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One Big Question: Can Kyle Hart run with the fifth starter spot at some point?

There’s an opening if he performs.

Kyle Hart
Kelly O’Connor;

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Kyle Hart.

The Question: Can Kyle Hart grab hold of the fifth starter spot at some point?

This “One Big Question” series, as you know, focuses on the individual players who make up the Red Sox 40-man roster. If we were to do this for the team as a whole, the biggest of the questions for this particular Red Sox roster is what the heck their plan is at the back of the rotation. Even if the top four of Chris Sale, Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi and Martín Pérez are fully healthy — something that will be a legitimate concern at any given point throughout the year — the fifth spot is completely wide open. This is not a competition of enviable options, either. My pre-spring training gams favorite is Ryan Weber. Matt Hall, Hector Velázquez, Chris Mazza and Brian Johnson are some of the other options. These are not good major-league starters and guys you’d rather see around seventh or eighth on the depth rather than fighting for the number five spot to open the year with everyone healthy.

My expectation is that a veteran with at least some major-league experience will get the job out of spring. Obviously players who have never played in the majors are given jobs out of camp, but even for those for whom service time isn’t part of the conversation it can make more sense to start them in the minors. Rather than throw a young player into the fire right away, when possible and when it makes sense it’s understandable to allow them to get rolling a bit and get their feet wet early in the year in the minors before calling them up. That’s how I see Kyle Hart, who I don’t get the sense has a big chance at getting the fifth starter spot right out of camp but who I think could have a decent chance to run with it later in the year.

Reading Fighting Phils v Portland Sea Dogs Photo by Zachary Roy/Getty Images

A big point in Hart’s favor in terms of contributing at some point this year is simply that he is on the 40-man roster, having been added early in the winter to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. We know by now that simply being added to the 40-man is never a guarantee to actually make the majors, but it certainly helps. Hart was a bit of an underwhelming add, existing in the space where he’s not quite a top prospect and also isn’t one of those guys with a high ceiling who could break out. Hart basically is what he is, and what he is is often an underrated type of major leaguer. There is very little hope of him developing into an impact starter in the majors, but he is right on the cusp of the highest level and has the makings of a serviceable starter on the back-end of a major-league rotation. That’s not a sexy profile, but there’s value there.

Hart is on the older end for a prospect, to be fair, having spent five years in college (he underwent Tommy John surgery his Junior year and was able to get another year of eligibility). He turned 27 this past winter. He doesn’t really have a standout pitch, but he has four offerings that he can mix in and they are all solid. Hart throws a high-80s fastball that can get up to the low-90s at times, along with a cutter, a curveball and a changeup. The southpaw doesn’t induce a ton of whiffs, either, generating about eight strikeouts per nine innings in the minors and projecting for a bit less than that in the majors. He does, however, induce a ton of weak contact and for the most part keeps his walk rate in check, though not quite at an elite rate.

Hart really started to stand out a bit back in 2017 when he posted sub-3.00 ERAs in both Greenville and Salem, though it should be noted that he was older than the average player in each league at that point. Still, it was the first time we had seen that kind of production from the lefty. Last year was a bit more of an eye-opener in the upper minors. He started the year in Portland where he had spent all of 2018 and looked great. He pitched to a 2.91 ERA over nine starts and was striking batters out more than ever, earning a promotion to Pawtucket. There, the results got a little bit worse with a 3.86 ERA, and depressed peripherals, but it is worth noting he kept the ball in the yard at a strong rate (0.7 homers per nine innings) despite them using the juiced major-league golf baseball.

I mentioned the competition for the fifth spot above, and a big reason I think Hart can get a real chance to run with this gig (or a starting gig) as the year moves along is that there is really no one else there I can see running away with anything. As people have noted they can use an opener which does reduce the importance of the follower, who is basically a starter. Even there, though, I don’t see anyone who could perform super well in that role. Looking behind Hart at fellow minor-leaguers, Tanner Houck could be an option but most agree he is a reliever. Daniel McGrath is similar to Hart but not on the 40-man. Bryan Mata and Thad Ward are intriguing prospects but they won’t be major-league ready — particularly as starters — this season.

The safest bet with the Red Sox roster as it stands now — and they could very well add another starter before Opening Day — is that no one really runs with the fifth spot or any spot after that in case of injury. It’s an uncomfortable situation to think about, but the fact is there just isn’t a lot of talent here and it’s not hard to envision a constant shuffling of arms with no one really sticking. That said, if you were to bet on someone sticking, I don’t think Hart is very far down the list. Part of that is that we haven’t seen him fail in the majors, which isn’t the best way to judge this sort of thing but also is part of human nature. Even beyond that, though, Hart has succeeded recently in the high minors and has four solid pitches. He won’t excite anyone, but there’s a real chance at him being good enough to hold down a back-end rotation spot and there’s no real intimidating choices standing ahead of him on the depth chart.