Kaleb Ort’s entry in the seventh inning of Wednesday’s game against the Yankees came with little fanfare. The 30-year-old rookie — a minor league Rule 5 draft selection from the Yankees two years earlier — had appeared in 18 career games and thrown more than 400 big league pitches without distinction.
Ort’s first pitch — a solid 97 miles per hour fastball to Giancarlo Stanton for a called strike — didn’t command much notice. But then, the righthander flipped a switch.
His next offering was a 98.6-m.p.h. heater that hummed through the zone for another called strike, the hardest pitch he’d ever thrown. That mark was quickly surpassed with his third offering, a 98.9-m.p.h. fastball for a swing-and-miss to punch out Stanton.
Ort kept raising the bar. He threw the eight hardest fastballs of his career in the outing, concluding with back-to-back offerings of 100.2 and 100.7 to Josh Donaldson to close out an overpowering inning, running his string of scoreless appearances in September to five.
“That was impressive,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “It’s not only the velocity, it’s the location of the pitches. He was able to dot that fastball.”
As the Red Sox cycle through the final weeks of a lost season, Ort is part of an open audition taking place for future roles as the Red Sox try to see if they have potential contributors who should factor into the team’s 2023 plans.
Brayan Bello has seized the opportunity to make a case he should be part of the team’s big league rotation plans next year. Triston Casas is trying to do the same at first base.
Ort, Eduard Bazardo, and Zack Kelly are getting bullpen opportunities — and there’s a chance the team may call up other pitchers from Triple A Worcester before the end of the season, including righties Bryan Mata and Frank German, hoping to find another John Schreiber. Catchers Connor Wong and Reese McGuire as well as in fielder Yu Chang likewise can make cases for 2023 roles.
“We’re able to put certain guys in situations where we’re going to learn some things about them. And they’re going to get valuable experience and learn some things about themselves,” said chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “There’s a lot of guys who are out here, the bulk of this group, who have a chance to help us win next year.”
Of course, the opposite may also occur. Perhaps the big league opportunity will make clear that some should not be seen as 2023 contributors. That information, too, is valuable, as the Red Sox face a massive 40-man roster crunch with at least nine players representing candidates to be popped by other teams in the Rule 5 draft if they aren’t added to the 40-man roster this offseason.
Ceddanne Rafaela, who has put the super in super-utility in the minors this year, is a lock to be added to the 40-man, and Triple A starters Brandon Walter and Chris Murphy as well as the two players acquired from the Astros at the trade deadline (power-hitting second baseman Enmanuel Valdez and outfielder Wilyer Abreu) seem like strong bets to be added.
In Triple A, reliever German likely needs to get added to the 40-man or be taken in the Rule 5 draft. In Double A, righthander Thad Ward has looked strong in his return from Tommy John and could be starting pitching depth next year.
Further down, 20-year-old righthander Wikelman González (High A Greenville) and super-utility prospect Eddinson Paulino (who spent the year excelling in Single A Salem) have some of the highest upside in the system. Though years from contributing in the big leagues in Boston, rebuilding teams would be tempted to grab both if available in the Rule 5 and stash them on the big league roster for a year, hoping to realize significant upside.
Spots at the back of the Red Sox 40-man roster will be scarce this winter. The Sox have a chance to use September to see which players can show enough upside to occupy one of them — and which ones can be let go or traded.
“It’s really just a question of looking at what’s the value to the player and the value to us of giving the player this opportunity,” said Bloom. “We only have so much opportunity. Who do we want to give it to right now, in this moment? If it helps us with what’s coming in terms of setting our roster in November, so much the better.
“[The 40-man crunch] is a good problem to have. I hope we have this problem every year. Suffice it to say, we did not have this problem a few years ago,” Bloom added. “This is exactly where we hope to be. It means we’re going to have some interesting decisions and we’re going to need to be proactive about it. This is exactly the position we want to be in, where we have a lot of guys who deserve to be protected and we have tough decisions.”
Of course, being encouraged by the prospective decisions at the back of the 40-man roster this winter is a very different thing than satisfaction with the state of the team.
The Sox are all but assured of their second last-place finish in the last three years. Their poor standing is the reason this month represents an open audition rather than the team narrowing its roster deployment in pursuit of a postseason berth.
Nonetheless, this time represents an opportunity for players to assert themselves and for the Sox to make better decisions as they look for a potential out-of-nowhere contributor such as Schreiber or Garrett Whitlock in advance of a doozy of an offseason overhaul.
“We don’t want to be that team that, we got somebody that is interesting, and he’s talented, and we know that there’s upside regardless of the age — and then we lose him, somebody else picks him up, and we see him during the season seven times and he throws seven scoreless innings,” said Cora. “If you’ve got stuff and you’ve got talent, it’s always important to give them a try and see what happens.”