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Back end of Sox's rotation to assume spotlight

Injuries opening door for Velazquez, Johnson to crack Opening Day roster
Special to MLB.com

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- As the Red Sox draw closer to Opening Day, manager Alex Cora faces the task of identifying which players will accompany the club to Tropicana Field on March 29 when they begin the 2018 season vs. the Rays. The pitching staff contains perhaps the most questions for the first-year skipper.

The front end of the rotation is set. Chris Sale, David Price and Rick Porcello are ready to start the season at the top. For several other guys, however, health and performance over the next two weeks will help in determining where they begin the year.

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DUNEDIN, Fla. -- As the Red Sox draw closer to Opening Day, manager Alex Cora faces the task of identifying which players will accompany the club to Tropicana Field on March 29 when they begin the 2018 season vs. the Rays. The pitching staff contains perhaps the most questions for the first-year skipper.

The front end of the rotation is set. Chris Sale, David Price and Rick Porcello are ready to start the season at the top. For several other guys, however, health and performance over the next two weeks will help in determining where they begin the year.

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For Hector Velazquez, who allowed three earned runs in three innings of Monday's 6-4 win over the Blue Jays, each opportunity he gets from now until the start of the season will be watched closely by the Boston coaching staff. Injuries to Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright have provided Velazquez with an opportunity to win a spot in this rotation.

The fourth spot is where Drew Pomeranz would normally fit, but his status for Opening Day is still up in the air due to left forearm tightness. In addition to Velazquez, Brian Johnson is in line for a roster spot if Pomeranz isn't ready to go. The second-youngest manager in baseball, Cora understands that each of the injuries is different and will require a "day-to-day approach."

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"I'm not going to push him just to push him," Cora said of Pomeranz. "We understand it's 162 games. Yeah, people say the games count the same in April as in late September. We want them healthy and to be who they are the majority of the season. So that's the most important thing. So that's why I'm taking it on a day-to-day basis with them and we keep adding stuff or subtracting stuff from their programs."

The plan for Pomeranz is for him to throw live batting practice later this week. He threw a short bullpen session on Monday that consisted of mostly fastballs.

While he is happy with the "hurdles" that both Wright and Rodriguez have overcome, Cora understands the need to be more patient with their recovery. Wright will throw two innings of live BP on Tuesday as he works his way back from left knee surgery. Having the chance to face hitters and be on the mound is, according to Cora, the "last hurdle" before rejoining the team.

Velazquez has pitched 10 1/3 innings for Boston this spring, allowing 17 hits with four strikeouts and two walks. On Monday, he had trouble keeping runnners off base, surrendering seven hits while walking one over his three frames. In 2017, he saw time both in the rotation and out of the bullpen. During his three starts, Velazquez posted a 5.02 ERA with 11 strikeouts. He was far more effective in relief, posting a 3-0 record without allowing a run in 10 1/3 innings over five appearances.

Johnson, meanwhile, has thrown seven innings in three spring starts, allowing three earned runs on six hits while walking one and striking out six. In 27 innings last season, he went 2-0 with a 4.33 ERA -- including a shutout vs. the Mariners on May 27 at Fenway Park. Given the likelihood that Johnson will be in the rotation on Opening Day, Cora continues to stretch him out as the season draws near. He's scheduled to throw five innings in a simulated environment during the team's off-day on Tuesday.

Cora also said "it was a good day" for Rodriguez, who pitched two innings prior to the team making the trip up to Dunedin. Back in December, when speaking with his Venezuelan left-hander, Cora recognized that it was going to take a while for him to recover from October knee surgery, as the procedure he underwent -- a patellofemoral ligament reconstruction -- was significant. Fast forward to Monday morning and Cora was impressed with the effort put forth by Rodriguez as he works his way back.

"Props for him, he's been amazing," Cora said. "In the weight room and the training room, just going through his craft and for him to be on the mound is excellent. … With the pitcher he is and what he's been going through the past few years, you have to make sure he is where he should be."

With Rodriguez and Wright likely starting the season on the DL and Pomeranz' status unknown, Cora confirmed that Velazquez and Johnson are the guys most likely to be in the rotation if Pomeranz is not ready to go. If Pomeranz is ready, Johnson -- who does not have any options remaining -- appears to be the choice, with Velazquez being sent down.

"It looks that way, Cora said. "We have to stretch these two guys. As far as starters, those are the guys that we feel comfortable can give us solid starts."

Kris Dunn is a contributor to MLB.com.

Boston Red Sox, Hector Velazquez