Red Sox affected by potential MLB rule changes for pitcher injuries

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - MAY 08: Starting pitcher Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox works the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 08, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - MAY 08: Starting pitcher Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox works the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 08, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /

MLB changing the rules regarding how long pitchers must remain on the injured list will have an affect on the Boston Red Sox.

Major League Baseball has plans to crack down on teams abusing the injured list as a device to manipulate their roster and those changes may alter how the Boston Red Sox manage their pitching staff.

MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reports that changes are coming regarding the duration that injured players must remain sidelined. Position players will still only miss a minimum of 10 days, as has been the case since the latest change to this policy in 2016. Pitchers, however, will go back to the previously used 15-day placement.

The rule change appears designed to be a deterrent to teams that churn through arms at the back end of their rotation or bullpen by using the injured list to open a roster spot. Rather than waste a player option to send a pitcher to the minors or reluctantly designating a player for assignment, a short stint on the injured list allows teams to give pitchers a breather while they call up a fresh arm.

The fallout from this rule change potentially impacts the Red Sox in a couple of ways.

Some form of workload management may be necessary for Chris Sale, David Price, and Nathan Eovaldi, all of whom aim to bounce back from injury-plagued seasons. One way to to do so would be with periodic breaks during the season. 10 days on the injured list might only cost them one start if they plan it properly around the team’s scheduled off days. Essentially punting away one game by using a spot starter instead of one of their high-priced pitchers is a small price to pay if it helps keep them healthy and fresh for a full season.

Reverting back to the 15-day policy ensures those pitchers would miss at least two starts. Teams may think twice about this strategy if it means using a spot starter in consecutive turns through the rotation. Plus, they wouldn’t want their starter to get rusty by taking too many days off.

The bullpen is where we’ll see the most roster turnover. Boston has a few key relievers locked into prominent roles but the rest of their bullpen remains uncertain. They could cycle through various options based on performance and availability but there are limits to how many times you can send a player on the bus from Boston to Pawtucket. The IL can be used as a ploy to circumvent those limits but extending the minimum duration would make it a bit harder to do.

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Boston’s desire to trim payroll will make it difficult to afford another starting pitcher to fill the vacancy at the back of their rotation. That has led many to speculate that the Red Sox will utilize an opener for a bullpen game every fifth day, a strategy popularized by the Tampa Bay Rays during Chaim Bloom’s tenure with the organization.

Loading up the bullpen with a couple of shiny new toys may be a cheaper solution than paying a serviceable starting pitcher. The Red Sox will need that depth if they intend to use the opener strategy. The tight-budget Rays pioneered the movement out of necessity because they couldn’t afford to pay five starting pitchers. Boston may be in a similar predicament based on their desire to dip under the luxury tax.

Short stints on the IL enable teams to cycle through relievers to ensure they aren’t overtaxing the same arms. This is a necessity for teams deploying bullpen games and perhaps more so for a Red Sox rotation led by pitchers who struggled to last deep into games last season, forcing them to rely heavily on an overworked bullpen.

Moving an expensive veteran to free room in the budget for a reliable fifth starter and some bullpen upgrades may negate the impact of these rule changes. The Red Sox may welcome the revised policy if they no longer have a need to take advantage of the existing rule, as it would prevent other teams from using it against them.

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It’s unclear if the rule change will be implemented in time for the 2020 season since any change of this nature would need to be coordinated through the MLB Players Association. It’s clear that MLB is determined to prohibit teams from using loopholes in the rules to gain a competitive advantage so we can expect this policy update to eventually come to pass with perhaps more changes on the horizon.