Don’t expect any sympathy from the Cleveland Indians.
It was almost a year ago that the playoff-bound Indians lost two-fifths of their starting rotation to injuries in a span of eight days. Hard-throwing right-hander Danny Salazar went down first to a forearm strain on Sept. 9. Then, on Sept. 17, Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland’s second-best starter after ace Corey Kluber, got hit with a line drive and fractured a bone in his right hand.
Talk about a late-season calamity. The Indians were on the verge of winning their first division title since 2007, yet they were being dismissed even in eastern Ohio as a first-round playoff pushover after the injuries.
Everyone knows what happened next. The Indians duct-taped their rotation behind Kluber with Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin, and manager Terry Francona made smart and aggressive use of a deep, talented bullpen. They swept the Red Sox in the American League Division Series, beat the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL Championship Series and had three chances to close out the Chicago Cubs in the World Series before falling in the 10th inning of an epic Game 7.
So, you won’t catch the Indians shedding a tear for the Red Sox if Price’s latest elbow problem winds up ending his season. The $217 million lefty went on the disabled list on July 28 with inflammation and played catch for the first time in nearly a week on Monday in Boston after dealing with what Red Sox manager John Farrell referred to as “stiffness.”
“I’d have rather not lost [Carrasco and Salazar],” Francona said. “I just think the competitive part of you goes, ‘Who do we have, and let’s go figure out a way to win.’ That’s why we kind of stay in the moment. Sometimes things look daunting. You just say, ‘OK, we’ve got Kluber tonight and we’ve got to beat the Red Sox. OK, we’ve got a shot to do that. Then, who’s next? OK, Trevor’s next.’ It doesn’t seem to be quite as daunting that way.”
Price’s detractors will cite his career postseason record — 0-8, 5.74 ERA in nine starts; 2-8, 5.54 ERA in 12 appearances overall — and claim the Red Sox are better off without him, especially now that Chris Sale is perched atop the rotation.
The Red Sox surely would prefer to have both Sale and Price. At their peak, they would rival any one-two punch in baseball, including the Los Angeles Dodgers‘ Clayton Kershaw and Yu Darvish, presuming they’re over their respective back injuries by October.
But Price, 31, is running out of time, a fact that Farrell readily acknowledges. He hasn’t thrown from a mound since a July 22 start against the Los Angeles Angels. And although the Red Sox won’t say Price encountered a setback last week, there isn’t really any other way to describe the lingering discomfort that prevented him from so much as long-tossing for five days.
Considering Price missed the first two months of the season with a strained elbow that he has referred to as “torn” and was told by two prominent doctors that he likely would have needed surgery if he was younger, the last thing the Red Sox will do is rush Price’s return. They also have a comfortable enough lead in the AL East that they can afford to take more time.
It’s almost Labor Day, though, and Price is only beginning to go through the typical progression that will lead him back to a mound in a major league game. First comes long-tossing, then getting back on a mound in a bullpen session. The Red Sox likely will want him to face hitters in live batting practice or a simulated game before going out on a minor league rehab assignment. And the minor league season ends in two weeks, with only the Red Sox’s low-A affiliate headed to the playoffs.
“There’s still hope,” Farrell said of Price’s chances of pitching again this season. “But I think we’re also being realistic here too, that he’s got to build up to an aggressive long-toss situation, not in terms of overall distance but number of throws with some aggression, and build back to the mound. That’s still going to take some time. The calendar is where we are.”
The Indians faced that dilemma with Salazar. They knew he wouldn’t be ready for the ALDS against the Red Sox, but there was an outside chance he could make a start in the ALCS.
Ultimately, the Indians decided it was too risky to have Salazar face the Blue Jays before he was able to start even a simulated game.
“I think the biggest challenge with that is the last thing you want to do is have a guy in his first start come back and pitch in a playoff game,” said Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway. “No matter how the guy was pitching before [getting injured], I’d rather have the guy that just made five starts in September come and pitch in October. That was the biggest challenge. For him to even start a game, we wanted him to have a couple rehab outings down in the minor leagues or [instructional league] or something before he even tries to pitch in a game. If you don’t get that, it’s almost better to just pitch whoever’s been pitching.”
Salazar rejoined the Indians for the World Series but only pitched in relief. If Price runs out of time to rebuild his arm strength as a starter, might he be an option in the Red Sox’s playoff bullpen? After all, Price has postseason relief experience with Tampa Bay in 2008 and Toronto in 2015.
“Have not even entertained that thought,” Farrell said, “just for the simple fact of getting back to where there’s a mound progression. At that point, we’ll see what unfolds.”
The Red Sox are built to withstand an injury to one starter, even a pitcher they depend on as much as Price.
With reigning Cy Young winner Rick Porcello and lefties Drew Pomeranz and Eduardo Rodriguez, they still would have a formidable postseason rotation. Pomeranz, in particular, has been outstanding over the past three months, going 9-1 with a 2.62 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 92⅔ innings over his past 16 starts. And after a rough first half of the season, Porcello has a 3.77 ERA since the All-Star break and has won his past four starts.
A postseason rotation that doesn’t include Price certainly wouldn’t leave the Red Sox in straits as dire as the Indians’ situation seemed to be without Carrasco and Salazar, even if Cleveland pitchers didn’t see it that way.
“I remember Kluber came up, Tomlin came up, and they said, ‘Hey, I’ll pitch on three days’ rest every single time,'” Callaway said. “I think that instant buy-in from the team — and knowing that those guys wanted to do it, instead of us saying, ‘Oh no. We’re panicked. We have to pitch you on three days’ rest’ — it was really on them to come out and want to do it more than us having to do it out of necessity.”
But not having Price would leave the Red Sox uncomfortably thin.
Pomeranz exited his most recent start in the fourth inning because of back spasms (he will pitch again on Wednesday night, as scheduled); and he dealt with a forearm injury late last season and in spring training. Rodriguez, meanwhile, has gone on the DL three times in the past two seasons with a recurring knee problem.
If one of them should go down to injury, the Red Sox would be faced with giving a regular postseason turn to Doug Fister or going with an Indians-style three-man rotation.
It’s little wonder, then, that Red Sox head athletic trainer Brad Pearson stayed back in Boston this week to supervise the progress being made by Price and injured second baseman Dustin Pedroia. If there’s any chance that Price can make it back before October, the Red Sox will do whatever it takes to help him.
Otherwise, they can always look to the 2016 Indians for proof that an injury-depleted pitching staff can still be effective in the postseason.