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One Big Question: Can Garrett Whitlock cement himself as a future starter while pitching in relief?

It will be a tough line to walk trying to develop and win at the same time.

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Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Garrett Whitlock.

The Question: Will Garrett Whitlock put himself firmly in the team’s long-term rotation plans?

The Red Sox are obviously a very different organization today than they were a couple of years ago when they decided to part ways with Dave Dombrowski and hand the reins over to Chaim Bloom. We won’t go over all the ways, but one of the more immediate differences has been their level of activity in the Rule 5 Draft, where they have taken players in each of Bloom’s two seasons with the intention to keep the player around.

Granted, circumstance plays into this, as there is more room on the roster for this kind of help than there has been in years past. And looking just at this season, they were picking much higher in the draft this time around than they typically do. Still, they were able to keep Jonathan Araúz last year, but that was largely due to the shortened season, a total tank of a year for the team, and the expanded rosters. This year’s pick, Garrett Whitlock, has a chance to not only stick around, but make an impact in both the short- and long-term.

Whitlock, as we covered just last week when he came in at number 19 on our community top prospect rankings, was not a super high-profile player coming out of college before he was selected by the Yankees in the 18th round back in 2017. He quickly made his way up the ladder after entering New York’s organization, though, quickly making him a sleeper to actually stick long-term in their rotation. Then, he ended up getting hurt midway through the 2019 season and was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery, stalling his development right in its tracks.

It was this surgery that gave the Red Sox a chance to grab Whitlock in this past winter’s Rule 5 Draft, though. The Yankees, quite understandably from my perspective, thought they could sneak someone like Whitlock through the process. Not only was it nearly impossible to scout minor leaguers last year, but Whitlock was still rehabbing from a major injury and hadn’t pitched in a year and a half at that point. The Red Sox called that bluff, as we know, and Whitlock is now heading for the Red Sox active roster.

The righty is now healthy and ready to go — though given that he does not appear to be available right now there is some speculation he is part of the contact tracing resulting from Matt Barnes’s positive COVID test — and he has been one of the biggest head-turners in spring. It is only spring training, of course, but Whitlock has been dealing in his first game action since the midway point of the season two years ago. Over nine innings across four appearances this spring, the 24-year-old (he’ll be 25 in June) has allowed just one run with 12 strikeouts and no (0!) walks. It always appeared he’d make the roster out of camp, but this spring has evaporated any kernel of doubt that may have existed.

Now, the question isn’t about whether or not he’ll be here in 2021, but what the role will be both in the short-term and down the road. To quickly look at the first question off the bat, I suspect they won’t want to give him too big of a role right off the bat. The spring has been great — and it’s not just the numbers, as the stuff has looked really crisp as well — but it’s still spring training and he’s still a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery. Roster circumstances obviously matter too, but if they are close to full strength I would think they’ll want to start him off in a lower leverage role and let him play his way up. The way he’s looking right now, that could happen in short order.

The more interesting question to me, though, is what happens in the long-term. Whitlock has been a starter for his entire major-league career, so presumably the hope is that is his role here as well. But there are some things to watch with that end in mind, and it mostly focuses around the arsenal. At present, Whitlock has two major-league quality pitches with a solid fastball and a good slider. That combo should play well in the bullpen, as it is probably the most common repertoire for modern relievers. However, his changeup is the key for him to pitch longer outings, and right now it is a fringy offering.

To be fair, Whitlock certainly wouldn’t be the first pitcher in the history of baseball to develop a changeup after other pitches. This is a fairly normal developmental path for pitchers on the fringe of the bullpen and the rotation. That development is much easier said than done, though. It’s especially difficult when you have to be in the majors all season, which he does as a Rule 5 Pick. MLB action isn’t really the place for him to be trying out pitches and hammer out the issues. So I’ll be really interested not only to see how the changeup looks, but also how often he uses it in traditional relief outings.

And I’m really interested to see what happens if he has a lot of success in a relief role this year. It can’t be said enough that the excitement he’s garnered so far, while not unreasonable, is still against spring training competition. But it’s also very hard not to be optimistic after seeing how well he’s thrown and commanded the zone with solid stuff. If he succeeds, it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t be tempting to keep him in a relief role for 2022 as well, especially if he has to shelve the changeup development for the time being. And that at that point, you it becomes possible that he sticks there forever.

For the moment, the Red Sox presumably are not focusing on how they think about Whitlock’s long-term future so much as they want to figure out how the 2021 Red Sox will function. But as a Rule 5 pick and a prospect, the long-term is always part of the consideration. They want to see a good performance, but that could tempt them to keeping him in that role, particularly if guys like Tanner Houck, Connor Seabold, and to a lesser extent Thad Ward, solidify their futures in the rotation.

At the end of the day, the rotation is still the end goal for Whitlock and the team, but he’ll be pitching in a different role for most of this season. After what we’ve seen all March, there’s a lot to be excited about, and hopefully he spends the next six months making us excited about the years to come as well.