The Red Sox had a good weekend, by and large. They welcomed the Orioles to town, one of the worst teams in all of baseball, which is saying something in this era of ultra-bad teams and extreme tanking at the bottom of the standings. And while no one is going to go too far over the top with praise about beating a team like that, Boston certainly took care of business and beat up on a team they were supposed to beat up on. You have to beat the teams put in front of you, and they did that. The weekend was a big plus.
Except, well, it wasn’t all good news because there was a little bit of worry on Sunday. In the middle of that final game, Garrett Whitlock was called upon for a multi-inning appearance in the middle innings, and after a scoreless frame he had to be pulled shortly after his second inning began. It cannot be stressed enough that, as of now, as of this writing, all we know is that Whitlock suffered tightness in his right pectoral muscle, which is of course the side of his upper body with which he throws. We do not know the severity, nor how much time he’ll need to miss if he even needs to miss any at all.
But even the possibility of Whitlock having to miss some time here in this crucial stretch of the season is enough to cause at least a small amount of panic. The rookie has, after all, probably been their best reliever over the course of the season and has easily been their most reliable arm in the second half. It’s hard not to have your mind start wandering about what this bullpen even looks like without him. And really that thought process has made me start to think about what this group looks like even with Whitlock in the picture. Whichever way you slice it, it’s a little bit messy, which is not the same thing as saying it’s bad in this context.
As I said, right now Whitlock is their best arm and the guy they probably want in the most important situations. He did come in early against the Orioles a couple of times, but to me that was because the context of the matchup called for it. Boston’s bats should be able to put up crooked numbers against Baltimore’s pitching staff, so having Whitlock come in while the game was still close early just gave the bats more time to pull away. In more competitive games against higher quality competition, I suspect the plan was and is for Whitlock to come in later in the game.
So if there is a need for Whitlock to miss time, the first step for Alex Cora is to figure out who gets the most important innings. And it’s important to note we’re talking about important innings, not necessarily the ninth inning. I think it’s pretty clear by this point that we’re not going to see a set closer the rest of the way. Adam Ottavino would see to be the obvious candidate to be closest to that distinction, but if there is a group of tough righties coming up in the eighth Cora certainly would (and should) not hesitate to use him, just as he wouldn’t hesitate to use Darwinzon Hernandez, Josh Taylor, and/or Austin Davis if there was a cluster of lefties due up in the ninth.
Really, it’s going to be about matchups and who can be trusted when there are certain matchups. Ottavino has not been perfect, and it seems like even when he is getting through scoreless innings he’s doing so while working around traffic due to his inconsistent (to put it nicely) control. Matt Barnes has the most talent and the ideal situation is for him to work his way back to being the number one guy here, especially if they are without Whitlock, but he’ll need to prove he can be trusted again. To me, one of the biggest benefits of the Red Sox potentially pulling away with a playoff bid — probably not super likely, but still possible — is that they could use Barnes enough to get a sense of who he is heading into October.
But beyond those two, I also expect others to be pitching in big situations. Garrett Richards got the save on Sunday, and his stuff is playing up in a big way in shorter stints. He would certainly seem to be in the mix for important innings, and he should remain in that mix. I’m still skeptical of Hansel Robles’ command, but the fact is he’s been quite good for a few weeks now and will continue to earn important innings until or if he hits another wall. Taylor, Hernandez, and Davis have all shown the ability to come through if put in the right situations.
To me, Tanner Houck becomes the most important piece of this puzzle, especially if Whitlock is missing time. He’s mostly stretched out, at least relative to a normal reliever, so he could very well pick up the mantle of pitching important multi-inning situations in the fifth and sixth innings. With the number of off days on their schedule the Red Sox only really needed Houck for one more start anyway, so if need be they can just line things up to have a bullpen day in one of the Orioles games next week and keep Houck ready for any day they may need him out of the bullpen. And with his stuff, Houck could easily join that late-inning group as well, just as Whitlock straddled the line between multi-inning work and high-leverage, late-inning outings.
Whitlock’s injury, if serious, would obviously have a big impact on the Red Sox bullpen, as he is their best reliever and missing that is a huge missing piece of the puzzle. That said, upon reflection I’m not really convinced it would change much, if any, of the usage patterns of the bullpen. I think over these next two weeks, and then into October if they’re still playing come postseason time, it’s going to be all about Alex Cora really playing matchups and putting the large group of solid but unspectacular options in the best position to succeed. So if you’re looking for a set closer, or any sort of set inning plan, I don’t think you’ll find it in Boston for a couple more weeks, with or without Whitlock.