It feels like the good vibes that have been floating about the baseball world since the end of the lockout have kind of served to hide the extremely rushed schedule being put into place to get 162 games in after the late spring training start. This is not a complaint, either, for what it’s worth. This delay was of their own doing and I’m glad they found a way to still have a full season. But much in the same way we saw the 2020 season start after a shortened build up time, pitching depth is going to be tested in 2022, and innings are going to be at a premium
Let’s review the timeline a bit, shall we? Opening Day is in 24 days, and teams don’t even have full attendance of their roster in camps yet. Some marquee players don’t even have teams yet! Typically, there is a roughly six-week build up time before the start of the season, with pitchers and catchers starting to report in mid-February and Opening Day typically coming right at the start of April. It might not seem like a huge difference, but baseball players are extremely routine-oriented.
Granted, it’s worth mentioning most every player was working out on their own, but A, it’s hard to know how similar that build up is to what they typically get around team staffs, and B, even if it’s just as productive teams won’t know that for sure and thus are more likely to tread lightly. Throw in some extra double headers throughout the season to squeeze in the missed games along with the limit of five options for players perhaps keeping tired arms on the roster longer, and pitchers are going to be stressed.
Now, there has been some speculation around that, because of this issue, the league may allow rosters to be expanded to 28 players to start the season to cancel out some of the effects from the issues discussed above. They did a similar thing in 2020 to start that weird season, and I’d be pretty surprised if something isn’t done in a similar vein this time around. That would certainly help stem some of these issues, but teams should still be concerned about how they’re going to work around the possibility of pitchers not being fully built up, and it seems likely that they are going to be leaning more heavily on multi-inning pitchers both as starters and coming out in relief.
The good news for Red Sox fans is that they should theoretically be set up well to handle the kind of situation that could lead to more nights with two or three pitchers going multiple innings to get through the game. This is a team that has plenty of questions around its pitching staff, with injury concern being prevalent in their base rotation. Nathan Eovaldi has a long injury history. Chris Sale is coming off Tommy John. Rich Hill is in his age-42 season. These are important pitchers for this roster, and the Red Sox will be wise to ease them in. To do that, they need the depth they’ve built up in potential multi-inning relievers.
While the Red Sox roster is not yet set, and we certainly can’t predict what injury issues, if any, will knock a pitcher out in spring training, as things stand now there are three clear multi-inning options who should start the season in the majors in Garrett Whitlock, Tanner Houck, and Matt Strahm. Alex Cora noted to the media on Sunday that each of those first two are being stretched out right now despite their role not being clear, which is a signal to me that they are going to be throwing multiple innings whenever needed.
Strahm was just signed according to reports on Sunday, and while his upside just generally speaking is enticing, my guess is that one of the big reasons Boston decided to pursue the lefty was to give them another upside arm who has experience as a starter and can go two to four innings in an outing if need be.
That doesn’t include all of the other options the Red Sox have on this front, either. Darwinzon Hernandez can go two or even three innings in a pinch. Phillips Valdez has taken that role in blowouts in the last couple of years. Minor leaguers like Josh Winckowski, Kutter Crawford, and Connor Seabold could also feasibly start the season in the majors just to give the Red Sox a multi-inning arm to use if needed if/when the roster is expanded. And with so much player movement still ahead, there could be more of these types of pitchers added before the season gets underway, too.
I don’t think any team is ever going to feel totally comfortable with their pitching heading into a season after such a short spring training. It’s the kind of set up that almost has to end in some sort of disaster, and it’s simply a matter of trying to find the best-case disaster. For the Red Sox, they seem to have a decent chance to do that. It requires a reasonable amount of health in spring, and it certainly does not mean their pitching is perfectly set. But this is a time that is going to call for a lot of pitchers who can eat innings, and the Red Sox are well set up to have a bullpen full of those kinds of arms, both with three relatively high-upside arms as well as the more stereotypical mop-up variety of long relief.