Welcome back to our annual positional preview series, in which we take stock of where the Red Sox stand everywhere on the depth chart for each position. At every spot on the diamond, we will look at where Boston stands on the major-league roster while also looking at their top prospects at the position. We will also take compare how the Red Sox look at the position compared to the rest of the division. Today, finish out the roster with a look at the rotation.
The Starting Five
1) Nathan Eovaldi: Quietly becoming a horse in this rotation, Eovaldi threw 203 innings between the regular season and postseason last year, coming off of the short season. Eovaldi only walked 40 batters in those 203 innings, establishing himself as a front of the rotation power pitcher with good control, finishing fourth in the AL Cy Young vote. In the absence of Chris Sale for the foreseeable future, the Red Sox will need more of the same from Eovaldi in 2022. With hopefully a few more plays made behind him (3.75 ERA, 2.79 FIP in 2021), Eovaldi should continue to be in the discussion as one of the best pitchers in the American League.
2) Nick Pivetta: Although he rarely pitched deep into games, Pivetta took the ball for 30 starts last year, prior to two memorable relief appearances. He got the save in Game 162 to clinch a playoff spot and then pitched four shutout innings, with seven K’s out of the pen in Game Three of the ALDS to get the win in an electric manner. Pivetta has pitched well in four spring starts, leading the team with 15 2⁄3 innings, and seems poised to run with the number spot in the rotation to start the season.
3) Tanner Houck: One of the two “swingmen” in question during the offseason, Houck was given a vote of confidence from the manager early in preseason to be an expected member of the rotation. As always, the major question with Houck will be whether he can survive the third time through the order. In short bursts he was excellent, and borderline unhittable, at times last year, at one point retiring 30 consecutive batters over a span of four appearances. Houck struggled with his control for much of the spring, but got through six innings in his final appearance while only walking one.
4) Michael Wacha: Wacha struggled for most of the 2021 campaign with Tampa, sporting a 5.91 ERA through 21 appearances. A pitch mix change down the stretch, increasing his changeup and curveball usage while scrapping the cutter, caused great results as Wacha had a 3.20 ERA with a 29.2 percent strikeout rate in his final eight outings. The Red Sox clearly believed in these changes, giving him $7 million in an early free agency signing. The results haven’t been great in the spring and there will be plenty of options mentioned later who could bump Wacha to a long-relief role if he doesn’t produce over the first month or two.
5) Rich Hill: The 42-year-old Milton, MA native returns to the Red Sox for his third stint as a major leaguer. Hill’s designation could read as “5A” after Alex Cora confirmed he expects to piggyback Hill and Garrett Whitlock in his early season starts. Since Hill returned to Boston in 2015 after his stint in independent ball, he has not had an ERA higher than 3.86 since. Coming off a 31-start, 158 2⁄3 inning season last year, Hill and his mid-60s MPH curveball, hopes to show he has something left in the tank.
The Wild Card
Garrett Whitlock: The finest move of the Chaim Bloom era thus far, Whitlock “had” to stay on the roster all season as a Rule 5 pickup in 2021. The eight wins, two saves, and 1.96 ERA, all out of the bullpen for 73 1⁄3 relief innings did not turn out to be an inconvenience. Whitlock’s role is most up in the air as anyone on the roster, but it seems that the team wants to limit his innings early in the season, while also keeping his arm stretched out to start when needed. Whitlock will piggyback Rich Hill, at least the first time through, but it would not be a shocker to see Whitlock make 15 to 20 starts in 2022.
Chris Sale: Sale returned last August from Tommy John surgery to make 12 combined regular season and postseason starts. Despite one significant postseason blow-up in Tampa, it was a successful return as a whole for Sale who struck out 11 batters per nine with a 3.16 ERA in the regular season. He once again finds himself on the 60-day IL, this time with a stress fracture in his rib. If the rotation can tread water for the first two months, Sale’s return will be essential for the success of this team in 2022.
James Paxton: Paxton signed with the team just before the lockout to a complicated deal that could be only for 2022, or could go through 2024 if this season is a success. Coming off of Tommy John surgery, the 33-year-old Paxton was expected to be on a similar July or August track like Sale was last year, but Cora stated that he is “ahead of schedule” in his rehab. From 2016 to 2019, Paxton was 44-24 with a 3.60 ERA with the Mariners and Yankees, and could be a key factor in the second half.
