Two short years ago, the Red Sox opened the season with two Cy Young Award winners, a six-time All-Star, and a future 19-game winner in their rotation.
Now the 19-game winner is all that remains, and he's going to miss the start of the season with COVID-19.
As we concoct scenarios for the Red Sox to reach the playoffs during this 60-game sprint of a season, we keep hitting the same wall — how will they overcome a rotation that has been decimated by trades, free agency, and injury?
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The answer lies with a host of pitchers with something to prove.
There's ace left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, who's coming off a career-high 19 wins and a sixth-place finish in the Cy Young race. He remains in Florida on the injured list, awaiting clearance to rejoin the team after a positive COVID test.
There's right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, a 2018 postseason hero who lost most of 2019 to an elbow injury. He'll almost certainly take the ball on Opening Day next week against the Orioles and he must remain healthy for 12 starts and pitch like a No. 1 if the Red Sox are to have any realistic chance of contending.
Those two will be followed by castoffs like left-hander Martin Perez, who hasn't posted an ERA below 4.82 since 2016, as well as throwback right-hander Ryan Weber and perhaps eventually the rehabbing Collin McHugh. They could be joined shortly by right-hander Zack Godley, who has been released twice in the last year and is reportedly nearing a deal.
That's a lot of flotsam and jetsam for an erstwhile contender, but it is the hand the Red Sox must play. After all, David Price, Rick Porcello, and Chris Sale aren't walking through that door.
"You talk about our pitching staff, we really are going to need length with Eduardo not being ready, with Chris Sale being out for the year," manager Ron Roenicke said. "We've got to have innings from people and what we see is our strength in our bullpen now is that we do have guys that go multiple innings. ... All these guys are valuable, especially when you don't have a five-man staff that you are really confident in and you know they are going to give you a lot of innings."
The returns during intrasquad scrimmages have been mixed, with Eovaldi pitching well but pretty much everyone else struggling, leading Roenicke to wonder if the pitchers were performing poorly or the offense was just that good.
"Maybe it's a combination of both," he said.
What's clear is that getting off to a fast start, pretty much a necessity in such a short season, rests with what kind of tone Eovaldi sets from the jump.
"His command has been pretty good so I think he's pleased with what he's doing," Roenicke said. "He's a perfectionist like all of them so he wants to continue to get better, but we really are happy with where he's at. We know we're going to need innings from him. With what our rotation is, he's got to be a guy we're going to count on to give us innings almost every game and hopefully along with that throw up a bunch of zeroes and we'll score some runs for him."
Eovaldi is ready for the challenge.
"We're going to have 12 or 13 starts, and it's going to be important to be locked in for every one of them," he said.
Perez comes next, and he's got something to prove. A Rookie of the Year candidate with the Rangers in 2013, when he went 10-6 with a career-best 3.62 ERA, he has struggled since, posting a 5.49 ERA over the last two seasons. The Twins elected not to re-sign him after he went 10-7 with a 5.12 ERA last year, but now he looks like Boston's No. 2 starter.
"It doesn't matter what game you've got," he said. "It's the same responsibility. You've got to go out there and win games. That's all that matters. We have to stay together. We have to work together as a group. If we stay together and work together as a group, we're going to do special things this year in this short season. That's the same responsibility that I had when this started. I'm getting to the point where I want to be. I'm available to get people out and give a chance to my team to win the game."
As for Weber, he relies on guile, deception, and sweeping movement to compensate for a fastball that barely breaks 90 mph. During his best start of 2019 in Toronto, when he threw six innings of one-run ball, he showed how he could attack the zone while staying out of the heart of it.
"I can throw 10 perfect pitches in a row, but that 11th one, if I get lazy — you guys know I don't throw hard — so if I get lazy and throw one over the middle of the plate, it could be a home run, and that could ruin the outing," Weber said. "So just trying to hone my best mechanics, my best pitch, and just staying convicted every single pitch, every single at-bat."
The fourth spot is up in the air and could go to someone like left-hander Brian Johnson, a survivor who was non-tendered last winter, but is still fighting for a job as a non-roster invitee. The fifth spot will probably be an opener.
By the time we get to that part of the rotation, however, the fate of the season will have been determined by the regulars with something to prove.