Saturday could be lining up to be on the short list of the most exciting days for the Red Sox in this 2020 season. Granted, that is like being the warmest day of January in Maine, but we’ll take what we can get at this point. The big news is that Nathan Eovaldi is expected to be activated off the injured list and make his first start since tossing a gem on August 20 against the Orioles. It’s been an up and down year for the righty, but it will be nice to see him back on the mound and the hope is he’ll be able to build up some confidence for 2021 over the last few turns through the rotation. How they’ll make room for him on the roster isn’t yet clear, but we do know he’ll be there.
What makes Saturday particularly exciting is that he may not be the only pitcher to join the active roster. Tanner Houck also has a chance to make his major-league debut for this game. This one is not official, but the writing is on the wall. The righty and former first round pick joined the team for their trip to Tampa as a member of the taxi squad, and they wouldn’t do that for no reason. As Ron Roenicke said to the media regarding Houck, “I think if things go kind of as planned, there is an opportunity. Like I said, we plan these things out.” When you add in that Eovaldi probably won’t be ready to go a full start after not pitching for a few weeks, they’ll need somebody who can provide multiple innings to come in after. Houck makes all the sense in the world, and the speculation is ramping up that Saturday will be the day.
Whether it is Saturday or Sunday or when they move over to Miami for their next series, it is absolutely the right move to get him into some major-league action before this season closes out. That’s not to say they’ve mishandled him, either, because there have been legitimate reasons to keep him down at the Alternate Site in Pawtucket. Most notable among those reasons is figuring out a way to get lefties out at something close to a consistent rate, because without that he simply can’t work as a starter. They’ve been experimenting with new mechanics, new pitches and new sequencing, just trying to find something that works. That said, at a certain point you’ve got to see what you have, and for the Red Sox and Houck, that time is now.
Before we get into why that time is now, let’s take a quick second just to remind ourselves of who Houck is since we haven’t seen him in real organized action since March, and his last real organized action that counted was over a year ago. Houck, as I mentioned, is a former first round pick as the 24th overall pick coming out of the University of Missouri. A big power arm, there’s always been concern the bullpen would be his ultimate destination, and the Red Sox have spent the last few years initially trying to change him from his approach in college before going back to that and working with what he does best. The bullpen questions are still loud, largely due to the issues against lefties above, but the organization is still holding out hope he can start. He throws a big power two-seamer as his primary offering to go with a sweeping slider and a splitter. The splitter is a new pitch added this year to replace his middling changeup (per Sox Prospects), again in an effort to get lefties. Most, myself included, still think he’s ultimately a reliever, but there’s real late-inning potential here.
So, that’s what to expect when Houck does get to the mound, but as I said the timing makes sense to get the righty his look now. For one thing, he’s no longer really all that young in terms of prospect age with this being his age-24 season. (It is worth mentioning, though, that if his birthday was two days later it’d be his age-23 season. The cutoff has to be somewhere!) That’s far from over-the-hill, even speaking of prospects, but it’s also the point at which you have to start throwing the feet into the fire, especially for a power pitcher like himself.
More important than that is the fact that Houck is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this winter and will 100 percent be protected. He would be an easy selection for another team if left off a 40-man roster before the draft, and there’s no way the Red Sox will leave him out there. So, if you’re going to add him to the 40-man after the season, you might as well do it now. The normal arguments against this would be either finding a 40-man spot or burning an option. In this case, though, there are no shortage of players that can be taken off the 40-man without losing much sleep on this Red Sox roster, and there’s no reason to send him back down and burn that option, at least until the start of next year potentially. There are a lot of decisions to be made with respect to the Rule 5 Draft this winter, which we’ll get to when the offseason really gets underway, but this is an easy one.
Finally, there’s the simple reason that you have to see what Houck can do. Chaim Bloom and the Red Sox front office is going to have a lot of work to do with this pitching staff over the winter, and they need to know what they can expect from everyone. Evaluators can get some semblance of an idea based on work in Pawtucket, but at the end of the day those are still unorganized games against the same competition every time out. Knowing whether or not Houck can get lefties is a massive question that will help answer how next year’s staff will be built, specifically referring to what role the righty will play. They’re not going to answer that question definitively over the course of a few outings down the stretch in a lost season, of course, but they’ll get closer.
There’s not a whole lot to be excited about with this Red Sox roster, but when you’re a bad team it means you can look forward to young guys getting their first shot. We’ve seen that with Bobby Dalbec, and the early returns have been exciting. We shouldn’t put whatever the pitching equivalent of that is on Houck, but it is nice that it appears they’re ready to give him a chance. The time is right for it.