For two rookies who weren't on anyone's radar until about this time last year, Darwinzon Hernandez and Josh Taylor have turned out to be massive losses for the Red Sox.
The two young power left-handers stabilized the bullpen over the final two months of 2019, with Hernandez striking out batters at a record rate and Taylor emerging as an every-other-day workhorse.
Hernandez struck out a staggering 57 in just 30.1 innings (16.9 K/9), with a 4.45 ERA. In 23 appearances from July 16 through Sept. 6, he posted a 2.31 ERA. Taylor, meanwhile, was even more consistent. He delivered a 3.04 ERA in 57 appearances, and from July 2 through the finale, allowed only eight runs in 40 innings.
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Both feature 95-mph fastballs and both figured to play expanded roles in this truncated season, but when spring training 2.0 began in July, both were missing because of failed COVID tests. Taylor quarantined in his hotel near Fenway Park while battling fatigue. Hernandez remained in his native Venezuela for the first three weeks of July.
They're both now in Pawtucket, facing hitters for the first time in months. Each threw live BP over the weekend, and Taylor could be activated this week, manager Ron Roenicke said on Friday in New York.
The trickle-down effect has been significant. Roenicke has had little answer for innings two through five, relying on lesser arms like Austin Brice, Zack Godley, Matt Hall, and Jeffrey Springs either to serve as openers or bridge the gap to more established relievers like Marcus Walden, Heath Hembree, Matt Barnes, and closer Brandon Workman.
As a result, on the days Nathan Eovaldi doesn't start, the Red Sox have finished the fifth inning trailing by an average score of 5-2.
A healthy Hernandez and Taylor could alter that dynamic in two ways. First, one of them could start and contribute as an opener. Roenicke said the Red Sox are stretching out Hernandez to throw two or three innings, which would make him a more dynamic candidate for the role than some of the flotsam the Red Sox have been forced to feature in his absence.
But even if both remained relievers, they'd either be available to throw in the early innings instead of Springs (33.75 ERA) or Hall (15.43 ERA), or they could bump someone like Walden or Hembree down there. Ten games into the season, too many games have already been lost before Roenicke could even warm his better relievers.
With the lack of legitimate starting pitchers forcing Roenicke to finesse his way through four out of every five games, the Red Sox can ill afford to enter battle without their full complement of weapons. Who knew that two guys we had barely heard of early last season would end up being such pivotal missing pieces?