A potentially delayed 2021 season would benefit Red Sox pitchers
The Boston Red Sox starting rotation is currently in shambles but they might have more time than expected to get their staff in order.
According to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, Major League Baseball wants players to be vaccinated before arriving to spring training. The United States is in the early stages of administering the recently approved COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech with inoculations expected to be distributed in multiple phases, starting with healthcare and emergency workers.
Needless to say, professional baseball players aren’t high on the priority list. Players who aren’t considered high-risk might need to wait until the spring to receive the vaccine, potentially delaying the 2021 season until May. The league is intent on ensuring players return to a safe environment where they are protected from outbreaks of the virus by the vaccine, even if it means cutting the schedule to 140 games or fewer.
Naturally, the Players’ Association has countered by claiming the protocols put in place during the shortened 2020 season proved effective and therefore the season should start on time with players receiving their full pay.
Were the protocols sufficiently effective though? Several teams had outbreaks that led to postponements and a scheduling nightmare. Not every team was able to complete the full 60-game schedule. With COVID-19 cases raging across the country, it’s hard to imagine MLB containing outbreaks any more effectively until the vaccine is more widely available.
Some will view this is a ploy by the owners to save money with a shorter season if fans aren’t allowed to attend until they are vaccinated. Wasn’t the reason for limiting last season to 60 games based primarily on owners crying poverty regarding the loss of revenue without fans in attendance? I wouldn’t expect that to change unless every state with a major league team gives the green light to allow stadiums to fill to capacity by April. Good luck with that.
We could be looking at another messy dispute between the owners and players that threatens to delay the 2021 season one way or another.
If next season is delayed until May, the fallout could have unexpected benefits for the Red Sox, particularly when it comes to their pitching staff.
Chris Sale isn’t going to be ready for the currently scheduled start to the season as he continues his recovery from Tommy John surgery. He’s conservatively projected for a June return, although recent updates on his progress provide a sliver of optimism that he can beat that time frame. He’ll approach the one year mark since his surgery by the end of March, a reasonable estimate for recovery time from this procedure, but will still require several weeks to build up his arm strength by facing live batters.
There’s almost zero chance of Sale being ready to report for spring training if it begins in February but if camp is pushed back until April then there’s a chance he can participate in at least part of it. Perhaps he still needs some extra rehab starts or simulated games before he can rejoin the team but a delayed season could mean that Sale only misses a couple of weeks to begin the season instead of months.
Eduardo Rodriguez expects to be ready for Opening Day regardless of when it comes but delaying the season puts him that much further removed from his recovery from myocarditis. He could have some rust to shake off after missing the entire 2020 season and the Red Sox should be cautious with his workload. If the season is cut to 140 games, Rodriguez might only need to make 28 starts instead of 32 and he won’t need to be pushed to 200+ innings.
The same can be said for several potential free-agent targets who are coming off an injury that severely limited or completely wiped out their 2020 season. Corey Kluber, James Paxton and Cole Hamels are high-upside options who come with varying amounts of risk in the wake of injury-plagued seasons. A shorter season helps keep their workload in check, mitigating some of the risk.
Boston is counting on Tanner Houck to carry the momentum from his spectacular late-season audition into next year. The problem is that he’s never reached 120 innings in a season at any level throughout his career. Counting on him to make the leap to 150+ innings might be a stretch but that’s less of a concern if we don’t get a full 162-game season.
The Red Sox need to add a starting pitcher through free agency or trade to solidify their rotation. If they assume Sale will miss at least one-third of the season then they might need two more starters, assuming they don’t want to count on both Houck and Nick Pivetta recapturing the magic from September over a much larger sample size.
If delaying the season means Sale won’t miss as much time as expected, perhaps Boston can settle for splurging on one higher-end pitcher instead of two moderately priced options. Or it could free room in the budget for another bat or bullpen reinforcements. When the season starts and how many games will be played has a dramatic effect on the team’s offseason decisions, which is another reason why they are taking a patient approach to filling their rotation void.
It’s possible that MLB will sort this all out to get the season underway on time but they have plenty of obstacles in their path. We’re all eager to have baseball back and the return to the normalcy of a regular schedule but if the 2021 season is delayed, it wouldn’t be the worst outcome in the world from a Red Sox perspective.