Welcome to Over the Monster’s 2023 Season Preview! Between now and Opening Day, we’ll be here to tell you anything and everything* you need to know about the upcoming season. Below is an installment in our Positional Preview Series, in which we do a deep dive on each positional group. Our next stop is the starting rotation.
* Well, not everything, but a lot of things. Trust us: you don’t actually want everything, anyway; a little hunger feeds the soul.
Popular culture is currently in its multiverse stage. Everything Everywhere All At Once, a movie centered on the concept, is an Oscar contender; the recently released Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania just pushed the trend forward and The Flash is going to give us DC’s version this spring. With Quantumania just the latest piece of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s multiverse saga and more and more properties jumping on the bandwagon (Quantum Leap reboot, anyone?), we’re going to be getting more and more of these stories for a while.
Putting aside the science of a potential multiverse, the allure of branching timelines is built on our collective curiosity as humans about the impact of both our actions and events outside of our control, both minor and major, on the outcomes of our lives and the world around us.
Baseball (and really any sport) is a fertile ground for considering the possibilities of other timelines. What if Bill Buckner fielded that ground ball cleanly? What if the Red Sox actually traded for Alex Rodriguez before the 2004 season? Those are just a couple possibilities about the Red Sox off the top of my head, and there are plenty more.
An intriguing multiverse thought experiment that can be applied to the 2023 season centers on the Red Sox’s starting rotation. In an alternate reality, this group would nearly rival the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies in terms of dominant star power. After all, the top three projected starters are Chris Sale, a seven-time All-Star and holder of all-time records in strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout-to-walk ratio; Corey Kluber, a two-time Cy Young award winner; and James Paxton, who ranked 11th in starting pitching fWAR among starters with at least 100 innings pitched between 2014 and 2018. Unfortunately, injuries and the never-ending march of time have made the last few years less than dominant for each of these three potential aces, leaving the entire rotation in a state of extreme uncertainty, especially after the exodus of Rich Hill, Nathan Eovaldi and Michael Wacha, who ranked first, second and fifth, respectively, in starting pitching fWAR for what was a middle-of-the-road rotation in Boston in 2022.
Working in stark contrast to finding out which reality we’ll get from old guns like Sale, Kluber, and Paxton is the potential of prized youngsters Brayan Bello and Garrett Whitlock. Whitlock has been exceptional as both a starter and reliever since being selected in the Rule 5 draft in 2020, while Bello is one of the Red Sox’s most highly touted prospects and coming off a promising first cup of coffee at the MLB level. Then there’s the depth provided by veteran Nick Pivetta and a cavalcade of developing hurlers like Bryan Mata, Josh Winckowski, and maybe even Tanner Houck. So, whether or not you believe in time heists, let’s explore the Red Sox’s 2023 starting rotation in a bit more depth.
The Projected Starting Rotation
Ever since he signed a five-year extension with the Red Sox prior to the 2019 season, Chris Sale simply hasn’t been able to stay on the field. His 2019 campaign got cut short by an elbow issue in his throwing arm and he logged fewer than 50 innings at the MLB level in the three seasons after that, including just 5 ⅔ in 2022. Despite the constant time on the injured list, including missing all of 2020 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, Sale has been pretty good when he has pitched. Across 195 ⅔ innings between 2019 and 2022, he struck out more than 12 batters per nine innings and walked only 2.3 while posting a 3.43 FIP. Even just looking at 2021 and 2022, he’s working with marks of 10.61, 2.42 and 3.54 in those statistical categories, respectively. Sale will turn 34 this season, so age isn’t about to do him any favors, but whether they like it or not, the Red Sox need a mostly healthy season from Sale to even begin to dream of an above average rotation. No pressure, Chris.
Even if he’s carrying quite the burden for this staff, Sale is pretty stoked about some of his fellow veteran rotation mates. Kluber had his best season since 2018 for the Tampa Bay Rays a year ago, producing 3.0 fWAR and a 3.57 FIP. Unfortunately, his velocity and strikeout numbers have mostly dipped over the last half decade and with his 37th birthday on the horizon, expecting a renaissance may be asking too much. However, Kluber proved he can make things work last year, as he was razor sharp with his control (3 percent walk rate) while still managing strong marks in chase rate and average exit velocity. Sure, maybe Kluber is more of a high-end No. 4 starter nowadays, but there’s every reason to believe he can carry over his success from Tampa to Boston.
Paxton is the giant question mark in the middle of this rotation. The Red Sox signed the former Mariner in December of 2021 and haven’t seen him throw a single pitch at the MLB level since. The southpaw known as Big Maple is finally healthy now, but considering he hasn’t pitched more than 25 innings in an MLB season since 2019, it’s difficult to know what to expect. If he returns to form, the Red Sox could have a guy with strong strikeout stuff capable of posting an ERA in the threes. However, during his stop-and-start pitching in 2020 and 2021, he posted marks in the mid to high sixes. Time heals all wounds, and Paxton’s are seemingly good for now, but there’s really no way to know what the Red Sox should realistically expect from him. If he can be a bottom of the rotation starter, that’s probably enough, but there’s always the chance that all that healing has him ready to dominate.
