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 Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. 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, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Kutter Crawford.
The Question: Can Kutter Crawford make strides in developing an effective offspeed pitch?
We talked just yesterday about the improving pitching depth in the high minors for the Red Sox, and while most of the pitchers discussed in that post don’t come with huge upside, they have real potential to stick as back-end starters and are just about ready to contribute whenever this season ends up getting played. Among the names there was Kutter Crawford, who may be the most interesting of the pitchers on the list. A former 16th round pick, there’s not a ton of prospect pedigree for the right-handed hurler, but when he’s been healthy he’s pitched well as a pro.
Coming out of college from Florida Gulf Coast, which is also Chris Sale’s alma mater, Crawford didn’t really pitch in that first pro summer in 2018, but he started in Low-A Greenville for the 2018 season and immediately started to impress. He made 21 starts at that level and pitched to a sub-3.00 ERA before a late-season promotion to High-A Salem. There, some command issues caught up to him a bit more than they did prior to the promotion, but all in all it was a big breakout from an unexpected source in his first full season.
That gave him a chance to really put himself on the map in the system in 2019 for his second full season, which he started back at Salem trying to fix those command issues. The walks were still a little bit more prevalent than you’d like, but his peripherals were still solid and the results were as well, giving him a midseason promotion up to Double-A Portland. Unfortunately, in the second half of that season Crawford started battling some arm troubles that limited him to only 19 starts on the season between the two levels, and ultimately he’d undergo Tommy John after the season.
Between that surgery and the fact that there was no minor-league season at all in 2020, Crawford had fallen off the radar a bit heading into last season, and given the injury many, including myself, expected the young righty to go into relief pretty shortly after the season began. Instead, Crawford was dominant. His walks were cut way back to start the year in Double-A without sacrificing strikeouts, and he got a midseason promotion to Triple-A, and even made his major-league debut later in the season. Granted, it was not exactly the plan but rather a result of the late-season COVID surge in Boston’s clubhouse, and the outing didn’t go particularly well, but even him getting there was a sign that he was a name to remember in this system even after that 2019 injury.
The question now is around what role he will ultimately play if he is to stick in the majors. Despite the concerns I and others had heading into last season, Crawford stuck in the rotation for all of 2021 and the plan for 2022 is for him to stay there as well. And really, it’s not too difficult to see why they’d plan on that. Crawford is built like a starter at 6’1, 210, and he has a couple of very good pitches with a fastball that can get up to the mid-90s when he needs it and, yes, a cutter. The latter is actually a relatively new offering he started to throw in the latter portion of his collegiate career, but it’s become his go-to out pitch.
The issue for Crawford, who is going to turn 26 shortly before the minor-league season begins (though even if that starts on time, he won’t be there if the lockout is ongoing due to his presence on the 40-man roster), is that both his fastball and cutter are on the harder side, and he doesn’t really have a trustworthy off-speed pitch to round out his arsenal and ensure that he can go five-plus innings on a regular basis.
Crawford does have a changeup and curveball both in his arsenal, and both were featured in that lone major-league appearance, but they both lag behind his two primary pitches. The curveball, in fairness, has received mixed reception from public evaluators, with Baseball America last summer referring to it as a solid pitch, whereas Sox Prospects calls it a clear third offering. Even so, the changeup is the pitch that really needs to come into form if he’s going to face whole lineups three times on a consistent basis (just ask Tanner Houck), and this pitch needs some serious work if it’s to become a real weapon against left-handed hitting.
There are some real similarities to Houck here on a general level, even if the latter is much closer to being a fully realized starter and has a higher ceiling both as a starter and as a reliever. But both pitchers have starter’s builds and have had success in the upper levels of the minors, but need that offspeed pitch to fend off opposite-handed hitters. But like Houck, Crawford has a path to settle in as a solid reliever without a changeup, as his cutter and fastball can get the swings and misses to hold down that role, even if he doesn’t have the clear late-inning potential that Houck boasts.
At this point, Crawford finds himself in a place where many pitching prospects find themselves, with two good pitches as they find themselves on the verge of the majors, and at a crossroads for what comes next. The injury history and a delivery that can get high-effort at times also play into some of the concern around his future, but that offspeed pitch is really key here for the young righty. There’s potential for a promising future either way, but if he wants to stick as a starter at the highest level, we need to start seeing real strides with that changeup this season in Worcester.