The Red Sox rotation is a mess. David Price is, his last start notwithstanding, back to doing the things Boston is paying him to at the top of the rotation. Rick Porcello is pitching well enough, and Steven Wright continues to thrive. After that, though, it’s been a revolving door of disappointment, with the latest the realization that Clay Buchholz’s brand of infuriating pitching is one of the best available options, and also the knowledge that Eduardo Rodriguez needs to right himself in games that don’t count.
With Joe Kelly still hurting and the wounds still fresh from his disaster of a 2016, with Henry Owens showing the inconsistency that got him sent back down to Triple-A in the first place, with Roenis Elias struggling in his brief major-league time this year, the Sox are just about out of depth. They have one more piece to go to, though, and it’s time to give him a shot.
Aaron Wilkerson isn’t your usual minor-league pitcher. He’s 27 years old and just got to Triple-A this year, but that’s because his professional career didn’t even begin until he was already 24: Wilkerson went undrafted and pitched in the independent leagues before the Sox scooped him up in July of 2014. He’s in a weird space given his age, as he’s not a traditional prospect by any means -- even using that word to describe him is a little weird.
Red Sox fans have seen what late-career starts from odd beginnings can get you, though: Daniel Nava, famously purchased for $1 out of the indies, became a fan favorite and eventual World Series champion with the Sox. Steven Wright had to reinvent himself as a knuckler to get into the majors, and now 31 and in his first full season there, is leading the AL in ERA.
That’s not to say Wilkerson is destined for greatness or a championship, but the Red Sox are at the point where they should bet on him even being just okay. Wilkerson had a 1.83 ERA with with 9.7 strikeouts per nine for Double-A Portland to begin the year, and has similarly dominated Triple-A opposition since his promotion: the righty owns a 2.20 ERA with 10.8 strikeouts per nine and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly five. Expecting those numbers in the majors is setting yourself up for disappointment, but if he’s even a capable back-end arm, he’s an upgrade on what has been going on for the Red Sox in those spots of late.
Shortly after his promotion to Pawtucket, Sox Prospects projected him as an emergency arm with the ceiling of a back-of-the-rotation starter:
Projects as an emergency major league arm. Ceiling of a fringe number five starter, spot starter. Lacks a true above-average pitch and has consistently been behind the age curve due to his late signing. Has strong pitchability and a decent four-pitch mix, but his stuff will be tested by more advanced hitters. Has shown he can handle Double-A, and at worst should settle in as a solid Triple-A contributor.
Should we bump that up given his continued excellence at Triple-A? It’s hard to say, given we are talking about just 41 innings and the recency of that report, but Wilkerson has also done nothing but thrive since coming over to the Sox organization following his indie ball life. Maybe there is something more here, in the sense he is a major-league-caliber arm capable of holding down a rotation spot. Maybe he’s going to be a Triple-A lifer who handles those hitters no problem but doesn’t have what it takes to get big-league batters out. There’s only one way to find out which of these maybes is correct, though, and it’s to give him a shot in Boston.
Wilkerson started on Monday night, conveniently the same night that Eduardo Rodriguez was wrecked by the Rays, leading to his demotion to Triple-A. The Sox can slot Wilkerson right into that spot the next time his turn comes up, and they’ll have the 40-man spot to do it, too, if they don’t mind outrighting Sean Coyle.
Coyle was added to the 40 after the 2014 season when he was still young and promising enough that someone might have snagged him in the Rule 5 draft were he unprotected. Now, though, it’s nearly two years later, meaning he’s nearly two years older, too, and he’s still in Double-A — and struggling, to boot. No one will grab Coyle, and even if someone did, the Sox wouldn’t necessarily miss him.
This would be especially true if Wilkerson gave the Sox the boost the rotation needs. Don’t be fooled by his age or by his independent baseball background: Wilkerson is, for all intents and purposes, a prospect. One who is potentially more big-league ready than anyone else Boston has at Triple-A at the moment. Until Eduardo Rodriguez sorts out what’s wrong with him, until we’re closer to the trade deadline and teams are willing to admit they’re out of the race and become sellers, Wilkerson is the best shot the Sox have. Next time Rodriguez’s spot comes up in the rotation, it better be Wilkerson taking the mound.