HOUSTON — The Red Sox have taken the conservative route with their rotation, pushing Eduardo Rodriguez to the bullpen — most likely, anyway. The important thing is that all five starters are available to them if need be, and that John Farrell operates with a short leash.
Doug Fister and Rick Porcello are penciled into starts for Games 3 and 4 in the American League Division Series, with Rodriguez moving into the bullpen.
There’s a caveat on Game 4, however. For one, Chris Sale could come back on short rest. How many pitches he throws Thursday — and whether the series dictates a need for Sale on short rest — will play into that choice.
Porcello is also the long man for Games 1 and 2. If the Sox need to use him, Rodriguez would then be in line for the start in Game 4.
But Rodriguez has another role, that of Robby Scott. His absence from the roster was the biggest surprise when it was put out Thursday morning, because he was the lead lefty in the ‘pen all season. Austin Maddox, a righty who did very well in September, made it instead.
But the Astros have a mostly right-handed lineup, and the Sox needed to carry length in their bullpen beyond David Price, necessitating all five starters to be on the roster — including the lefty E-Rod.
“There might be one spot inside the lineup, whether it’s [Josh] Reddick or whether it’s [Brian] McCann, just felt like the need to have multi-innings,” Farrell said, “just felt like that was the better way to go at this point.”
One thing to note: A fastball-changeup pitcher, Rodriguez has actually been better against righties in his career (.704 OPS) than lefties (.785 OPS). Against the Astros, who mash lefty starters typically, that may be just what the Sox want.
Rodriguez’s upside is greater than Fister’s. That’s a legitimate gripe, for those who would prefer to see E-Rod start over Fister, or even Porcello.
Why Fister over Porcello for Game 3?
“The later action to the staff,” Farrell said. “A little bit more consistent sink, a little bit more separation between sinker and curveball, that’s probably what it came down to in addition to some performance and recognizing that guys have pitched well in certain spots. And there’s been some challenges mixed in for both.”
Fister, Porcello and Rodriguez all have a worrisome implosion factor. The experience Fister and Porcello have as veterans probably made the Sox feel they were better off giving them starts, and turning to Rodriguez in relief if need be.
“When left-handed starters are on the mound for us, the [Astros] lineup becomes pretty distinct,” Farrell said. “Top part of the order being all right-handed, bottom half we felt like left-handers are better suited to go through. And that’s not necessarily a situational left-hander in that spot, because of turning the switch-hitters around: [Marwin] Gonzalez, [Yuli] Gurriel, to me, who takes better swings against right-handed pitching. That’s where that was factored in.”
Rodriguez’s strikeout stuff probably would play better in relief than say, Fister’s ground-ball style. But, the same thing that makes you worry about Rodriguez in a start — inexperience — doesn’t exactly disappear in relief. He has one career inning as a reliever in the majors, although he was prepared to be a reliever last year as well.
The important thing is the Sox have the ability to turn away from one of their starters quickly. If Fister or Porcello has a rough game, Farrell has the ability to go E-Rod quickly.
Overall, the Sox bullpen had a dramatic makeover at the end of the season. Maddox made his case in September, with one run allowed in 13 2/3 innings. He struck out 12 and walked two in the month. Carson Smith made the roster as well, with Brandon Workman or Matt Barnes out. Barnes threw more relief innings than anyone.
Smith, Price, Maddox, Joe Kelly, Addison Reed, Craig Kimbrel, and E-Rod make up the seven-man bullpen, which is an eight-man group if you include Porcello.
On the position-player side, veteran Chris Young did not make the roster, which is not a surprise given his struggles this year. Rajai Davis is the lone dedicated back-up outfielder and pinch-runner.
Nonetheless, the conversations with people like Chris Young and Matt Barnes, who contributed all season, weren’t easy.
Both Deven Marrero and Brock Holt made it, as expected. The Sox need infield coverage with Dustin Pedroia and Eduardo Nunez both battling knee injuries. Holt also gives the Sox a lefthanded bat off the bench.
“If we weren't in a situation to need the extra infielders, he would be hot,” Farrell said. “I can respect his thoughts and opinions and desire to be on this roster, and I respect him as a person and as a player. But I felt like what our team needs was to have the coverage defensively on the infield.”
Nunez was the DH on Thursday in place of Hanley Ramirez and is expected to be the DH on Friday in Game 2 as well, with Ramirez playing first base against Astros lefty Dallas Keuchel.