Red Sox six-man rotation should be an option on the table

Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) /

Here’s why the Red Sox could experiment with a six-man rotation

Managing the workload of the pitching staff will be one of the more challenging tasks for teams next season. Most starting pitchers will be asked to throw significantly more innings than they did during the shortened 2020 season and that leap could put them at risk for fatigue and injuries if teams aren’t careful. One way for the Boston Red Sox to mitigate those concerns would be using a six-man rotation.

The Seattle Mariners made waves by announcing their intention to use a six-man rotation, a strategy they utilized last season and are fully committed to sticking with. It will be interesting to see how many teams follow their lead in order to keep innings totals in check for their starters without overtaxing the bullpen.

According to Alex Speier of the Boston Globe, Red Sox manager Alex Cora hasn’t discussed using a six-man rotation but he does recognize that managing workloads will be essential to keeping the staff healthy.

"“It is something that is worrisome,” said Cora. “We have to take care of the health of these guys. But we have to push them to be successful.”"

Deploying a six-man rotation would have been unfathomable last season when the Red Sox struggled to patch together five viable starting pitchers. The opener strategy clearly didn’t pan out as well as they hoped and there simply weren’t enough trustworthy arms to keep the team in games on a regular basis.

Next season should be different. The rotation will benefit from the return of Eduardo Rodriguez and Chris Sale will eventually give them a mid-season boost. Boston is expected to be active in free agency to add at least one starter and fortify their bullpen. The late-season auditions from Tanner Houck and Nick Pivetta hint that they are ready for a full-time rotation spot.

Assuming the Red Sox add a starter via free agency or trade, that pitcher will presumably open the season in the rotation with E-Rod, Houck, Pivetta and Nathan Eovaldi. Boston would be hard-pressed to find a sixth option on the current roster who didn’t fail miserably when given an opportunity in 2020. Garrett Whitlock could be an option since he’ll need to remain on the active roster after being selected in the Rule 5 draft but he’s coming off Tommy John surgery and might be relegated to the bullpen in order to ease him back in.

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Unless the Red Sox sign or trade for multiple new starters, the six-man rotation doesn’t seem reasonable to open the season. However, that conceivably changes once Sale is ready to return. The ace will be coming to take someone’s spot and while injuries or poor performance could make the decision easy, what happens if the rotation is humming along like a well-oiled machine?

If everyone else in the rotation is pitching well, perhaps the solution is to integrate Sale into the mix without having him replace someone. The deeper starting staff allows each pitcher more time between starts and fewer turns through the rotation. That could easily trim about 20-50 innings from each of them, depending on the timing of Sale’s return.

Sale might need the extra rest following a lengthy recovery from surgery and he has a history of performing better when given an extra day between starts, as many pitchers do. Rodriguez shouldn’t be pushed to 200+ innings after missing the entire 2020 season so next year’s Opening Day starter would benefit from having some of his starts pushed back a day. Houck and Pivetta have never pitched a full major league season. Each of these pitchers has a reason for needing the extra rest that extends beyond the innings jump going from a 60-game season to one that is (hopefully) 162 games.

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This plan hinges on the Red Sox adding another starter this offseason plus everyone staying relatively healthy and productive. It’s not a strategy they will use for the entire season but if the Red Sox have six viable starters once Sale is activated, it makes sense to use all of them in order to keep them healthy and productive.