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The Red Sox can’t afford to lose Chris Sale

With David Price gone and Sale’s health in question, Boston’s rotation depth is looking especially grim.

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Workout Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Having already punted the season away trading Mookie Betts and David Price, whatever slim chance Boston had at a playoff berth nearly evaporated when it was revealed Chris Sale was experiencing elbow soreness. On Monday, Sale underwent an MRI after throwing to hitters for the first time since August of last year. Sale was already going to start the season on the IL because a bout of pneumonia delayed him at the beginning of Spring Training, but now it looks like Sale will miss at least a month.

For the time being, Sale will avoid Tommy John surgery, but this still puts Sale’s ability to get healthy in serious doubt. Sale already missed the last month and a half of 2019 with elbow discomfort.

Just the thought of losing Sale for an extended period of time highlights just how unnecessary it was to trade away David Price. The team didn’t have a clear replacement lined up for the spot vacated by their number two starter, and if Sale can’t get healthy, they would have to find a pair of starters to replace to fulfill a full-time role. The Red Sox’ starting rotation depth isn’t dissimilar from a Hometown Buffet: there’s a plethora of options, but none of them are good.

That’s compounded by the fact that the top of the Red Sox rotation is questionable, too. Eduardo Rodriguez is the de facto ace, and in 2019 he pitched to a 4.46 DRA in a career-high 203 1/3 innings. Behind him is Nathan Eovaldi who struggled to both stay healthy and to ever look like the pitcher who helped the Red Sox to a World Series win the year before. Then there’s Martín Pérez, who can throw league-average innings, and uh, that’s about it. He set a new personal best in strikeout rate last season when he struck out a whopping 18.3 percent of batters.

That’s a good-not-great starter, a mercurial flamethrower, and an innings eater, and those are the rotation locks. It gets worse when you look at who will start the other 20-40 percent of games. Even if Sale were completely healthy, no team can avoid getting into their starting pitching depth. The 2019 Red Sox, for instance, used 15 different starters last season. The names below will toe the rubber at some point this year and few inspire much confidence.

Ryan Weber

Ryan Weber is a soft-tossing sinker baller who has appeared in parts of five major league seasons. In 114 1/3 career innings, Weber has a 4.70 DRA. The 29-year-old spent most of last year pitching out of the bullpen where his performance was acceptable. Weber won’t rack up tons of strikeouts, but he won’t walk anyone.

Hector Velázquez

Hector Velázquez has been part of the Red Sox’ pitching staff for the past three seasons though most of that time has been as a reliever. Like Weber, he won’t lead the league in strikeouts. By relying more heavily on his changeup last season, Velázquez struck out a career-high 19.9 percent of batters, but he also walked 11.4 percent of hitters he faced. RosterResource currently has him slotted into the fifth starter role, but that’s a product of his seniority more than anything.

Brian Johnson

Brian Johnson is another starter whose average fastball sits below 90 mph. Johnson, however, has a high-spin curveball that makes him somewhat interesting. Unfortunately, that pitch hasn’t led to results. In 40 1/3 innings, Johnson walked 23 batters and wound up with an 8.15 DRA. Johnson was placed on waivers last November, but no other team wanted to pick him up.

Chris Mazza

A waiver claim from the Mets, Chris Mazza’s first year in the majors was as brief as it was forgettable. Mazza only got into nine games—all as a reliever—and didn’t get a lot of swings and misses. In his minor league career, he’s never been a strikeout maven, preferring instead to get the ball on the ground with his sinker-slider combination.

Tanner Houck

There have always been doubts about Tanner Houck’s ability to stick as a starter, and when the Red Sox’ ninth-best prospect made the jump to Triple-A, he was relegated to the ‘pen. When he can air it out, Houck’s sinker can hit 96 mph. He’s the first pitcher mentioned here with real swing and miss potential, and he might have a promising major league career ahead of him. It just might be as a reliever.

Kyle Hart

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Kyle Hart is that he only gave up eight home runs in 100 1/3 innings in Triple-A last season. Hart, who is on the 40-player roster, has made 24 starts in each of the last two seasons while keeping his FIP at 4.32 or below. As another lefty who sometimes hits 90 mph with his fastball, his ceiling isn’t particularly high, but he fits the bill as a fifth starter.

Mike Shawaryn

Mike Shawaryn had a somewhat encouraging debut last season as a September call-up. In 20 1/3 innings, Shawaryn struck out 29 batters with most of his whiffs coming on his slider. Of course, those innings all came out of the bullpen, and Shawaryn hasn’t put up strikeout numbers like that since he was in Class-A. Not to mention he also walked 13 batters and gave up 22 runs. Shawaryn, like Houck, is likely best utilized out of the bullpen when he can be limited to facing righties.

Darwinzon Hernández

Of the starting options, Darwinzon Hernández has the greatest strikeout potential. Since 2015, he struck out 10 or more batters per nine at every level of the minors. Hernández got into 29 big league games last year, striking out 57 batters in 30 1/3 innings. As a primarily two-pitch pitcher, Hernández is likely destined for the bullpen especially since he’s always had issues with the free pass. His lowest walk rate at any level of the minors was 10.8 percent all the way back in 2015 when he was in rookie ball. His fastball-slider combination is virtually unhittable, and with the lack of competition, it’s no wonder he’ll be considered as a starter.

No team has eight quality options beyond their fourth-best starter, but good teams usually have a couple. It doesn’t appear that the Red Sox have any. For now, Boston has dodged a bullet on the Chris Sale news, but they key words there are “for now.”

Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.