As the Red Sox have barreled out to a surprisingly strong start to the 2021 season, one of the biggest stories on the roster has been Rule 5 pick Garrett Whitlock. The righty started to show some promise in spring training and has only continued to do so as the games have begun to count. He has yet to allow a run this season and has looked dominant in the process, but the Red Sox have also taken it easy on him as he is coming off Tommy John surgery. Still, his future both for this season and the long-term is a fascinating thing to watch with this roster as we move forward. So that was the staff roundtable question for this week. I wanted to know what people say as the most important role he would fill this season would be and also what the longer term outlook appears to be.
This season, I feel like Whitlock will either end up as an opener or as the primary long-relief option, either in extra innings or to relieve a pitcher who was pulled early for whatever reason. This is because Whitlock’s value is at its highest when he pitches in multiple innings. Having him just be a set up guy or stopper would feel a little like putting Eduardo Rodriguez in those roles. Could he do well? Yes. Should he be able to do more? Also yes.
Long term, I know the organization wants to push him as a starting pitcher, but I’m not certain how realistic it is. I kind of feel like Whitlock may be facing an uphill battle there. Between Rodriguez, Bryan Mata, Connor Seabold, Tanner Houck, and the other possible free agents, trade targets, and more that the Sox could acquire, they may have to keep someone in the pen that they don’t want to. I think Whitlock is already great in that role. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. He may end up being a similar tool for us to Josh Hader for the Brewers, and that’s honestly pretty salivating to think about. He doesn’t need to be a starter to be highly valuable.
The biggest/most important role I can envision for Garrett Whitlock this year is the number five spot in the rotation. The rotation spots aren’t exactly set in stone — Garrett Richards has struggled immensely to start the year and although Nick Pivetta has been solid, he’s a total wildcard. The Red Sox (and I) already view Whitlock as a starter in the long run, so it would make sense to give him an opportunity to start a few games given injuries or continued poor performance from the current guys in the rotation. He’s been absolutely dominant thus far, and he’s shown me enough that I’m fine with at least seeing what he brings to the table as a starter.
The Garrett Whitlock experience this year has been one of the many bright spots for the team. I think his current role, which is a multi-inning reliever, is the most important role for him, especially with Garrett Richards and Nick Pivetta, who have the chance to have a blow-up start any night. Looking long-term, I like him in the same role. We haven’t had a guy like him in a while and just knowing we have that safe landing spot when a starter doesn’t have it is very comforting.
The 2020 season, COVID-19 pandemic, and general sense of uncertainty in the world brought the Red Sox a diamond in the rough: Garrett Whitlock. A 24-year-old who was cruising through the Yankees farm system as of 2019 ended up finishing that year with Tommy John surgery. And without a 2020 season, just rehab, no minors, and he was forgotten. But now he’s a relief ace! Coming back from injury, with Chris Sale working back, Garret Richards and Nathan Eovaldi hopefully putting themselves together, and E-Rod doing his thing that’s where Whitlock should stay for 2021. If things are going well and he’s doing 3-5 inning appearances in July and August maybe you let him be a modified opener.
If everything goes well, of course you want to see if Whitlock can start in 2022. Maybe it goes Daniel Bard sideways but the rotation needs long-term solutions and he might be able to provide those innings. If not, the alternative to becoming a talented starter can always be following the Matt Barnes path. The starting rotation wasn’t ideal for Barnes but he settled into a relief role and over time became one of the best relievers in baseball. And while young players don’t have the real ability to choose their team, a relief ace or starter taken for (basically) free from Yankees? What could be sweeter? We’re all rooting for Whitlock anyway but that adds an intangible benefit.
Based on how he’s pitched out of the bullpen, I think it’s only a matter of time before he gets a shot at a start or two. If he builds on his success and can be effective in that role, I could see him as the fifth starter in the rotation by the end of the year. That is a best-case scenario type of outcome, of course, but he’s set that kind of ceiling with how well he’s pitched.
