Hallelujah! Red Sox will open season with five starters instead of none

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John Tomase
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Tomase: Hallelujah! Sox rotation won't be unwatchable in 2021 originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

In fairness to the Red Sox, last year's cavalcade of misfit toys masquerading as a starting rotation wasn't the plan.

The Red Sox didn't expect Eduardo Rodriguez to be waylaid by a COVID-related heart condition or for ace Chris Sale to need Tommy John (although maybe they should've seen that one coming). They didn't sign Martin Perez figuring he'd lead the club in starts. They certainly didn't anticipate Chris Mazza, Ryan Weber, and Zack Godley taking the ball every five days, or for Kyle Hart, Matt Hall, and Robinson Leyer to fill in the gaps. In a season of only 60 games, the Red Sox used an astounding 16 different starters.

The resulting 24-36 record should've surprised no one. Even shortstop Xander Bogaerts, a team-first guy if ever there was one, didn't bother hiding the truth.

"I mean, if you've got to score eight, nine, 10 runs every game, I think honestly it's a little tough," he admitted last summer.

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So as the Red Sox prepare for Opening Day at home vs. the Orioles in a couple of weeks, let us celebrate one significant way in which 2021 is already worlds better than 2020: they will actually break camp with a five-man starting rotation.

Manager Alex Cora confirmed as much on Monday. The Red Sox won't finagle a six-man staff. They won't feature openers. They will head north not only with five starters, but with actual depth in the organization to support them should someone suffer an injury.

Cora hasn't officially named an opening day starter, but it's going to be Rodriguez, the former 19-game winner who suffered through one of the most miserable bouts of COVID experienced by any athlete anywhere last year.

He'll presumably be followed by fireballing Nathan Eovaldi, who's running out of time to justify his $68 million contract, new arrival Garrett Richards, who looked a lot better in his last start after two spring clunkers, and then hard-throwing Nick Pivetta and the crafty veteran Perez.

Opening the season with five regular starters will allow manager Alex Cora to mix and match extensively with nine relievers as part of a 14-man pitching staff, and let us just take a moment to acknowledge how night and day this all is from last year.

"It's a solid one, and everybody has their strengths, obviously they have their weaknesses, but we've got changeups and we've got fastballs at 97 and we've got breaking balls, so it's just not velo," Cora said. "For certain teams you go and you know you're going to get from 97 to 100 and then you prepare for that. With us, it's going to be a little bit different, but the constant is that we can get people out in the strike zone."

It remains to be seen how successful this group will be, because there are certainly questions. How will Rodriguez bounce back after a year on the sidelines? Will Eovaldi translate his overwhelming stuff into something more than underwhelming results? Will Richards stay healthy? Have the Red Sox actually unlocked Pivetta? What does it say about the rotation if Perez is once again its most reliable member?

We'll take those questions over the one even hardcore fans were asking every other day last summer: who the hell's this guy?

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Should someone stumble or suffer an injury, there's a support system in place, led by right-hander Tanner Houck, who has been throwing in the upper-90s this spring after his out-of-nowhere 3-0 debut last September.

We may not know exactly how good the starting staff is going to be, but it won't be unwatchable, and that's what's called a baby step in the right direction.

"Since day one, we've said it, the difference is that we're deeper this year than in previous years, and that's a testament to where we're at as an organization and what we did in the offseason," Cora said. "So we're very comfortable with this group."