Boston Red Sox thin rotation faces new challenge with season delay

The delay to the 2020 season due to the coronavirus will make it more challenging for Boston Red Sox pitchers to ramp up their workload.

We still expect that there will be baseball this year but an uncertain start date poses a challenge for players trying to prepare for the upcoming season. The interruption to their routine is a significant obstacle for starting pitchers who need time to gradually ramp up their arms to handle a heavy workload. The Boston Red Sox are struggling to assemble a full five-man rotation and concerns about how prepared their pitching staff will be when Opening Day eventually arrives only makes matters worse.

The danger in entering a season with an unprepared pitching staff was evident last year. After pitching deep into October during their World Series run the previous year, the Red Sox decided to give their starters a light workload in spring training in order to preserve their arms for another playoff run. The plan backfired when each of their starters sputtered out of the gate and Boston buried themselves in the standings with a 3-8 stretch to begin the season.

Adamant that they wouldn’t make the same mistake twice, the Red Sox had every intention of giving their starters a regular workload this spring. Unfortunately, that decision was taken out of their hands when the final weeks of the exhibition schedule were canceled as part of the efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Eduardo Rodriguez led the club with 11 innings pitched over three starts this spring. Ryan Weber (9 IP), Nathan Eovaldi (8 IP), and Martin Perez (6 2/3 IP) are the top candidates to file in behind E-Rod in the rotation to open the season. They each pitched well, combining to allow only three earned runs in 34 2/3 innings.

It was an encouraging sign that the Red Sox rotation could end up being better than expected but that momentum has been halted before these pitchers were ready for the season. Pitchers can throw bullpen sessions to build up arm strength but it’s not the same as facing batters in a live game. MLB is discouraging group workouts in order to comply with social-distancing practices so throwing a simulated game may not even be an option.

How do pitchers properly prepare under these conditions? It’s a question that Red Sox Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom admits will be a challenge to solve, as Jen McCaffrey of The Athletic reports.

“This is one of the tougher questions every club is going to have to answer because a lot of preparation for the season is usually working backward from a known and defined start date and we don’t have that right now,” said Bloom. “And even having the tentative date of two weeks into the season, with the uncertainty surrounding that, you don’t want to hit a full gallop too soon and then have to hold that if the season doesn’t start then.”

Great, so pitchers can’t start ramping up too early but if they wait too long then they risk the season sneaking up on them before they are ready. That’s a bit of a problem when you don’t know when Opening Day will be.

“Certainly starters and multi-inning pitchers it’s a little different from short relievers in term of the time that is required,” continued Bloom. “We’re basically just trying to strike that balance between not letting pitchers get de-conditioned and making sure we’re maintaining some kind of workload. That the ramp up is not damaging to them. While also making sure we’re not stressing them or overworking them during a time we’re not playing games.”

Allowing pitchers to enter the season unprepared means they may not be as sharp early in the season, might not have the same velocity and probably can’t pitch as deep into games as we’re accustomed to see from starters. The stress of pushing them too quickly once we find out when the season beings creates a greater risk of injury.

At least the opener strategy that the Red Sox have been toying with for their vacant fifth rotation spot would be more feasible under these circumstances. If every team’s starters struggle to last long in the early going, resorting to a bullpen game might not put them at a disadvantage.

Another benefit is that it gives some injured Red Sox pitchers more time to heal. It’s far from a lock that Chris Sale pitches at all this year. If he passes every test and is deemed ready to take the mound, it wasn’t going to be before May. Now that the season could be delayed into May, it’s possible that Sale doesn’t miss much time after all.

The same can be said for newcomer Collin McHugh, who wasn’t expected to be ready to open the season while dealing with his own elbow recovery.

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The Red Sox learned some hard lessons last year about limiting the workload of their pitchers in spring training. They had no choice this year but at least every other team is dealing with the same problem. We’ll get baseball back eventually but it will be a struggle in the first few weeks as players try to find their groove following a very unusual offseason.