans” about changes he’s making with new pitching coach Dana LeVangie, but suggested a more gradual build-up of his throwing program. After striking out 308 batters last season, the most by an AL pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 1999, Sale also hinted at being more economical.
“I don’t think I need to dial it back. I think I just need to eliminate waste pitches,” Sale said recently. “I’d love to be able to get to the sixth inning on a very regular basis with 80-85 pitches. Easier said than done, and it looks good on paper, but those are kind of the things we’ve been talking about.”
David Price: Head games
Price missed the first two months and another eight weeks last season with an elbow injury, the specificity of which was never revealed. Regardless, the lefty’s head was every bit as big a problem as his arm.
From his feud with local media to needlessly deriding Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley on the team plane over an innocuous comment during a television broadcast, Price raised a whole new set of questions about his ability to thrive amid the deafening noise that exists in the sports-obsessed fishbowl known as Boston.
Price’s dominance out of the bullpen down the stretch and in the playoffs signaled his elbow was healthier. By all accounts, he has had a relatively typical offseason as he prepares to re-enter the rotation. But with a chance to opt out of his seven-year, $217 million contract after this season, what about Price’s mindset?
“For me, it’s unfair to talk about last year. It’s in the past,” said new manager Alex Cora, whose predecessor John Farrell had a strained relationship with Price. “I’m here to move forward. He’s a talented kid. He single-handedly almost beat [the Astros] in the playoffs. The way he threw the ball with conviction, I’ll take that.”
Rick Porcello: Identity crisis
In 2015, Porcello ranked 75th among 78 pitchers (minimum 162 innings) with a 4.92 ERA. In 2016, he won the Cy Young Award. Last season, his ERA climbed back to 4.65 and he allowed more hits (236) and homers (38) than any other AL pitcher.
If ever Porcello could settle somewhere in the middle of those extremes, he would be a solid No. 3 starter.
A sinkerballer without overpowering stuff, Porcello must locate with precision to be effective. With more hitters hunting low pitches in order to lift the ball in the air, it’s imperative for Porcello to be more exact than ever.
“One of the biggest things I’m trying to do is separate the fastball at the bottom of the zone and elevated above the zone,” Porcello said recently. “When you try to do that, and you’re not executing the knee-high fastball as well as the one out of the zone elevated, everything starts to blend into one pitch. That’s when I get in trouble.”
Drew Pomeranz: Don’t go changin'
As much as any Red Sox starter, Pomeranz would do well to simply repeat 2017. The lefty reached career highs in starts (32) and innings (173 2/3), matched his All-Star 2016 season with a 3.32 ERA and was more consistent over six months than even Sale.
At 29, and after bouncing between the bullpen and the rotation with four teams in four years, Pomeranz might have finally reached his potential. And with free agency beckoning after the season, that could mean a handsome payday.
“I’ve mainly been focused on picking up where I left off because at the end of the year, I was basically throwing every pitch I have when I wanted to, and it didn’t matter the count,” Pomeranz said. “Just trying to pick up from there and get that same feel coming into the season.”
Eduardo Rodriguez: Finding the ceiling
On the night the Red Sox hired Dombrowski in 2015, Rodriguez allowed one run over eight innings against the Cleveland Indians. More than two years later, it remains one of his most impressive starts in the big leagues.
Injuries, specifically recurring instability in his right knee that finally necessitated surgery in October, have prevented Rodriguez from rising to a top-of-the-rotation starter. The Sox still believe he can get there, but if it doesn’t happen this season for the 24-year-old lefty, there will be reason to doubt it ever will.
With Rodriguez likely to miss the season’s first few weeks to complete his recovery, 2016 All-Star Steven Wright could find his way back into the rotation. But that presumes Wright is healthy and available. The knuckleballer missed most of last season after knee surgery in May and was arrested in December on charges of domestic assault. While a Tennessee court retired the charges for one year, Major League Baseball is still conducting an investigation with no timetable for potential discipline.