We’re almost there. This Thursday, the Red Sox open their 2018 regular season against the Tampa Bay Rays in Tropicana Field in Florida. They have four games there and then go south 250 miles to play two against the Marlins in Miami’s Marlins Park starting Monday.
Opening up in stadiums with roofs, in Florida, in March, against opponents who are both predicted to be among the weakest in baseball, is a mixed blessing for the Sox. The good news is, they won’t be opening outside in the cold north and they will be facing weak opposition, as Dave O’Brien would say, right out of the gate.
The bad news is that they will not be given the extra day off in the first two series that teams who open in the north are generally given in anticipation of weather delays. For example, the Orioles open at home in Baltimore, which can be as cold as Boston in March, and, after playing Opening Day against the Twins, they have the next day off. If weather should require canceling Opening Day, they have the next day to do it.
Having to play the first six days without a break doesn’t sound like a big deal until you start to look at the Red Sox starting rotation. With three of their anticipated top starters, Drew Pomeranz. Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright recovering from injuries and most likely unavailable to start the season, that extra day off in the first week would make a big difference in Alex Cora’s plans for scheduling his pitchers.
The plan, if nothing changes between now and Opening Day, is for Chris Sale to open against the Rays’ Chris Archer, who, despite his 10-12 record and 4.07 earned run average last year, is a much better pitcher than that record indicates. Sale seems to have suffered just a minor bruise when hit with a ball on Saturday. David Price, who has looked good in limited action in the Spring, will start Game number two in Tropicana Field. Price said this week that he is in better condition at this stage of the preseason than at any time in his career.
Rick Porcello who, coming off his Cy Young season in 2016, struggled to an 11-17 record last year with a 4.65 earned run average, has had the same kind of troubles he had all last year in Spring Training. He is scheduled to start the third game at Tampa Bay. In two of his first three starts in the Spring he gave up runs early, two in the first against Baltimore and one each in the first and second against the Twins reminiscent of last year. He gave up six runs on 13 hits in his first 11 innings of the Spring. As last year, he has gotten more effective as the outing went on, giving the Sox a lot of innings but resulting in a lot of losses as well.
After Porcello, everything depends on who is healthy and available to start Game 4. On Thursday of this week, Alex Cora told the media that both Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright were ‘in play’ as far as Game 4 at Tampa Bay. Rodriguez, coming off right knee surgery has been recovering quicker than expected and could be available. Wright, recovering from left knee surgery, could also be ready but neither has had any amount of actual game time and using them could be dangerous to their long term physical health.
Pomeranz, who was a major factor in the Sox regular season success last year with his 17-6 record, suffered a flexor strain in his throwing arm on March 2nd and had not pitched in a Major League Spring Training game as of Thursday of this week.
Realistically, Brian Johnson will probably start the last game of the series at the Trop. Johnson, despite giving up three runs to the Rays in one of his four starts, did not give up a run in his other three starts and has looked good and may find himself the sixth man in the rotation as the season progresses.
If there was a day off in that first series, the Sox would be able to come back with Sale in the first game in Miami and Price for Game 2. As it is, if none of the three injured starters are available, the starter for the Game 1 in Miami is up for grabs.
Don’t be surprised if Hector Velazquez doesn’t start either the last game in Tampa or the first game in Miami if Pomeranz, Rodriguez and Wright are still unavailable. He was 8-4, with a 2.21 ERA, at Pawtucket last year and spent some time with the Sox, going 3-1 with a 2.92 ERA. The 29 year old, right hander has not had a great Spring but may be the answer to their interim problems.
The other good news is that, assuming Pomeranz, Rodriguez and/or Wright are able to return in the first few weeks of the season, the Red Sox have, potentially, one of the strongest starting rotation in all of baseball.
As far as the rest of the team is concerned, it looks like Alex Cora’s two biggest problems are which of the talented non-starters to keep. With talent like Blake Swihart, Sam Travis and Deven Marrero vying for one or maybe two positions, it’s a good problem to have.
Once that is done, how does he divide the playing time to give all his talent enough of it? With J. D. Martinez, Mitch Moreland and Hanley Ramirez all available for DH and Moreland and Ramirez for first base and Martinez expressing a desire to play the outfield when you already have the best defensive and, potentially, the best all around outfield in baseball out there, this may not be so easy to resolve.
Eduardo Nunez will fill the second base hole until Dustin Pedroia is available, but what do you do with him when Pedroia returns? By the same token, if you keep Swihart, who can catch or play the outfield, where you don’t need him, what do you do with Sandy Leon as Christian Vazquez is your first string catcher?
Lots of decisions and potential problems facing Alex Cora as his first season at the helm looms. Most people would say that they are all good but the fact is that each of them will have a positive or negative effect upon the team’s season.
Everybody in Red Sox Nation is expecting great things from their defending division Champions who may be one of the three or four best teams in baseball on paper. After two 93 game winning Division Championships under John Farrell, Red Sox fans will not be happy with less than a trip to the World Series in Cora’s first year.