So much has gone right for the Red Sox this spring. Alex Cora is back in charge. The offense looks turbo-charged. The entire bullpen appears locked in. The spirited race for the 26th and final roster spot between Christian Arroyo and Michael Chavis is bringing out the best in both players and highlighting newfound organizational depth.
But what's that floating in the punch bowl and threatening to ruin everything?
The rotation, of course.
While it's true that the starters should be roughly 155,000 times better than last year's disbarred law firm of Hart, Hall, and Godley, it's also true that the last turn through the rotation has presented a glimpse into a future whereby pitching once again leaves the Red Sox looking up at the rest of the division and their fans looking to change the channel.
After a recent run of encouraging performances, the rotation has regressed. Consider the last four starts:
- On Friday, right-hander Nathan Eovaldi continued lighting up the radar gun, but also the scoreboard. The Rays teed off on his fastball for eight hits and five runs in four inning, pushing his ERA this spring over 10.00.
"They were hunting my fastball and cutter and didn't miss," Eovaldi said.
- On Saturday, left-hander Martin Perez walked five and allowed five runs in five innings vs. the Braves. A pitcher known for inducing weak contact nibbled too much until hanging a cutter that Alex Jackson launched for a three-run homer.
"He feels strong," Cora said. "He just has to get back to being aggressive in the zone and get people out."
- On Sunday, right-hander Nick Pivetta followed three effective starts with his first dud, allowing six runs on six hits in four innings vs. the Pirates. He walked three and struggled to throw strikes.
"Fastball command wasn't really there," Pivetta admitted.
- And then on Monday, ace Eduardo Rodriguez, in the midst of a stellar camp, appeared to be fighting a dead arm during two lackluster innings vs. the Rays. Rather than send him out for a third frame with diminished velocity, Cora had him throw two simulated innings in the bullpen.
"You hit the wall," Cora said. "That's part of spring."
Fretting about the rotation is also an annual rite of spring, dating back to the days of Bill Dineen, Dutch Leonard, and Smoky Joe Wood. It's an even more fraught exercise this year, thanks to the PTSD we continue to experience from 2020, when Red Sox starters posted a 5.34 ERA that would've topped 6.00 if not for the 27 innings of three-run ball delivered by Tanner Houck and Pivetta in September.
While there have been encouraging signs this spring, we shouldn't forget how tenuous this really is, as exemplified by the last week. Rodriguez had dominated until Monday's outing, which normally wouldn't be cause for concern, because it's normal to hit that wall and power through. Except in Rodriguez's case, we'll be watching for any signs of fatigue, given the COVID-related heart condition that cost him all of last season.
Eovaldi isn't walking anyone, which is good, but he's allowing a ton of hits (17 in 9.1 IP), with opponents once again squaring up his upper-90s fastball. As good as he was in limited time last year (4-2, 3.72), we're talking about someone whose lifetime 4.27 ERA pretty much tells the story. Banking on him to stay healthy and consistent means ignoring his history.
Pivetta, meanwhile, is in Boston because the Phillies finally gave up on him. The Red Sox are his third stop, and the first two -- Washington and Philadelphia -- believed he was more likely to end up in the bullpen. He has shown flashes of brilliance throughout his career, but all too often he has been knocked around as he was Sunday.
As for Perez, he is what he is: a back-of-the-rotation arm with mediocre stuff and the results to match, despite internet hashtags trying to claim otherwise.
The only pitcher we haven't mentioned is right-hander Garrett Richards, who threw five innings in a scrimmage last week. He has otherwise walked nine in eight innings while posting a 6.75 ERA and struggling with fastball command. He's at least coming off his best outing, but a long injury history makes him a big question mark, too.
Add it all together and the fate of the season comes back to the same place we always knew it would: the rotation. In any other spring, one bad week would hardly be worth discussing, especially at this point in camp. But with the Red Sox needing to thread a needle to make a surprising playoff push, one bad week gives us a window into how it can all go wrong.