The way Dave Dombrowski chooses to see it, things will break the Boston Red Sox‘s way this season as long as the American League East turns into an arms race.
Forget all about the David Ortiz-sized hole in the middle of the batting order. And never mind Giancarlo Stanton teaming up with Aaron Judge in New York. Dombrowski believes the division will be decided by pitching, and the Red Sox president wouldn’t trade his staff for any other.
“If you told me right now that our starting rotation and our bullpen was going to stay healthy during the season, I’d take our chances right now with our club,” Dombrowski says. “I think we can compete with anybody because we’ve got some guys [who] can shut people down when they come out in big games.”
It’s true Chris Sale was the best pitcher in baseball for three quarters of last season before hitting a wall in August. Likewise, Craig Kimbrel had as dominant a year as you’ll see from a closer, at least until Game 4 of the division series against the Houston Astros.
But the Red Sox have bullpen questions in front of Kimbrel, chiefly whether Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg can return from injuries to be reliable setup men. And then there’s the starting rotation, which had the fourth-best ERA in the league last year (4.06) but nevertheless is filled with uncertainty.
As pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, Florida, Monday and partake in their first workout Wednesday, here’s a look at the biggest issue facing each prospective Red Sox starting pitcher.
Chris Sale: Start to finish
Sale had a 2.37 ERA and gave up 11 home runs in 148 1/3 innings through the end of last July. But over his final 11 regular-season starts, he had a 4.09 ERA and gave up 13 homers in 66 innings. Then, in Game 1 against the Astros, he allowed seven runs on three homers in five innings.
Quite simply, Sale hit a wall. It’s happened before, too. His career ERA before the All-Star break (2.74) is half a run lower than after the break (3.28), while his home-run rate jumps from 0.78 per nine innings to 1.11. And in the final month of the season, those numbers skyrocket to 3.78 and 1.51.
But at least Sale is aware of the problem and intent on fixing it. He “won’t spill the beans” about changes he’s making with new pitching coach Dana LeVangie, but suggested a more gradual build-up of his throwing program. After striking out 308 batters last season, the most by an AL pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 1999, Sale also hinted at being more economical.
“I don’t think I need to dial it back. I think I just need to eliminate waste pitches,” Sale said recently. “I’d love to be able to get to the sixth inning on a very regular basis with 80-85 pitches. Easier said than done, and it looks good on paper, but those are kind of the things we’ve been talking about.”
David Price: Head games
Price missed the first two months and another eight weeks last season with an elbow injury, the specificity of which was never revealed. Regardless, the lefty’s head was every bit as big a problem as his arm.
From his feud with local media to needlessly deriding Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley on the team plane over an innocuous comment during a television broadcast, Price raised a whole new set of questions about his ability to thrive amid the deafening noise that exists in the sports-obsessed fishbowl known as Boston.
Price’s dominance out of the bullpen down the stretch and in the playoffs signaled his elbow was healthier. By all accounts, he has had a relatively typical offseason as he prepares to re-enter the rotation. But with a chance to opt out of his seven-year, $217 million contract after this season, what about Price’s mindset?
“For me, it’s unfair to talk about last year. It’s in the past,” said new manager Alex Cora, whose predecessor John Farrell had a strained relationship with Price. “I’m here to move forward. He’s a talented kid. He single-handedly almost beat [the Astros] in the playoffs. The way he threw the ball with conviction, I’ll take that.”
Rick Porcello: Identity crisis
In 2015, Porcello ranked 75th among 78 pitchers (minimum 162 innings) with a 4.92 ERA. In 2016, he won the Cy Young Award. Last season, his ERA climbed back to 4.65 and he allowed more hits (236) and homers (38) than any other AL pitcher.
If ever Porcello could settle somewhere in the middle of those extremes, he would be a solid No. 3 starter.
A sinkerballer without overpowering stuff, Porcello must locate with precision to be effective. With more hitters hunting low pitches in order to lift the ball in the air, it’s imperative for Porcello to be more exact than ever.
“One of the biggest things I’m trying to do is separate the fastball at the bottom of the zone and elevated above the zone,” Porcello said recently. “When you try to do that, and you’re not executing the knee-high fastball as well as the one out of the zone elevated, everything starts to blend into one pitch. That’s when I get in trouble.”
Drew Pomeranz: Don’t go changin’
As much as any Red Sox starter, Pomeranz would do well to simply repeat 2017. The lefty reached career highs in starts (32) and innings (173 2/3), matched his All-Star 2016 season with a 3.32 ERA and was more consistent over six months than even Sale.
