With Chris Sale's return exiting the realm of the hypothetical and entering the world of the imminent, it's fair to wonder which Boston Red Sox starter leaves the rotation to make room for him. Barring injury, there are two choices.
Behind door No. 1 is fifth starter Martin Perez, who is left-handed like Sale and by virtue of his place in the rotation, the most obvious cut. Perez owns the shortest leash on the staff, which is why he has thrown only 88.2 innings in 19 starts. But he has taken the ball every fifth day and actually ranks second in starter's ERA at 4.16.
And that leads to our second, and perhaps better, choice -- Garrett Richards.
The right-hander has objectively and subjectively been the club's worst starter this season. The Orioles rocked him in his Red Sox debut, he briefly sorted things out in May, and then the ban on illegal grip-aids sent him into a tailspin.
He has recently shown flashes of leveling out, including Wednesday's 7-4 victory over the Blue Jays, when he cruised into the sixth inning before a two-out walk and back-to-back homers brought his night to an unceremonious end.
But even if we leave that game in the positive column based on the development of a learned-on-the-fly changeup and the fact that he kept the dangerous Jays lineup silenced until his final missteps, we're still looking at a pitcher with a 4.99 ERA and mediocre strikeout rate of 7.21 per 9 innings, which are both worst on the staff.
Add that Richards' arsenal and experience play better in relief than Perez's, and suddenly the veteran right-hander looks like the potential odd man out, since we know the club has no plans to move All-Star right-hander Nathan Eovaldi or former 19-game winner Eduardo Rodriguez, nor is it likely they'd shift rising right-hander Nick Pivetta.
For Richards to save his spot, he's going to need to take a step forward with a new arsenal that's no longer aided by whatever he was using to gain a better grip prior to the league's crackdown.
"I'm starting to figure out hand position and figuring out some things mechanically right now that are really moving in the right direction," Richards said. "I've been throwing a lot of strikes lately. Walks have gone down. I wouldn't say I'm pitching to contact more. I'm trying to be in the zone more. But with that comes a couple mistakes that I got burned on."
He was talking about home runs to Teoscar Hernández and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. George Springer took him deep Wednesday, as well.
"Those things happen," Richards said. "I am proud of the way I went out and competed. (Catcher Christian Vazquez) played a great game. The guys played great defense behind me. I can't say enough about this team. They gave me a lead at the beginning, I gave it up a little and they put the icing on it at the end. We're just enjoying playing together right now and winning ballgames."
If Richards is sent to the bullpen, it wouldn't be the first time. He made four relief appearances for the Padres last year and his next relief outing will be the 60th of his career, though the bulk of them came nearly a decade ago with the Angels when he was just breaking in to the big leagues.
He said he'll continue to refine the changeup that he basically learned during the All-Star break and felt comfortable throwing roughly 25 percent of the time on Wednesday. He'll continue "grinding in the bullpen" with pitching coach Dave Bush to find a mix that works.
"It's not a finished product, but I'm definitely making strides in the right direction," he said.
He'd best hurry, because Sale could return in the next two or three weeks, and someone's got to go. The clock is ticking.