What might a competitive Red Sox rotation look like in 2023? That question hovers, at a time when the Sox are fielding just two starters who appear likely to be with the team next season.
Connor Seabold took the Fenway mound for the Red Sox against the Orioles on Monday night and promptly gave up a homer to the first batter of the game, Cedric Mullins. Seabold allowed five runs (four earned) in two innings before a deluge delayed the game for 100 minutes and ended his night.
The relievers behind Seabold fared little better, with the Sox allowing five homers and 22 baserunners. Despite homers from J.D. Martinez and Rob Refsnyder (3 for 4), Sox pitchers got flattened in a 14-8 loss that extended their season-long losing streak to six games.
“The 15th and the 30th, we get paid for this. We’ve got to show up,” said manager Alex Cora. “It’s a learning experience for some of those kids, the ups-and-downs. … We’re learning a lot about ourselves, some of the guys that are here.”
Seabold (0-4) has a 10.55 ERA that is the highest in franchise history through six starts. At most, he seems like an emergency starting option moving forward.
The scheduled starters for the remaining three games of the Orioles series are Michael Wacha (11-1, 2.70 in 21 starts), Rich Hill (7-7, 4.81 in 24 starts), and Nate Eovaldi (5-3, 4.18 in 18 starts). All three are eligible for free agency after the season. Change looms.
“We love a lot of these guys that are going to be free agents. We love them all,” said Sox manager Alex Cora. “But obviously the future might be different.”
The Sox hold a two-year, $32 million option on lefthander James Paxton, but it’s hard to imagine the team committing such a sum to a player who has pitched less than Chris Sale (six starts, 21⅔ innings) since the end of 2019.
Righthander Brayan Bello (2-7, 4.39) and Nick Pivetta (10-11, 4.48 ERA) are the only healthy pitchers who slot into the 2023 rotation. So what might a starting five for the Sox look like next year?
Though he has struggled against the AL East, Pivetta has offered the Red Sox a steady source of competitive innings this year. Though it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the Sox could explore trading him at a time when he has two remaining years of team control — the point at which the Sox dealt Andrew Benintendi and Hunter Renfroe — he represents a source of stability as a No. 4 starter.
The team can dream big on Bello, who has looked dominant (1.65 ERA, 27 strikeouts, 10 walks in 27⅓ innings) this month. While he will likely confront struggles on the way to his eventual peak, at the least, he’s made a convincing case for the Sox to slot him into the back of the rotation through struggle and eventual growth.
The team expects Sale — who has two remaining years on his five-year, $145 million deal — to be healthy and ready to contribute. It’s fair to wonder if the lefthander can ever stay healthy or reclaim front-of-the-rotation status, but the team has little choice but to hope for such an outcome.
Garrett Whitlock underwent arthroscopic surgery Monday and is expected to be healthy and ready for spring training. Cora said that it’s too early to determine if he’ll be a starter or reliever in 2023, but there’s no question that the Sox remain enamored of his rotation potential.
In nine starts in 2022, Whitlock was 1-1 with a 4.15 ERA with a 23.2 percent strikeout rate and 5.5 percent walk rate. His strike-throwing and mix looked like that of a potential No. 3 starter, presuming that he can remain healthy.
If the team declines Paxton’s option, it would make sense to extend a one-year qualifying offer (expected to approximate the $18.4 million commitment in 2022) to either Eovaldi or Wacha — both of whom have far more recently shown the ability to excel. Such an offer would guarantee a draft pick if they departed and might also alter their markets in ways that make a deal to stay in Boston more likely.
Eovaldi has made clear a desire to stay in Boston. Wacha is open to coming back.
“I would definitely show it some attention,” Wacha said of potential interest from the Sox. “I’ve loved every bit about pitching at Fenway, pitching for this team, this club, this organization. It really does feel special putting on this uniform.”
Would a rotation of Sale, Whitlock, Pivetta, Bello, and Wacha or Eovaldi — with Kutter Crawford, Josh Winckowski, and eventually Bryan Mata and Chris Murphy looming as depth options — be sufficient to compete in the AL East?
Obviously, it wasn’t in 2022, and it probably wouldn’t be in 2023. The team’s starters have a combined 4.49 ERA, ninth-worst in baseball, after this year’s devastating reinforcement of the no-such-thing-as-too-many-starters maxim.
The sputtering end of the season has only reinforced the notion that the team needs to add to its options, while hoping that health for Sale and Whitlock turns what has been a liability into a strength next season.