Red Sox

Injuries throw pitching staff a curve

Associated Press

Injuries throw pitching staff a curve

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When the Red Sox reported to spring training, more than five weeks ago, their pitching staff look settled with perhaps a single spot in the bullpen up for grabs.

Now, the bane of teams' spring existence -- injuries -- has changed that considerably.

First came the knee injury to starter Eduardo Rodriguez. On Tuesday came word that reliever Carson Smith, too, would start the season on the disabled list. Neither injury is calamitious - Rodriguez is expected back by the end of April and Smith won't be far behind, if at all.

But the setbacks have thrown the composition of the staff into disarray. Suddenly, the Red Sox have a rotation spot vacant, and partly as a result, perhaps two job openings in the bullpen.

A look at where the competition stands:

ROTATION: David Price, Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello and Joe Kelly are in place.

Steven Wright had a strong showing against the Marlins Tuesday. He has a 3.07 ERA for the spring, and at this point, must be considered the front-runner.

Wright is out of options, meaning the Red Sox can't attempt to send him to the minor leagues without first exposing him to waivers and risk losing him to another team.

That alone made Wright a likely fit on the staff somewhere. And given that pitched reasonably well last summer before a concussion took him off the mound for the final six weeks, it seems likely that Wright will be the choice for the fifth spot in the rotation.

Roenis Elias is Wright's chief competition. Elias has extensive experience as a big league starter, with 49 starts for Seattle in the previous two years. Elias has thrown the ball well in camp, but given the minor toe injury that Brian Johnson sustained last week, putting him behind others in camp, the Sox might prefer to have Elias continue to get stretched out in Pawtucket, offering some internal starting depth.

Henry Owens might have been considered the favorite when Rodriguez first was sidelined, but he's had trouble with his command and has effectively pitched his way out of the competition. He, too, will likely begin in the Pawsox rotation, where he can work on more consistent strike- throwing.

BULLPEN: If Wright is indeed the choice, that creates one opening among the relief corps. Smith's injury represents the second.

Closer Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, Robbie Ross Jr. and Tommy Layne are thought to be set.

For a time, it appeared as though Matt Barnes would be the likely fill-in for Wright, since the Red Sox were stretching Barnes out to fill the knuckleballer's long relief role, able to pitch multiple innings.

But Smith's injury could change that. Barnes has been highly effective this spring, with a tighter breaking ball and better fastball location and he could conceivably serve as the seventh inning right-hander role that had been ticketed for Smith.

Under that scenario, Barnes would slot in between Tazawa and Uehara, with the ability to get swings-and-misses.

But if Smith handles the seventh, there are fewer obvious candidates for the long role. Elias has some major league bullpen experience, but again, his presence as a reliever would further deplete the starting depth at Pawtucket.

Or, the Sox could stay with the plan in place before Smith's setback - with Barnes effectively replacing Wright at the multi-inning arm, with another reliever targeted for later innings.

The pickings in that group, however, are slim. Heath Hembree has some big league experience, but hasn't thrown particularly well. 

Some other options are no more inspiring, including Noe Ramirez and Anthony Varvaro, the latter of whom made the team last spring.

A more intriguing option might be veteran Carlos Marmol, who was signed to a minor league deal with a major league invite just as camp was getting underway.

The Sox have made a project out of getting Marmol to return to him original arm slot, and have done so with some success. Marmol has experience as a major league closer, having saved 107 games for the Cubs between 2009 and 2012.

He won't be scared of high-leverage situations and has the ability to get strikeouts, with a mid-90s fastball. The tradeoff, of course, is that command is always an issue with Marmol, who has averaged 6.2 walks per nine innings over his career.

If the Sox can pick their spots with him, they could perhaps live with that wildness for a short period. After all, it's not as if they're brimming with other experienced late-inning options.

Strong Grapefruit League debut for Price

Strong Grapefruit League debut for Price

David Price's Grapefruit League debut was nearly perfect.

The Red Sox left-hander pitched four scoreless innings, allowing a hit and a walk and striking out five in a 7-5 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays in Fort Myers, Fla.

Price threw 55 pitches, 34 for strikes. He cruised through the first on nine pitches. He allowed the single and walk in the second.  

"It feels good. This is March 15 and I've never been able to have a four-pitch mix on March 15," Price told reporters after his start. "I've never been this far along in spring training even though I've only thrown in one game. I'm excited about that."

The Red Sox open March 29 at Tampa Bay, with Chris Sale likely to start. Price will likely pitch the second game of the season, March 30 at Tropicana Field.