Red Sox Rotation Problem: Who is the No. 5 starting pitcher?

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 23: Starting pitcher Hector Velazquez #76 of the Boston Red Sox pitches during the first inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on September 23, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 23: Starting pitcher Hector Velazquez #76 of the Boston Red Sox pitches during the first inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on September 23, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

The Boston Red Sox need to figure out who their fifth starting pitcher will be now that Nathan Eovaldi is moving to the bullpen.

The fifth spot in the rotation has been a problem for the Boston Red Sox all season as they have cycled through fringe-major league pitchers and underdeveloped prospects to no avail. The solution isn’t any clearer with the news that Nathan Eovaldi will be moving to the bullpen.

The Red Sox paid Eovaldi $17 million this season expecting him to be a fixture in the rotation but that clearly hasn’t panned out. He was awful in four starts, producing a 6.00 ERA over 21 innings, before undergoing a procedure to remove loose bodies in his elbow.

Eovaldi is expected to return shortly after the All-Star break but the plan is to transition him into the closer role. The back of the bullpen has been a disaster and it’s possible that the unproven Eovaldi could handle the role. But then who fills the No. 5 spot in the rotation if Eovaldi isn’t reclaiming it?

Boston has tried a handful of options in the fifth spot since Eovaldi hit the injured list. Those pitchers have combined to go 2-7 with a 6.57 ERA in 15 starts.

Brian Johnson allowed only one earned run over his two starts but tossed a total of only eight innings between those outings. He’s now sidelined indefinitely with a non-baseball medical issue. The other options have all been dreadful when given a chance.

So who do the Red Sox turn to now?

President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told reporters that Hector Velazquez is likely to get the start Thursday in Toronto, the last game that they will need a fifth starter before the All-Star break. Beyond that, the fifth spot remains up for grabs.

"“We’re leaning towards Hector doing that for us on Thursday,” said Dombrowski, per’s Chris Cotillo. “He has done that for us in the past. We feel comfortable. I don’t know if we’ll go with an opener, we’ll keep an open eye to see who else may be out there. We’ll see what direction we’ll go.”"

Velazquez is 1-3 with a 6.41 ERA in seven starts and has lasted five innings only once all season. Most of his “starts” lasted only a few innings, essentially making him the opener for a bullpen game. In some cases, that was due to Velazquez not being stretched out enough to last longer but he hasn’t pitched well enough in his starts to avoid an early hook.

Manager Alex Cora isn’t ruling out Steven Wright joining the rotation after the break. The team believed he was better suited for a bullpen role after his recovery from a knee injury but they may be more inclined now to give him the opportunity even if he can’t go deep into games.

"“We have to talk about it,” Cora said. “As you know, physically it’s one of those that can he deal with the workload? That’s the important thing. Can he do it for five innings or is he better off going two innings, an off day and two innings after that? We’ve been talking for two days now, looking for answers and trying to make adjustments.”"

Wright has made three appearances since returning from an 80-game PED suspension, allowing two runs in four innings. The knuckleballer was an All-Star in 2016 before a string of injuries and suspensions derailed his career. He’s been better as a reliever since then but Wright went 1-1 with a 4.13 ERA in four spot starts last season. Those numbers would suffice for a fifth starter if he can replicate that.

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Darwinzon Hernandez could have a bright future in the rotation but he appeared overmatched and struggled with his control in his first big league start, allowing three runs and five walks over three innings. He’s expected to move to the bullpen in Pawtucket to help monitor his innings. Hernandez could receive a late-season call up to help in a relief role but we can rule him out as an option to start again this year.

Ryan Weber (1-1, 7.94 ERA) and Josh Taylor (0-2, 9.82 ERA) did nothing to impress in their spot starts. Neither has a successful track record in the majors and they aren’t promising young prospects.

The Red Sox could trade for a starter before the July 31 deadline but their reluctance to add payroll will limit their options. It may be cheaper to acquire a reliever and the team isn’t ruling out Eovaldi eventually rejoining the rotation if they trade for a real closer.

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Boston’s approach at the trade deadline will dictate how they fill the back of their rotation down the stretch. Unless they are able to make a move for a viable starter or a closer, it looks like Valazquez and Wright will be battling for the chance to open for a bullpen game every fifth game.