At 29, and after bouncing between the bullpen and the rotation with four teams in four years, Pomeranz might have finally reached his potential. And with free agency beckoning after the season, that could mean a handsome payday.
“I’ve mainly been focused on picking up where I left off because at the end of the year, I was basically throwing every pitch I have when I wanted to, and it didn’t matter the count,” Pomeranz said. “Just trying to pick up from there and get that same feel coming into the season.”
Eduardo Rodriguez: Finding the ceiling
On the night the Red Sox hired Dombrowski in 2015, Rodriguez allowed one run over eight innings against the Cleveland Indians. More than two years later, it remains one of his most impressive starts in the big leagues.
Injuries, specifically recurring instability in his right knee that finally necessitated surgery in October, have prevented Rodriguez from rising to a top-of-the-rotation starter. The Sox still believe he can get there, but if it doesn’t happen this season for the 24-year-old lefty, there will be reason to doubt it ever will.
With Rodriguez likely to miss the season’s first few weeks to complete his recovery, 2016 All-Star Steven Wright could find his way back into the rotation. But that presumes Wright is healthy and available. The knuckleballer missed most of last season after knee surgery in May and was arrested in December on charges of domestic assault. While a Tennessee court retired the charges for one year, Major League Baseball is still conducting an investigation with no timetable for potential discipline.
New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom out until September with right forearm inflammation
The ace right-hander is 7-2 in 15 starts with a 1.08 ERA, but last pitched July 7 when he struck out 10 in seven innings against the Brewers. He will be shut down from throwing for two weeks, pushing the timetable for his return back to September.
Manager Luis Rojas didn’t offer any other update during his pregame media session, other than to say deGrom didn’t throw on Friday. DeGrom has suffered five injuries this season – shoulder soreness, right lat tightness, right side tightness, right flexor tendinitis — and had two starts pushed back and had an earlier stint on the injured list in May. When he landed on the IL with forearm tightness, he said the previous four injuries had each been caused while batting.
“When I go to release a baseball, I’m having a hard time staying through it and throwing the ball how I’m supposed to,” deGrom said in mid-July when the Mets officially placed him on the IL. “The other day, I felt it from literally lobbing a baseball and then never really seemed to get any better. Just continued to stay tight even when I got on the mound. I guess the positive thing is, structurally, my elbow looks good but the frustration part is why. What is it? What did I do to cause it?”
The Mets have used 16 different starting pitchers and will use their 17th on Friday night when Carlos Carrasco makes his Mets debut. The Mets will also wear black uniform tops, a fan favorite, for the first time in nine years.
Carrasco, part of the Francisco Lindor trade in the offseason, missed the first four months with a hamstring tear. The Mets acquired Rich Hill in a trade last week with the Rays and added Javier Baez and Trevor Williams in a deadline deal with the Cubs on Friday. Williams is 4-2 with a 5.06 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) with the Cubs, and has been hit hard, allowing 10 home runs and a .833 OPS in 58.2 innings.
Without deGrom, the rotation lines up as Marcus Stroman, Carrasco, Taijuan Walker, Hill and Tylor Megill, with Williams likely heading to the bullpen for now. Megill has pitched well with a 2.04 ERA in seven starts while Walker has struggled of late, with 17 runs allowed in 9.1 innings over his past three starts.
Toronto Blue Jays acquire RHP Jose Berrios from Minnesota Twins for prospects
MINNEAPOLIS — Despite all the speculation that surrounded Jose Barrios this month, with the Minnesota Twins nowhere near contention and ready to reload for the future, the right-hander wasn’t ready to accept he could be traded.
The news that he was heading to Toronto on Friday brought him and his wife to tears.
Then came the really hard part, having to break the news to their three children that he was joining the Blue Jays in a deadline-day deal that sent two highly rated minor leaguers to the Twins.
“I know that it will be hard because this year, they are bigger. They are growing up. They know more about life and also some people,” Barrios said, predicting the greatest difficulty for 7-year-old daughter Valentina.
Soon-to-be-5-year-old Sebastian and 3-year-old Diego had grown fond of Minneapolis and their friends there, too.
Barrios, drafted 32nd overall by the Twins in 2012, debuted with Minnesota in 2015. Though Puerto Rico was their home, he and his wife, Jannieliz, became strongly rooted in the community. He worked hard to be able to speak English effectively. Barrios felt strongly enough about the Twins he asked the team’s senior director of communications, Dustin Morse, to arrange a farewell Zoom session with reporters.
“When you’ve got your first team or your first time in everything, that’s where I made my MLB debut, so it’s going to be in my heart all my life,” Barrios said from St. Louis, where he had been scheduled to start a three-game series against the Cardinals.
