Eighth in a series
You could never have enough of it. On the surface, the Red Sox have a ton of depth in that area as spring training approaches.
Seven starters, to be exact. Chris Sale, James Paxton, Nick Pivetta, Tanner Houck, Brayan Bello, Garrett Whitlock, and Corey Kluber.
That depth is a positive. But in the Red Sox’ case, the surplus doesn’t necessarily include reliability. That weakness will factor into decisions on who will be a part of the five-man rotation.
Sale’s impact comes with the most doubt, considering his injury history. Since March 2020, he has undergone Tommy John surgery, broken a rib throwing a baseball, broken a pinkie on a comebacker, and broken a wrist while riding a bike. The injuries resulted in Sale making only 36 starts since signing a five-year, $145 million contract extension following the 2018 season and just 11 starts in the last three seasons.
But “Humpty Dumpty got put back together,” Sale humorously said during Winter Weekend in Springfield in late January.
Sale continued: “I’m more motivated for my teammates, my coaching staff for the organization, for the fans. I owe these people something.”
Sale and Paxton have shared experiences. Paxton was coming off Tommy John surgery when he signed last offseason but was expected to return near the halfway mark of the 2022 season. In August, a lat strain suffered in his first rehab start in Fort Myers ended his season.
The Red Sox will keep close tabs on both Sale and Paxton, enforcing pitch counts or innings limits. With Sale, and this likely also applies to Paxton, the Sox will look for certain cues before and after starts to ensure he’s trending in the right direction.
“The biggest part is just the recovery,” pitching coach Dave Bush said. “How their bodies are recovering. The mistake that sometimes we make in baseball is we worry about one part of the body and we miss something else. So we’re looking at everything. How is your body recovering? How do you feel? Can you get on the mound on your side day? How’s the fatigue during games? We look at all that together and it helps guide us.”
The Sox lost Nathan Eovaldi to the Rangers in free agency but added Kluber, a two-time American League Cy Young Award winner who will turn 37 in April and relies more on finesse than power at this point in his career.
The Sox would like to forget their 2022 rotation woes which resulted in a 4.49 ERA, ninth worst in the majors.
Pivetta made 33 starts and logged 179⅔ innings last season. There is something to be said for leading the staff in both categories.
Yet Pivetta had a down year, thanks, in part, to his struggles against the AL East (6.72 ERA in 16 starts). With the new schedule, teams will only face divisional opponents 13 times, down from 19. That should help Pivetta.
Beyond Pivetta, durability among the returning arms will undoubtedly be tested. The quartet of Sale, Bello, Houck, and Whitlock made a combined 26 starts last year. Bello led the bunch with 11.
Whitlock, Houck, and Bello certainly have the talent but lack experience. Whitlock joined the rotation out of necessity, but was ultimately placed back in the bullpen where his arm was needed for late-innings situations. Whitlock’s season ended early because of a hip injury and he underwent surgery in September, but during Winter Weekend he said he’s ready to go. The Sox bolstered their bullpen this offseason, allowing Whitlock to return to a starter’s role.
Similarly to Whitlock, Houck was moved to the bullpen, staying there until he suffered a season-ending back injury that required surgery. Like Whitlock, Houck is a full-go now and said he doesn’t feel pain when he throws.
Houck made it clear during Winter Weekend that he wants to start, but his rejoining the bullpen seems more likely.
Bello is the Sox’ precious new jewel and he finished 2022 with a September ERA of 1.65 (4.82 overall). He worked with Pedro Martinez in the Dominican Republic this offseason to prepare for 2023.
“For him and all the young guys who came up last year, there was a ton of value in what they learned,” Bush said. “It was tough and wasn’t always easy for them. But I think the experiences they had and what they took out of it is going to make all of them, especially Brayan, a lot better this year.”
The young rotation hopefuls don’t have the experience the veterans carry into camp. The health and durability of those veterans, meanwhile, brings Sox fans pause.
2022 starters: Nick Pivetta, Rich Hill, Michael Wacha, Nathan Eovaldi, Josh Winckowski, Kutter Crawford, Brayan Bello, Garrett Whitlock, Connor Seabold, Tanner Houck, Austin Davis, Chris Sale
Projected 2023 starters: Sale, James Paxton, Corey Kluber, Whitlock, Pivetta/Bello
Major league depth: Houck, Winckowski, Crawford
Prospects to watch: Bryan Mata, Franklin German, Brandon Walter, Luis Perales