BOSTON — Eleven may be the focal point of the rest of the 2018 Red Sox regular-season. In this case, that’s only an indirect reference to the number of playoff victories needed to win the World Series for the presumptive American League East champs.
Eleven is also the number of pitchers the 2016 and 2017 Red Sox carried on their Division Series roster. It is also the number of pitchers Alex Cora’s 2017 Astros took into the Division Series — before switching to 12 for the ALCS and then the Fall Classic. It’s a solid bet, then, the Sox will look to 11 again for the first round in 2018.
Even if they go with a different number, the pitching staff is still the area of intrigue.
The Yankees, despite their unsightly deficit of 10 1/2 games entering Friday, could still make the division interesting by mid-September. Merely interesting, as in, briefly worth paying attention to. The Sox and Yanks have six head-to-head games left in the final four series of the season, so the Yanks would need to whittle down the Sox lead a few games from here to simply add a bit of intrigue. Not to precipitate a collapse or actually overtake the Sox — to just add a bit of drama.
But, for the sake of probability and planning, let’s assume the Sox hold on to this thing with ease and that prepping for the postseason is now their primary focus.
Maintaining health and setting up the rotation are relatively straightforward tasks. The road to 11 will take some tough decisions, however.
Assuming Eduardo Rodriguez returns healthy and that the pitchers who are currently healthy remain so, these eight pitchers should be locks:
1. Chris Sale
2. David Price
3. Rick Porcello
4. Eduardo Rodriguez
5. Nate Eovaldi
6. Craig Kimbrel
7. Matt Barnes
8. Tyler Thornburg
From there is where it gets complicated, and is where Cora and Dave Dombrowski and all the other Sox decision-makers have a lot of thinking to do.
For the remaining three roster spots in the Division Series, there’s a presumed pool of six to nine pitchers to choose from, depending on how generous you're feeling. (The Sox could always make a waiver trade and add an arm this month.)
You can make decent cases for any of:
1. Joe Kelly
2. Heath Hembree
3. Ryan Brasier
4. Brandon Workman
5. Hector Velazquez
6. Brian Johnson
Velazquez and Johnson have been instrumental to the 2018 Sox, although their stuff doesn’t wow you.
The other three? Well, lefty Bobby Poyner was around early in the season but has spent most of the year at Triple-A, seemingly falling out of favor. There’s Steven Wright with the volatility and upside of his knuckleball, but also the unpredictability of his repaired left knee. Wright is a darkhorse. Drew Pomeranz is a lefty but his performance likely takes him out of the equation.
Which of Eovaldi or Rodriguez winds up in the bullpen for the Division Series could have a trickle-down effect. If it is Eovaldi, who does not do as well against lefty hitters (.733 OPS this season, .781 OPS lifetime) perhaps the Sox would want a lefty arm in the 'pen, such as Johnson.
Then again, even if Rodriguez is in the 'pen, the vision likely would not be to use him as a lefty specialist, but rather as a high-leverage, multi-inning reliever. One of Thornburg’s strengths in his career is he’s a righty who can neutralize lefties.
The Sox have been adamant all year that typical handedness considerations — throw a southpaw against a lefty hitter — do not matter. Nonetheless, it’s hard to believe the Sox won’t give any weight to a variety of looks.
How the Sox actually make these decisions is a whole matter unto itself. Do they give more credence to what they observe in the next month as they make choices, or a player's history? Cora talked earlier this season about throwing Kelly's history out the window as Kelly found great results for a time, yet, how much Kelly has really changed this season is debatable.
Brasier, the out-of-nowhere feel-good story, is to get more high-leverage looks in the immediate future. Barnes and Thornburg sat in Philadelphia as the Sox rested them.
Dry runs for the postseason bullpen, and the different variants it could have are what to watch from here until October.