Now we get to the fun part of the rotation, or at least what was supposed to be the fun part. Unfortunately, the injury bug seems to have traversed from the veterans at the top of the rotation down to at least one of the youngsters near the middle. We learned last week that Brayan Bello is experiencing pain is his forearm, which is just the pits. Bello is a top 40 prospect in MLB who can call Pedro Marítnez a mentor. He was relatively solid in 57 1 ⁄ 3 innings during his first taste of MLB action last season, despite some walk issues, and if healthy, has a chance to not only solidify a rotation spot but become one of its most reliable contributors. Here’s hoping that forearm pain goes away as soon as possible.
Whitlock has done just about everything a pitcher can do for the Red Sox in his two years with the team. He’s been a starter, a setup man, a closer and more. The Red Sox have settled on what they’d like him to be (at least for now), giving him a spot in the starting rotation. Whitlock’s resume as a starter isn’t as immediately impressive as his bullpen work, as he has a 4.15 ERA in 39 big league innings when starting games, but his sterling control has remained consistent across roles. Now that they are giving him a single job, rather than moving him all around the depth chart, Whitlock can hopefully focus more fully and be one of the better starters on the staff.
Thanks to Bello’s potential and Whitlock’s solidified role, Nick Pivetta may be the odd man out in terms of the starting rotation. The 30-year-old right-hander has been pretty solid for the Red Sox in his two-plus years in Boston. Last year he set a career-high with 179 ⅔ innings pitched, but his velocity and strikeout ability regressed heavily from a relatively strong 2021 campaign. Still, Pivetta is someone who can eat up innings and provide relatively solid production. He should still get plenty of work even with the rotation projected as is and is a fantastic insurance policy should any major injuries or underperformance strike the starters at the top of the staff.
While Pivetta will be on the MLB roster all season, the rest of the depth options for the rotation will likely log plenty of miles going back and forth between the minors and the bigs. Bryan Mata is clearly the most exciting of the group. A top 10 prospect in the organization, depending on whom you ask, Mata missed extensive time between 2019 and 2021, but he was relatively solid getting back into the swings of things last season, as he sprinted through four levels on his rehabilitation tour. A gifted strikeout artist, Mata’s biggest weakness is a tendency to walk too many batters, as he had a walk rate of more than 10 percent at every level last year, including a 14.7 percent mark in 23 ⅓ innings in Triple-A. He’ll obviously need to scale back the free passes, but all signs point to Mata getting starting work with the Red Sox sooner rather than later.
Brandon Walter is another promising prospect for the Red Sox and falls into the same range rankings wise as Mata. The 26-year-old southpaw was selected in the 26th round of the 2019 draft and quickly made his way to Triple-A over the next three years by producing absurdly low walk rates while striking out 30 percent of the batters he faced. His ascension hit a snag last year in Triple-A, however, as he looked overmatched in two starts, but are we really going to panic after 7 ⅔ innings? With some more time to adjust to stiffer competition, Walter should get his bearings and that may lead to starting opportunities at the big league level as soon as this year.
Josh Winckowski, a 24-year-old right-hander, and Kutter Crawford, a 26-year-old right-hander, both got long looks at the MLB level last year, but they suffered some growing pains, with each producing an ERA in the fives. This year, Crawford is currently projected as a reliever, but he’s going to be part of the rotation during spring training tilts, while Winckowski should remain on the starter track. With that written, since each has experience starting at the MLB level, it’s likely both will be in the running for work as it becomes available.
Others names to keep an eye on are Chris Murphy, a 24-year-old left-hander who was excellent in Double-A last season but struggled mightily after getting promoted to Triple-A; Jake Faria, a 29-year-old who signed a minor league deal this offseason; and maybe even Tanner Houck, who has not been entirely ruled out as a starter, even if the rotation doesn’t exactly have a spot for him right now, whereas the bullpen does.
Boston Red Sox 2023 Starting Pitching Projections - ZiPS
ZiPS is pretty high on Whitlock’s chances of not only being a productive starter but being the anchor for the rotation. Projections elsewhere are a bit more mild, but if even one of the expected starters outperforms while Whitlock excels, this could be a top 15 rotation.
Boston Red Sox 2023 Starting Pitching Projections
Steamer is less rosy about the group as a whole, but it is heartening to see Sale as the projected No. 1 performer. Another interesting tidbit is this system expects Paxton will end up getting a lot of bullpen work. I haven’t seen that idea floated much, but maybe that would open up opportunities for Mata, Walter and/or Pivetta.
The Yankees already had the best starting pitcher in the American League East, a breakout star in Nestor Cortes and some solid depth options before they added Carlos Rodón and Frankie Montas. Montas may be hurt right now, but even without him, this rotation has a high ceiling.
The Blue Jays can give the Yankees a run for their money, and if Cortes doesn’t replicate his performance from last year, this ranking may need some reassessing. With budding ace Alek Manoah leading the way, the Blue Jays’ rotation is bursting with talent.
Shane McClanahan was a breakout Cy Young contender in 2022, and now the Rays bring back another young ace in Tyler Glasnow. However, while the rest of the rotation is solid as well, the Rays don’t have as much top-end firepower to overtake New York and Toronto.
Unless Grayson Rodriguez becomes a frontline starter right away, the Red Sox have a bit more upside in their rotation than the Orioles thanks to Bello and Whitlock.