BALTIMORE — Brayan Bello is the most exciting Red Sox pitching prospect in years, a key to the team’s present and future. Yet on Monday, he got sent to the minors.
The move had little to do with Bello and everything to do with the tattered Sox bullpen nearing the end of a run of 19 games in as many days. The team felt it had to send the 23-year-old to Triple A Worcester — just two starts into his 2023 campaign — while summoning lefthanded reliever Brennan Bernardino in advance of a three-game series against the Orioles.
“Where we’re at right now, this is the move we had to make,” said Sox manager Alex Cora. “This is about now. This is not about his future.”
Bernardino did what he was summoned to do on Monday, pitching two innings of scoreless relief in a 5-4 loss to the Orioles to help reset the bullpen for the rest of the series. Still, the lefthander’s contribution likely came as little consolation to Bello.
The righthander made huge strides in 2022 — both in the minors and, after mid-year struggles, over the final month of the season in the big leagues — to believe his big league future had arrived. But after spring training elbow soreness slowed the start of his season, he made just two big league starts before returning to the WooSox.
“I feel everything that I had to learn in the minor leagues I already did. I think that the rest of my development comes here in the big leagues. But this is baseball. We need to adapt,” Bello said through a translator. “Of course it’s a disappointment, but I know that I belong in Major League Baseball and the big leagues, and that’s something that I want to take down there to work hard and to be ready whenever they call me.”
So why did Bello (0-1, 9.82 ERA) get sent down so quickly?
The Sox had been using a six-man rotation since Bello’s call-up on April 17. With teams limited to 13 pitchers, that left the Sox with a seven-man bullpen — a number further depleted on Monday by the need to give multi-innings reliever Kutter Crawford the night off and a desire to do the same with Josh Winckowski. Richard Bleier and John Schreiber, who both pitched Saturday and Sunday, were likely unavailable as well.
In short, the Sox felt they needed to add a reliever for the Baltimore series. Chris Sale and Nick Pivetta aren’t going anywhere, and the Sox aren’t going to bail on Corey Kluber after just four starts.
They could have considered the bullpen for either Tanner Houck or Garrett Whitlock, but the Sox are eager to give both opportunities to work consistently in the rotation, believing the team’s best chance of success in 2023 and beyond is to see as many young pitchers as possible flourish.
“Right now, we like this path. . . . While we appreciate that many, many of our guys can and do pitch with different roles, that’s not something you want to do just willy nilly,” said chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “We’ve said all along, [Houck and Whitlock] are really capable in a lot of ways, but they’re capable of starting. That doesn’t mean that they might not help us in other ways, just as they have in the past. But if you want to allow someone to reach their ceiling, there is a cost to shifting roles all the time. And we felt this way was better for where we’re at right now.”
Bello sees himself as a big league pitcher, and the Sox agree, but sometimes roster needs squeeze players who can be optioned. After he logged a solid-if-unspectacular 4⅔ innings on Sunday in Milwaukee, Bello wasn’t going to pitch until at least Saturday.
Barring injury, he’ll spend at least 15 days in the minors, but the Sox anticipate that he’ll contribute again in the big leagues in the relatively near future.
“He’ll be part of this at one point again,” said Cora. “It’s not that big of a deal.”
Yet for a young pitcher, it is. That said, being sent down need not stall a pitcher’s growth.
If anyone can relate to Bello’s current predicament, it’s Houck, who was optioned five times in 2021 even though he was one of the best pitchers on the Sox staff.
“Your mind-set definitely can get a little knocked down, but also at the same time, you think of it as, I get to continue to develop, continue to maybe take more risks,” said Houck, who used time in the minors to improve his four-seam fastball and splitter. “You’ve got to continue to work, push yourself, and things will work out in the end.”
Houck is showing signs of taking a considerable step forward as a starter. The addition of a cutter along with increased comfort with his splitter has given him a broader arsenal to attack righties and lefties multiple times a night.
While Bello’s demotion — even if temporary — might raise eyebrows for a team whose struggles to develop young pitchers are well chronicled, it comes at a time when Houck, Crawford, and Winckowski have developed into key contributors.
The team sees all of them, as well as Whitlock and Bello, as potential mainstays. If Bello can sharpen his four-seam fastball command at the top of the zone to complement his sinker, slider, and changeup at the bottom, the team still sees a pitcher with a chance to make a huge impact in the big leagues in 2023. Perhaps within a couple of weeks.
“It’s still very early. We know there’s gonna be a lot of twists and turns here,” said Bloom. “So it’s important to know that we’re gonna go through these periods, understand that there are going to be other tough decisions. They’re good problems.”