Instead, the playoff-chasing Blue Jays won the aggressive pursuit for the two-time All-Star, who was one of the most attractive players available on the market. They parted with infielder/outfielder Austin Martin and right-hander Simeon Woods Richardson for the 27-year-old Barrios.
Toronto began the day at 51-48, in the fifth spot chasing two AL wild-card slots with a 4 1/2-game deficit to make up. Barrios was 7-5 with a 3.48 ERA in 20 starts for the Twins this season, their unquestioned ace who has been as durable as any pitcher in the game and remains under team control through the 2022 season.
The sadness aside, the opportunity to return to a postseason race will help stem the blow a bit for Barrios.
“They are competing and trying to get that push to the playoffs. I’m so happy to be part of that, and I’m going to put myself in the best position to help that team to make that this year,” he said.
Barrios has struck out 126 in 121 2/3 innings this season and held opponents to a .213 batting average. He was 55-43 with a 4.08 ERA in his career with Minnesota.
Dealing Barrios will set a struggling rotation back even further in the short term, but the Twins had leverage, with so many teams seeking high-end starting pitching. Minnesota decided to hasten the reset process for 2022 and beyond after this disappointing season on the heels of two straight AL Central titles.
“We were setting a high bar for a lot of these conversations,” president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said after the deadline passed.
The 22-year-old Martin hit .281 with a .424 on-base percentage and scored 43 runs in 55 games for Double-A New Hampshire. This is his first pro season after being drafted fifth overall in 2020 out of Vanderbilt, where he helped win the College World Series in 2019. Martin was ranked this year by MLB.com as the second-best prospect in Toronto’s system and the 16th-best prospect in the minor leagues. He played for the American League in the All-Star Futures Games this month at Coors Field. That AL side was managed by Twins special assistant LaTroy Hawkins.
The 20-year-old Woods Richardson was 2-4 with a 5.76 ERA in 11 starts for Double-A New Hampshire. Listed 68th overall in MLB.com’s prospect rankings, Woods Richardson is now playing for the United States in the Olympics in Tokyo with fellow pitcher Joe Ryan, who was acquired by the Twins last week in a trade that sent slugger Nelson Cruz to Tampa Bay. Woods Richardson was a second-round draft pick in 2018 by the New York Mets, who dealt him to Toronto in the trade for pitcher Marcus Stroman in 2019.
Barrios was one of the few homegrown pitchers the Twins had successfully drafted and developed over the last two decades, but they’d been unable to secure him to a long-term contract and weren’t prepared to try to outbid for him on the open market if he were to reach free agency next year. So they took advantage of his hot market this summer and took another step toward restocking.
With Ryan, Woods Richardson and Drew Strotman, who was also recently acquired from the Rays for Cruz, the Twins have three more viable options for their future rotation.
One player the Twins hung onto was oft-injured center fielder Byron Buxton, whom they’ve also not yet been able to sign to an extension. Falvey said the Twins received plenty of interest in the multi-skilled Buxton, but not enough to warrant moving him.
“We’re just going to continue to focus right now on him getting as healthy as possible, get him back on the field, and getting him playing for us,” Falvey said.
Chicago White Sox agree to trade with Chicago Cubs for closer Craig Kimbrel
The White Sox, who lead the AL Central, were looking for bullpen help, and they now have it with Kimbrel and Liam Hendriks.
Kimbrel, 33, has 23 saves this season for the Cubs with an 0.49 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 36⅔ innings. Overall, he has 371 career saves with the Cubs, Red Sox, Padres and Braves over his 12 major league seasons.
“We viewed Craig as the premier relief pitcher available at this trade deadline, and so we knew the cost would be steep in terms of parting with young talent,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said in a statement. “But we recognize the special opportunity that currently exists and our team, our clubhouse and our fans deserve to know we will do everything we can to reach the postseason and win meaningful games in October.”
Madrigal tore his right hamstring and early June and is out for the season following surgery. He’s targeted to be the Cubs’ starting second baseman next season. He was hitting .305 when he was injured. Madrigal also won a minor league Gold Glove award in 2019.
Heuer, a 25-year-old right-hander, is 4-1 this season for the White Sox out of the bullpen. He’s appeared in 40 games. Last season, his first in the big leagues, he was 3-0 with a save and a 1.52 ERA in 21 appearances.
The White Sox entered Friday with an eight-game lead over division rival Cleveland. The Cubs are fourth in the NL Central and entering a rebuild.
The White Sox had already addressed the loss of Madrigal by acquiring slugging second baseman Cesar Hernandez from the Cleveland Indians on Thursday.
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.
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