While the Red Sox face a familiar need as they look to fill out their rotation, the team nonetheless is poised to approach the task very differently than it has in the past.
For the first time in years, the team has multiple young starting pitching prospects who have shown the ability both to succeed in the big leagues and to improve while doing so. Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock emerged as key contributors in 2021, in a way that suggests lasting impact in 2022 and beyond. They are among an array of choices that has rarely been available to the Red Sox in the last decade.
The departure of Eduardo Rodriguez for Detroit on a five-year, $77 million deal leaves a sizable void in the rotation. While the team has Nate Eovaldi, Chris Sale, and Nick Pivetta, two rotation spots remain undefined.
The Sox’ interest in bringing back Rodriguez was legitimate. In a vacuum, the team would have been happy to bring back the lefthander. The team’s one-year, $18.4 million qualifying offer was a signal that it’s likely to pursue at least one established starter this offseason.
Even so, the team’s urgency to retain a veteran starter did not match that of the Tigers, in part because the team Sox already has a pair of well-compensated rotation anchors in Eovaldi and Sale. Perhaps more importantly, the team has in Houck and Whitlock the beginning of what may be a functional pitching pipeline to the big leagues.
“One of the things that I’m most proud of this year, as far as our whole group, is seeing some evidence that we’re able to [help young pitchers improve]. We have to,” chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said recently. “Those guys have taken steps forward for a lot of reasons, but partly because of the environment that everybody has helped create, whether it’s the specifics of mechanics, or information that they’ve gotten from our coaches or from our analysts . . . It all comes together. It all matters.”
Houck, a 2017 first-round selection, has now demonstrated an ability to thrive for at least four innings at a time. In 16 career starts, he has a 2.33 ERA in innings one through five while holding hitters to a .198 average, .271 OBP, and .266 slugging.
The 25-year-old righthander has become the team’s best homegrown pitcher success story in years. He was drafted as a sinker/slider pitcher, but over time and through struggles, developed a four-seam fastball that he could get in on the hands of lefties, as well as a splitter that dives down and away against lefties. Meanwhile, he’s gained further control of his slider, with the ability not just to lock up righthanded hitters but to back-foot the breaking ball to lefties.
A pitcher who many had seen both in college and his early amateur career as a wipeout bullpen option against righties has developed a fuller repertoire that seems like it can work in the rotation.
“He’s come a long way with that,” said Sox bullpen coach Kevin Walker, who worked with Houck in Triple A Pawtucket in 2019. “We’ve seen that this year. The splitter has come a long way, and I think it’s going to continue to get better.”
Whitlock primarily relied on a low-90s sinker and changeup as a starter in the Yankees system before blowing out his elbow in 2019. He spent the lost minor league season of 2020 rehabbing on his own, resulting in New York’s decision to leave him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft.
The Sox recognized instantly in spring training that Whitlock’s stuff had gotten better through the rehab process, with his sinker ticking into the mid-90s. The Yankees saw the same thing.
“The player that arrived Day 1 in spring training wasn’t the player that left us. It was just a completely different animal,” said Yankees GM Brian Cashman. “Boston obviously took advantage of it. And they wound up with a gem.”
The improved velocity represented only the starting point. Whitlock also tweaked his changeup to add depth to it, transforming it from a bad-contact offering to a swing-and-miss pitch. Over the course of the season, he sharpened his slider and started incorporating a high-90s four-seam fastball to work up in the zone.
The result? A fantastic season out of the bullpen. The 25-year-old Whitlock was 8-4 with a 1.96 ERA (2.94 expected ERA, per Statcast), including an extraordinary 0.43 ERA in his 19 appearances of at least two innings.
His stuff and strike-throwing show potential as a starter. Many members of the Sox organization are intrigued by the idea of seeing him in such a role. However, if the team chooses to deploy him again out of the bullpen, his multi-innings niche can decrease demands on the rotation, making the Sox more comfortable to cast a wide net in pursuit of rotation options.
Houck and Whitlock do not necessarily give the Sox their rotation solution. The team remains active in the search for at least one more established big league starter.
With Rodriguez gone, the team could use a reliable innings-provider, affording the team the freedom to manage the workloads of Houck and Whitlock and buying time for the development of other starters. Josh Winckowski — the righthander who was acquired in the Andrew Benintendi trade, and who was touching 99 miles per hour in the Arizona Fall League — is viewed as a particularly intriguing candidate to help in 2022.
Still, the steps forward by Houck and Whitlock have put the Sox in an unusual offseason position. The team’s approach to rotation vacancies is one of possibilities rather than dire necessities.
Perhaps finally, after years in which the team had prospects who impressed through Triple A but never emerged in the big leagues, the team can help young pitchers take the needed final steps to compete at the big league level — something that is necessary to any vision of stable contention moving forward. The development is felt throughout the organization.
“I think it’s an exciting time for Whitlock and Houck,” said Walker. “But I think it’s more exciting for guys that are in Double A and Triple A that that have seen guys make the jump, pitch really well, really motivate them to be that next level guys that we’re counting on.”