On a night Wikelman Gonzalez was recognized as the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year for his work in High A Greenville and Double A Portland, a question hovered over the future of the Red Sox.
Brayan Bello has solidified his place in the rotation moving forward, and fellow homegrown pitchers Kutter Crawford and Tanner Houck have at least positioned themselves as options. But with Gonzalez — arguably the team’s best starting pitching prospect — likely to start next year in Double A, how close are the Red Sox to having the sort of renewable pitching pipeline that can not only start to fill in the season-opening rotation, but also supply the depth necessary to withstand the attrition of a season?
“I definitely feel like we’re closer now than we were at the start of the year and definitely closer than we were two years ago. Obviously, not at the finish line,” said director of pitching development Shawn Haviland. “We want this major league group to be all homegrown guys. That’s always the goal. That’s a cheap, renewable resource. So we feel like we’re on the path. Some guys just have to mature and take a little bit of time.”
Gonzalez made a major step forward in 2023. After a dreadful start to the year, he did enough to harness his elite stuff — particularly a mid- to upper-90s fastball from a low arm slot that creates a lot of swings and misses up in the zone — to consistently overpower opponents the final four-plus months.
In 111 innings, he went 9-4 with a 3.96 ERA and a 35 percent strikeout rate — highest among all minor leaguers who threw at least 100 innings. He’s a lock to be added to the 40-man roster this winter, and there’s at least a chance he could follow the path of Bello and reach the big leagues one year after being honored as a minor league standout.
“To have somebody [like Bello] coming from the [Dominican] Academy all the way here, it gives me extra motivation because I know that I can do the same,” Gonzalez, who exchanged an embrace with Bello at Fenway on Tuesday, said through a translator. “I know that I can be out there in the future.”
Still, given his high walk rate — 15 percent, 12th highest in the minors — Gonzalez won’t necessarily follow as accelerated a path through the upper minors. Evaluators are still divided on whether his big league future is as a starter.
That said, in Gonzalez, Hunter Dobbins, Isaac Coffey, and Angel Bastardo, the Sox believe they have a group of pitchers who finished the year in Double A, but could by late 2024 or early 2025 be homegrown big league depth.
“We’re getting there. I don’t think we’re there yet,” said farm director Brian Abraham. “The important thing when it comes to player development is sustainable talent for the big league roster. I think we’ve done a really good job when it comes to bullpen arms. We continue to bring guys up. But the reality is, to make an impact, from our standpoint, we look for there to be guys in the rotation for us to withstand injuries, for us to withstand a long season.
“Are we there yet? No. But I think with the group we have, with the processes we have, with the system we have in place, we’re on our way there.”
Zack Kelly comes back
Five months after he walked off the mound at Tropicana Field in tears out of concern that he’d blown out his elbow, righthander Zack Kelly returned to a big league mound, pitching a scoreless fourth inning against the Rays.
“Running in from the bullpen, I was smiling from ear to ear,” said Kelly, who touched 94 m.p.h. and was embraced in the dugout by several teammates after his outing. “I never, ever take this game for granted — just being able to pitch here, pitch at Fenway. It was taken away from me for five months. So a lot of work went into that. A lot of work went into getting back out there tonight. Regardless of the result, tonight I was happy just to just to be back.”
Kelly, 28, expressed relief to be healthy and again pitching in games before the start of the offseason.
“It changes everything,” said Kelly. “I don’t have to go to the offseason rehabbing. I don’t have to worry about trying to get back healthy in the offseason. It allows me to kind of have a normal offseason.”
Minor leaguers recognized
The Sox recognized minor league award winners Gonzalez (Pitcher of the Year), Roman Anthony (Hitter of the Year), Ceddanne Rafaela (Baserunner of the Year), David Hamilton (Defensive Player of the Year), Luis Guerrero (Reliever of the Year), Yoeilin Cespedes (Latin Program Position Player of the Year), and Gilberto Batista (Latin Program Pitcher of the Year) in a pregame ceremony on the field. Lefty Brandon Walter was the Lou Gorman Award winner, given to a player who demonstrated dedication and perseverance to reach the big leagues . . . Catcher Reese McGuire left Tuesday’s game prior to the third inning with a contusion of the left thumb after a Houck warmup bounced off his glove hand. Manager Alex Cora said McGuire is expected to be fine . . . The Sox will stay on turn in the rotation their final five games, with Bello starting against the Rays on Wednesday and Chris Sale, Nick Pivetta, Crawford, and Houck in the season-ending series in Baltimore.