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2023 Offseason Outlook: Starting Pitching

Risk and reward are the words of the day when talking about the Red Sox rotation.

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Players On The Roster In 2023

2023 Red Sox Winter Weekend Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Of the six starters who made the most starts for the Red Sox in 2022, just one, Nick Pivetta, projects to be in the starting rotation to begin 2023. Rotation stalwart Nathan Eovaldi has moved on to his home state, joining the Texas Rangers, and Rich Hill has now joined the Pirates with old friend Ben Cherrington. Michael Wacha has yet to find a new home but isn’t likely to be back. Kutter Crawford and Josh Winckowski expect to serve as either Triple-A depth or bullpen help. All of this adds up to a rotation that looks radically different in 2023.

The ace of the rotation will be Chris Sale for as long as he can stay healthy. The 33-year-old’s career arc has gone from the stuff of Greek Epics to that of Shakespearean tragedy. While he remains capable when on the mound, Sale has made just 11 starts over the last three years. In other words, who knows. Those 11 starts have been very good though. Over those starts he has a 3.17 ERA, very reminiscent of his career mark of 3.03.

Behind Sale is the newly signed, two-time Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber. Kluber is far from the player he was when he was wracking up hardware, but he remains a capable strike thrower when he’s healthy. Kluber, like Sale, has battled health issues over the last few years, but last year he really broke through with a 164 inning season for the Rays. That total more than doubled what he did with the Yankees the previous year and was his highest total since 2018 when he finished third in the Cy Young race. He will look to build off of that in 2023.

There are a number of ways the team could go after Sale and Kluber, but it will be some combination of Brayan Bello, Garrett Whitlock, James Paxton, and Pivetta.

My preference is that Bello slots into the third spot in the rotation, I believe he has the highest ceiling of the group. Bello is just 23-years-old, but he already has stuff that could play at the top of a rotation. He has a true starter’s repertoire featuring a high velocity fastball, both a four-seam and a sinker, a changeup, and a slider. In his debut he struggled with command at first but got better towards the end of the year. During his final six starts he posted a 2.59 ERA over 31.1 innings. An offseason working with the greatest pitcher in Red Sox history, Pedro Martinez, should pay off in 2023.

Garrett Whitlock and James Paxton would be my choices for the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation, but both come with the same risk, that being innings.

Whitlock split time in 2022 between starting and relieving. As a reliever for 39.1 innings he was nails. He pitched to an ERA of 2.75 while holding opponents to a .547 OPS. As a starter for 39 IP he was much more pedestrian posting a 4.15 ERA and allowing a .723 OPS. With only 78.1 IP and middling results as a starter it’s hard to expect much more than 120 innings and an ERA marginally better than what he did as a starter. There is still a good argument that his more valuable role is in the bullpen, but I am ultimately okay with him starting due to his upside.

Paxton in the fifth spot represents an excellent opportunity for both the player and the team. He surprisingly picked up his $4 million dollar player option for 2023 despite a near certainty that he could have gotten more than that on the open market. Like Sale, Paxton hasn’t thrown many innings since 2019, however, when healthy he has been great. He underwent Tommy John surgery in April of 2021 and is now fully recovered. If he can provide the team with 100-120 innings at anywhere close to his career ERA of 3.59 that will be a huge bargain for the team.

My proposed rotation leaves Pivetta as the odd man out, but certainly as a guy that will get ample work. Whitlock and Paxton will be on innings limits while Sale and Kluber have extensive injury histories. It is likely that the durable, yet underwhelming, Pivetta could get close to or above 150 innings without starting the year with a rotation spot. I also believe his stuff would play up during a stint in the bullpen.

Players In The Upper Minors With A Chance To Contribute In 2023

Red Sox Rookie Development Camp
January 23: Boston Red Sox P Brandon Walter speaks with the media at the teams annual Rookie Development Camp at Fenway Park.
Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Pitching depth in the upper minors is plentiful for the first time in many years. More importantly than being abundant, the pitching that is there is actually interesting with the potential to be solid back end starters. Let’s start with the lefties, Brandon Walter and Chris Murphy.

Walter is the older of the two players at 26 and also has the highest likelihood to stick at the back of a rotation. He dominated Double-A Portland putting up a 2.88 ERA while having an eye popping 33.2 percent K-BB rate. To put this in perspective, only one qualified major league pitcher, a reliever, posted a better K-BB rate–Edwin Diaz. Walter did not perform well in limited time at Triple-A but only spent two starts at the level before ending his season with a neck injury.

Murphy also performed extremely well at Double-A posting a 2.58 ERA over 76.2 innings, but he got hammered at Triple-A over 75.1 innings to the tune of a 5.50 ERA. Murphy has proven to be highly adaptable over his career, consistently changing his repertoire and the shape of his pitches when the need arises. He could see time this year in a spot starters role or, more likely, in a relief role.

Bryan Mata and Josh Winckowski are the two right-handers most likely to get the call. We are all familiar with Winchkowski, who made 14 starts with the Red Sox last year. His stuff is fringy for a starter, however, it could play in a long relief role. Mata is much more interesting though; he has high-velocity fastball and a changeup that can flash plus. His downside is that he has command issues and looks more like a high leverage reliever than a starter.

Options In Free Agency

The Red Sox never got involved at the top end of this year’s pitching market despite a clear need for more stability at the top of their rotation. Instead they opted to shop in the middle with Kluber. Right now, Michael Wacha remains the top free agent left, but it doesn’t seem like either the team or the player are very interested in uniting. Overall, the top of this class with Carlos Rondon and Jacob deGrom was a very risky, albeit talented, group and I’m okay with them sitting it out.

My Suggestion

I don’t really have any issue with how the Red Sox approached their rotation in the offseason. The current rotation has plenty of upside if most of its members can stay healthy. That is a big if, however, and is perhaps the question that will determine the outcome of the season. If Sale, Kluber, Bello, Whitlock, and Paxton all pitch up to their potential then this is probably a wild card team. If the group continues to be beset by injuries then the team probably ends up with a third last-place finish in four years.