In terms of his long-term future, it’s still too early to feel confident about anything. I might be able to see him becoming the fifth starter this year, but that’s not exactly my expectation. The same goes for the next few years. As of writing, he’s thrown all of nine innings at the MLB level. That’s not enough to indicate he’s on his way to a permanent spot on the pitching staff for the next decade. However, I do think that he will be the kind of pitcher whom the Red Sox ask to play multiple roles over the next few years, whether that be filling out the rotation or pitching in the late innings. That may seem like fence-sitting, and it is to a degree, but there is always room for a swingman kind of pitcher on a staff and I think Whitlock has the tools for that kind of role. It might mean he starts 25 games one year and then serves as a primary setup man a year later, but I think that kind of versatility is what he’ll bring.
I think the biggest most important role he could play for the sox is a multi-inning bridge to Barnes, the “Andrew Miller Role” if you will. Cora said he wants Darwinzon Hernandez and Adam Ottavino to be the bridge to Barnes but they both have struggled to start the season where Whitlock has clearly not, Being able to shorten the game and have a guy like Whitlock who can go multiple innings is such a weapon in the bullpen when teams can they tend to give someone that role like the Brewers did with Hader. I think the Sox give him a chance to start down the line but if he excels this well in the pen all year it will be hard to take him out of there.
First off, Whitlock’s looked great so far in his first full season back from Tommy John. Matt Andriese helped the kid out with his changeup and now he has the third pitch he lacked as a starting prospect. The change has been great, but he’s gotten loose with the fastball command over the plate and eventually that’s going to come back to bite him. He has good enough stuff to be a really good reliever for them this year in whatever role they put him in, but that’s about as much as I can realistically see for him this year. You gotta remember, this guy only had 81 innings in AA ball and it’s not like he José Fernández. He’s going to continue to learn at the big league level and it’s remarkable that he’s already as good as he is. Before the advancement in the changeup, he was projected as a possible back-end rotation arm. The changeup becoming a great pitch make that a reasonable possibility, just not one this year. I think he can be a bridge guy in the middle innings to help get the ball from the starter to Ottavino and Barnes with the possibility of being a good middle rotation starter down the line. Not a bad outcome for a Rule 5 pick.
It’s been a whopping three weeks, so I do think my uninformed opinion on Garrett Whitlock—that he’s a swing starter at best in the short term—has not changed much. I get the strong sense that Tanner Houck is going to get the first chance at a starting job should one come up, and, further down the line, Chris Sale is going to take away one of those spots, so there’s just not a lot of wiggle room in the rotation. Even if he did make a start, it would likely/necessarily be of the opener variety, with three innings about the maximum of what he’d be asked. The only way he could jump the line would be to get a chance and really run with it (three perfect innings) or the Sox just get pummeled by injuries, but right now, the bullpen seems like home.
The thing all of us Red Sox fans want these days is more Garrett Whitlock. To that end, I get why Cora insists that the team views him as a starter long term. A guy with this type of command and stuff has the capability to dominate an opposing lineup for six-plus innings at a time. With all that being said my hope is that he is allowed to stay in his current role as a lockdown reliever and converts to being a starter in 2022. Martín Pérez and Garrett Richards both have options that can be declined by the team for 2022 so his path is clear should the team take it. I think they should, and I think they will.
Whitlock has absolutely blown me away at every turn this season, including in spring, so basically nothing will surprise me at this point. That said, I don’t expect him to start this year outside of maybe a spot start or two down the stretch if they’re out of it and his inning total on the year is relatively low. I think they are conscious of his rehab process and don’t want to put too much on his plate too soon. That said, I mean that only in terms of innings. I can definitely see him becoming one of the top three late-inning arms here with both Hernandez and Ottavino struggling. I get the points made above about the value of multi-inning relievers, but *extremely Don Draper voice* that’s what Matt Andriese is for!
As for the future, I think that’s where he lands long-term as well. I know they have said they believe he is a starter long-term and I fully expect him to get the chance to make that happen. I’m just skeptical of how much leeway they’ll give him there in that role if he continues to thrive in relief this season. We’ve seen time and time again, both with the Red Sox and around the league, that it is easier said than done moving a guy who was dominant in relief to the rotation without the temptation of switching back.