2021 Red Sox preview: Starting rotation holds key to Boston's success

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John Tomase
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Tomase: Best- and worst-case scenarios for every Sox starter originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Below are capsule previews of the Red Sox' 2021 starting rotation, which will be a lot better than last year, simply by virtue of including five actual starters. With an offense that should score runs, the Red Sox will go as far as their staff takes them.

Tomase: Hallelujah! Red Sox rotation won't be unwatchable in 2021

(Note: Ages are as of Opening Day, while projected stats are courtesy Baseball-Reference and Tom Tango. It's worth noting that Eduardo Rodriguez and Martin Perez both have birthdays in the first week of April, just days after the opener.)

Eduardo Rodriguez

Age: 27

Throws: Left

Outlook: Welcome back. Rodriguez had hoped to follow his 19-win breakout in 2019 with another strong campaign as Boston's ace. Instead, he was waylaid by COVID, missing not only the entire season but part of the offseason too while battling the debilitating effects of myocarditis, an inflammation of the lining surrounding the heart.

Sharp spring for E-Rod

Rodriguez' WHIP in spring training (11.2 IP)

0.69

Variation

Single

He arrived at camp intent on proving he had put those challenges behind him, and he succeeded with a strong spring that earned him the Opening Day nod from manager Alex Cora. Rodriguez is intent on attacking the strike zone and picking up where he left off in 2019.

Best case: It will be hard to top his performance of two years ago, but if he matches it, the Red Sox will boast a legitimate No. 1 starter.

Worst case: Rodriguez starts strong and then fades, the aftereffects of COVID proving more pernicious than anticipated.

Projected stats: 7-3, 3.99 ERA

Nathan Eovaldi

Age: 31

Throws: Right

Outlook: Eovaldi's four-year, $68 million extension is officially half over, and we still don't really know what to expect from him. His stuff has always outstripped his results, though in nine starts last year he showed flashes of the pitcher he could be, striking out over a batter an inning for the second straight season and posting a 3.72 ERA.

Tomase: Velocity doesn't always translate to success for Eovaldi

Can he maintain that kind of production over the course of a full year? That's the annual question with Eovaldi, who's no stranger to the trainer's room. Still, it's nice to know that his ceiling is someone capable of dominating in October. Don't be surprised if Cora finds opportunities to buy him extra rest with an eye on the long haul.

Best case: Eovaldi stays healthy and translates his 100 mph heat into commensurate results.

Worst case: He's injured early and often, appearing only in fits and starts while the Red Sox dip into their depth to replace him.

Projected stats: 7-6, 4.61 ERA

Garrett Richards

Age: 32

Throws: Right

Outlook: Richards is similar to Eovaldi, except that his best stretches have lasted longer and been even better. Until an unfortunate collision with the first base bag in Fenway Park in 2014, for instance, Richards was pitching like an ace with the Angels, going 13-4 with a 2.61 ERA. His lifetime ERA of 3.62 over 800 innings suggests there's an above-average pitcher just waiting to be unleashed.

Tomase: Richards and the Red Sox have a Corey Kluber problem

Unfortunately, he has only pitched 100 innings three times in 10 seasons, with a high of 207.1 in 2015. Richards features a 95 mph and a curveball with the highest spin rate in baseball, for whatever that's worth.

Best case: Richards turns all of his underlying attributes into a durable, productive pitcher.

Worst case: Richards spends as much time on the injured list as Eovaldi, leaving the Red Sox scrambling for two replacements atop their rotation.

Projected stats: 6-7, 4.46 ERA

Nick Pivetta

Age: 28

Throws: Right

Outlook: Pivetta provides an early referendum on Chaim Bloom's ability to identify underappreciated young talent, and so far the returns are encouraging. Pivetta arrived from the Phillies for closer Brandon Workman last season and immediately began breaking down his approach and mechanics at the alternate site in Pawtucket.

A forgotten man in Philadelphia, he made two starts in September, winning both with a 1.80 ERA and 13 strikeouts in 10 innings. With a fastball that has hit 99 mph and an above-average curveball, Pivetta has the stuff to stick in a rotation. The Red Sox are banking on this being the year he breaks through.

Best case: Pivetta marries his excellent stuff to a powerful 6-foot-5 frame and regains the form that helped him strike out over 10 batters per nine innings in 2018.

Worst case: Previous organizations believed he had the ceiling of a reliever, and he becomes a swingman.

Projected stats: 4-5, 4.97 ERA

Martin Perez

Age: 29

Throws: Left

Outlook: Mr. Reliable led the Red Sox in starts last year (12) while inducing some of the weakest contact in baseball. His lifetime numbers don't wow (56-61, 4.71), but considering where he's pitching in the rotation, they don't have to. The Red Sox will take five or six innings a start with a 4.50 ERA and then hope that their offense and bullpen can make it stand.

Boston's workhorse

Percent of Red Sox' innings Perez pitched in 2020 (led team)

11.8

Variation

Single

Perez is coming off a season that saw him rarely miss bats while throwing one of the most pedestrian fastballs in baseball, but he compensated with an outstanding cutter that limited opponents to a .172 average while moving more north-south than east-west.

Best case: Perez has reached 10 wins four times in nine years. That would be a nice accomplishment this year.

Worst case: In the two years before arriving in Boston, Perez went 12-14 with a 5.49 ERA while allowing 300 hits in 250 innings.

Projected stats: 8-9, 4.96 ERA

Tanner Houck

Age: 24

Throws: Right

Outlook: Now we reach the depth portion of the rotation. Houck is not expected to break camp with the team, because the Red Sox want him to stay stretched out as a starter and there's no room for him in the rotation at the moment. However, with Eovaldi and Richards particular injury risks, Houck should receive the first call when the Red Sox require reinforcements.

He was a revelation last year while winning all three of his September starts with a 0.53 ERA, but he has struggled this spring, walking 10 in just 6.1 innings while posting an 8.53 ERA. As good as he was last year, the knock on him throughout the minors -- that he lacks an effective pitch against left-handed hitters beyond a back-foot slider -- remains an issue

Best case: Houck becomes an early fill-in and then claims a rotation spot outright by proving that 2020 was no fluke.

Worst case: Control problems continue to plague him, and the Red Sox are forced to look elsewhere for backup.

Projected stats: 6-4, 3.80 ERA

Chris Sale

Age: 32

Throws: Left

Outlook: There's a chance we hardly see the seven-time All-Star at all this season as he continues recovering from Tommy John surgery. Sale was supposed to return sometime in June or July, but that was before a minor neck injury and bout with COVID set him back.

Tomase: When should we expect to see Sale in 2021?

The Red Sox will treat him cautiously, but if they're in contention later this summer, Sale could provide one heck of a boost. Red Sox fans need no reminder of what he's capable of when healthy. He's the best pitcher to wear a Red Sox uniform since Pedro Martinez's heyday two decades ago.

Best case: Sale returns in July and after ramping up for a month, finds his old form just in time for the September stretch run.

Worst case: The Red Sox fall from contention and see little point in rushing Sale back onto the field, giving him token appearances in anticipation of 2022.

Projected stats: 4-4, 3.96 ERA