The Red Sox slogged through their title defense season. A year after winning the World Series, Chris Sale and the Red Sox finished 12 games out of the second wild-card spot, postseason hopes extinguished well before October. The pitching staff that proved a worthy companion for one of the best offenses in baseball in 2018 became a catalyst for the team’s undoing in 2019.
Though the rest of the team is far from blameless for 2018's failures, the future of the pitching staff that left little doubt a year ago is suddenly uncertain. What needs to change for this unit to be better in 2020?
It all starts with Sale, who must be more effective next year. For the second consecutive season, the seven-time All-Star found himself plagued by injuries. Left elbow inflammation led to a plasma injection and a premature end to the season in August after 25 starts. Sale saw his ERA rise to a career-worst 4.40 and his WAR dip to 2.3 while pitching just 147 1/3 innings, his fewest ever as a starter. Even with two fewer appearances, Sale gave up more hits, earned runs and homers in 2019 than he did a season ago. Most alarmingly, Sale experienced a noticeable dip in fastball velocity. A power pitcher who made a living with his heater, it averaged two miles per hour slower in 2019 (93.7) than 2018 (95.7). His lack of trust in the pitch showed, as he threw fewer fastballs and more sliders than in any year prior. A healthy, confident Sale would do wonders for the Red Sox rotation.
With the exception of Eduardo Rodriguez, who enjoyed a breakout year and picked up a few Cy Young votes, the rest of the starting rotation left plenty to be desired in 2019. When healthy, Price flashed glimmers of his old self. But he battled elbow and wrist injuries all season and has not started 30-plus games in consecutive years since 2015-16. Porcello regressed significantly, losing 15 games and sporting an ERA north of five in what was his final season in Boston. Eovaldi, who’s second-half heroics in 2018 netted him a 4-year, $67 million contract, made three starts before landing on the 60-day IL with loose bodies in his pitching elbow. After manager Alex Cora named him the closer upon his return, Eovaldi blew a save and only logged four holds before heading back to the rotation with the Red Sox out of contention.
Andrew Cashner, acquired at the deadline in part to spell Eovaldi during his stint on the IL, quickly found himself exiled to the bullpen after six lackluster starts and was cut loose after the season. The rest of the ‘pen proved equally anemic, often while performing their most vital duty–finishing close games. With Craig Kimbrel lost to free agency, the Red Sox opted for a closer-by-committee approach, which backfired in spectacular fashion. Despite pitching like a mediocre bullpen by most statistical measures, Boston’s relievers blew 31 saves (tied with Oakland for the most in the majors) while only managing to accumulate 33 as a team. That 51.56 save percentage was the second worst mark in the majors. Though Brandon Workman enjoyed a bit of a resurgence and locked down a role as the pseudo-closer by the end of the season, the team never truly plugged the gaping hole at the back of their bullpen.
So, What’s Next?
With $79 million owed to Sale, Price and Eovaldi next season, a payroll that clocked in as the major’s highest in 2019 and a depleted farm system, any hopes for a splashy offseason should be tempered. That rings especially true given J.D. Martinez’s decision to opt in for $23.75 million in 2020 and looming questions about if the team will re-sign or trade Mookie Betts. Going over the luxury tax for a third season in a row would incur the highest penalty available, something new chief of baseball operations Chaim Bloom will likely try to avoid.
Regardless of what happens with Betts, the Red Sox need starting pitching depth to replace Porcello and keep the rotation on track when a member of the Sale/Price/Eovaldi trio inevitably lands on the IL. Bargain hunting for lower tier starters doesn’t often offer much in return, but there are some intriguing names on the market this summer. Reliable innings-eaters such as Ivan Nova, Kyle Gibson and Zack Wheeler might be worth calling.
As for the much-maligned bullpen, the lack of lefty arms will be tough to address through free agency. Will Harris of the Astros or Massachusetts native Steve Cishek might warrant looks as established relief pitchers who could provide a measure of stability and consistency that was sorely missed in 2019. Friendly reminder, though, relievers are notoriously finicky and the Red Sox have been burned on splashy bullpen “upgrades” in the past (Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg come to mind).
Boston’s disappointing title defense came from a team largely unchanged from that of a season ago, and Red Sox pitching hamstrung an offense good enough to play in the postseason. As Boston embarks on one of its most uncertain offseasons in recent memory, what will be done to improve the pitching staff remains one of its biggest mysteries. To contend in 2020, the answer has to be something.