Potential Prospect Help
Kutter Crawford: Crawford made his MLB debut in 2021 during the team’s Covid outbreak and wasn’t exactly put into an easy situation. He will be on the Opening Day roster after pitching lights out in the Dominican Winter League and continuing that effort in his four spring training appearances, striking out ten batters across five innings. Although he will be pitching out of the bullpen, Crawford has started throughout his minor-league career and would be a clear depth piece if any further injuries occur.
Josh Winckowski: Winckowski was part of the return in the Andrew Benintendi deal prior to 2021 and logged 112 innings between double-A and triple-A last season. He was 8-3 with a 4.14 ERA in 20 starts at Portland, averaging five innings per start. While not a high strikeout pitcher, Winckowski’s off-speed stuff can get hitters out and he could see his debut in Boston this season.
Connor Seabold: Seabold, like Crawford, made his debut in emergency circumstances for one start in 2021. An up-and-down season in 2021, Seabold missed about half of the season with an elbow injury, and did not have much velocity upon return. He threw 20 1/3 innings in the Arizona Fall League, where he continued to struggle with velocity and was hit hard in a couple of starts. At 26 years old, this feels like a do-or-die year for Seabold as he works to find a good pitch repertoire at triple-A.
Brayan Bello: No one shot up the prospect list in 2021 like Bello did, dominating at high-A Greenville over six starts before getting the call to double-A Portland. With a high-90s fastball, plus changeup, and a slider that is a work in progress, Bello had a 37% strikeout rate at high-A and a 31.1% rate at double-A and even pitched in the Future Stars Game during the all-star break. Turning 23 in May, Bello will start the year again at Portland but should see Worcester in short order. He could see Boston by the end of the year, likely in a bullpen role, but nothing should be ruled out.
Other Prospects of Note
Jay Groome: Groome has been in the system since 2016 and, after an up-and-down journey, made it to double-A in 2021. His overall stat line last year wasn’t great but he strung together several great starts in a row and struck out 134 batters over 97 1⁄3 innings at two levels. Featuring a strong pitch mix from the left side, Groome continues to slowly make his way up the organization.
Brandon Walter: No pitcher emerged from prospect list obscurity more than Walter did in 2021. 132 strikeouts in 89 1⁄3 innings will do that. He is already 25 years old, and it is unclear if a starter or reliever path is in his future, but it will be interesting to see how the left-hander handles an assignment to Portland this year.
Chris Murphy: While we’re listing off left-handers with great strikeout rates, Murphy should be in that mix. His ERA wasn’t great (4.21 at High-A, 5.45 at Double-A), but he whiffed 128 batters in 101 1⁄3 innings combined last year while keeping his previous issues with walks at a reasonable rate. The splits were a bit alarming, so unless that changes this season, we may be looking at a relief pitcher long-term.
Are we ranking the Red Sox rotation in its current state (Eovaldi, Pivetta, Houck, Wacha, Hill) or a hypothetical July rotation that could contain as many as five pitchers from the Eovaldi, Sale, Pivetta, Houck, Whitlock, Paxton crew? The former might be fourth-best in the division, and the latter might be second-best, so we’ll split the difference. If sorting by Fangraphs Projected WAR at SP, the Yankees (15.9) are first, Blue Jays (13.8) in second, Red Sox (12.4) in third, Rays (11.3) in fourth, and the Orioles (7.8) aren’t far from the basement in all of MLB. While some of the other division staffs have a better ace, the Jays one through five are tough to beat.
1. Toronto (Jose Berrios, Kevin Gausman, Alek Manoah, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Yusei Kikuchi)
2. New York (Gerrit Cole, Jordan Montgomery, Luis Severino, Nestor Cortes, Jameson Taillon)
3. Boston (Nathan Eovaldi, Nick Pivetta. Tanner Houck, Michael Wacha, Rich Hill (IL: Chris Sale, James Paxton)
4. Tampa Bay (Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, Ryan Yarbrough, Corey Kluber, Luis Patiño (IL: Shane Baz))
5. Baltimore (John Means, Jordan Lyles, Tyler Wells, Bruce Zimmerman, Dean Kremer/Keegan Akin)