The Red Sox rotation, as we’ve talked about a few times during this lockout, is in a bit of a weird place. Barring a trade, things seem pretty much set with five healthy veterans that would presumably slot into the rotation. The potential is there for this group to be a good one and a real plus, but admittedly a lot has to go right. But even on that front, the good news is that the team has more depth than they’ve had in quite some time. With the farm system finally starting to produce pitching at the upper levels, there are a handful of intriguing options waiting in the wings.
With the lockout going on, we have time to hyper analyze each part of the roster, perhaps too much but they give us no choice. If we assume the five to start the year will be Nathan Eovaldi, Chris Sale, Rich Hill, Nick Pivetta, and Michael Wacha, then I count eight other young options on the 40-man, plus one more off of it, who could help. So, let’s rank them in terms of their ability to start this season. That means we’re not talking about long-term potential, nor what they may or may not do in the bullpen.
1. Garrett Whitlock
The top two for this exercise is pretty clear, but there was a very real internal debate as to who should be number one. Ultimately I went with the guy who I think should be better in theory over the guy I’ve seen do it. Just typing that out I’m having more second thoughts, but it’s a testament to how good Whitlock looked in relief last season. We know well enough that even the most talented pitchers have trouble making the jump back to the rotation, but it’s not as though this is a foreign concept to the young righty. Whitlock came up as a starter and was only a reliever last year. The arsenal is there, especially with his devastating changeup, and the mindset certainly seems to be as well given how well he pitched in big, late-inning situations down the stretch last season. I’m still not really sure what the team is planning for him whenever the season starts, but I think he’s the best starter not in that top five.
2. Tanner Houck
In a way, it’s hard not to look at this ranking as something of an insult towards Houck, which is not quite the intention. This is more about me being high on Whitlock than low on Houck, though obviously there are some concerns. But to start with the positives, we’ve seen him excel in the rotation against major-league competition before. The third pitch questions still persist, but they’re quieter than they were at this point last season, and really they go away when his slider is at its best. On those days, he doesn’t need the splitter. Even so, the splitter looked better as 2021 went along, and now it’s about getting the confidence to throw it in most any situation to keep it in the back of hitters’ minds. That should come with time, but it’s never a guarantee. The good news is even if starting doesn’t work out, Houck has the tools to be a dominant reliever.
3. Connor Seabold
After the top two you can start to go in a whole lot of different directions with a fun mix of upside and relative safety in the upper minors. I’ll start within the latter group with Seabold. The former Phillies prospect who came over in the Brandon Workman deal a couple years ago did make his debut last season, though it didn’t go the way he was hoping. The stuff came out a little bit flatter last season than I think most hoped, though that did come after an injury shelved him for most of the first half. Looking long term I’d certainly have him below a few names we’ll have down in these rankings, but just looking at 2022 his experience and relative polish puts him ahead of the pack, just without the upside we might see from the other names.
4. Josh Winckowski
I think if I took another day to think about these rankings, I might have him number three as I’m starting to get a little more enamored with the righty than I was during the season last year. I’m still not sure there’s a huge ceiling there, though, and I think it’s a case of liking the guy you haven’t seen against major-league competition over the guy you saw struggle a bit over three innings of work in Seabold. I did see Winckowski in Portland, though, and I couldn’t really figure him out. There wasn’t really anything that stood out negatively, but nothing really blew me away, either. Ultimately I think he’s probably a similar kind of pitcher to Seabold with back-end upside, and Winckowski is just a little bit behind in terms of timeline.
5. Brayan Bello
This is the first time I’m going off the board, as there is still another pitcher who is projected to start in Triple-A and has major-league experience. Bello, meanwhile, is probably going to start the season in Double-A, so any impact he could have as a major-league starter in 2022 is going to be later in the season. That said, he spent a big chunk of last season in Portland, too, so if he starts out hot there he could be an early promotion, which in turn means he could be in the majors if that performance stuck into Worcester. The command issues keep him down a bit on this list, but the upside is better than any other pitcher in the system and he’s already on the 40-man. If things break right, he can be a big late-season addition to the rotation, though that’s obviously a relatively big if.
6. Kutter Crawford
Here is the other Triple-A starter, and if we were just talking about major-league performance in general I’d certainly have him ahead of Bello and perhaps some others as well. The issues is we’re only talking about starting, and I’m just not sure Crawford is going to stick there. There’s some bias I’m trying to cloud out again here because of seeing him struggle in a small sample in the majors, but reliever questions clouded the righty even before that experience. He doesn’t really have a third pitch and his delivery might be tough to keep up in a starter’s workload, but his fastball/cutter combination could work in shorter stints. That said, in the short-term he may be needed as starter depth, and while I’m not in love with that possibility he can fake it for shorter outings for short stretches.
7. Jay Groome
Now we’re getting into some more out-there options, and of those Groome is my favorite. The numbers from last season don’t look all that great with an ERA close to 5.00, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. For one thing, it was a win just to see him on the mound for a full season. And even beyond that, the stuff looked very good as he consistently missed bats, and even his walk numbers were fine, if not quite spectacular. Anything could happen with him this year and I wouldn’t be surprised, but I think prospect fatigue is clouding some people’s view of him. He’s still a really intriguing arm who has a chance to contribute this season.
8. Chris Murphy
Murphy is starting to get a whole lot of hype of late, in part because there is nothing going on in the majors and some prospects have been down at Fort Myers, Murphy included. He’s the only pitcher on this list not on the 40-man, but he could be by the end of the year. There are still some control issues that he needs to hammer out on a consistent basis, but he’s made strides in that area since leaving college and has excellent stuff. He’s probably more of a 2023 name, and he could be pitching in relief at that point, but if you squint you can see a second half call-up here in the right scenario.
9. Bryan Mata
Really, there’s not a huge chance of Mata making an impact as a major-league starter this year, but that’s not a commentary on him as a pitcher. It’s just the fact of coming back from major injury. He underwent Tommy John in April of last season, so to ask him to finish his rehab and get the requisite number of appearances at Triple-A before being asked to start in the majors seems like a lot to ask. I suppose it’s not literally impossible, but I wouldn’t count on it.