The Red Sox have gotten off to an impressive 22-16 start, one that would represent the third best record in the entire National League (behind only the Braves and Dodgers) if Boston played in the National League. As it stands, they reside in the AL East, where their 22-16 record is good for third best... in the division. It's still an impressive start - one that many didn't see coming - despite a plethora of injuries.
While Alex Cora and company await the returns of Trevor Story, Garrett Whitlock, Adam Duvall, and other potential contributors, one player has finally reached the status of "healthy enough to play" and he represents something of a wild card. James Paxton is scheduled to make his Red Sox debut later today after signing with the franchise over a year ago while recovering from Tommy John surgery. This should be good news for a team that could use reinforcements in the rotation (28th in MLB in rotation ERA as of this morning) and yet, the addition of a former All-Star pitcher seems to raise more questions than solutions.
For one, it's been a while since the world has seen James Paxton have sustainable success at the MLB level. The last time Paxton took the mound in a regular season game was 2021, when he pitched all of 1.1 innings in his return to Seattle. The year prior, he pitched a total of 20.1 innings for the Yankees. So basically, the last time Paxton made it through a full season, Mookie Betts was still a member of the Red Sox. For comparison, Chris Sale gave the Red Sox almost double the amount of innings James Paxton has pitched over the past 3 years combined in just the 2021 season during which he briefly returned from his own Tommy John procedure.
All of that time off would give anyone reason to doubt Paxton's future. A promising rehab stint would have served as an encouraging sign for things to come, except he didn't have one of those. In fact, he got smacked around by minor league hitters to the tune of a 6.23 ERA in 6 rehab appearances so far this season. The worst one was a relief appearance in which he faced 9 batters, recorded one out, and allowed 7 earned runs. He was also very vocal about remaining a starter afterwards, so using Paxton as a relief pitcher in any fashion appears to be out of the question.
To be fair, the bullpen hasn't been an issue for Red Sox this year. In fact, the relief core has done quite well despite the holes Boston's starters have dug themselves in many games. It's the rotation that's been the problem, so making changes to the unsuccessful unit makes more sense than reshuffling the successful unit. Inserting Paxton into the rotation sounds like a straightforward approach, but actually executing that plan turns this into a much more complicated exercise. For one, he hasn't exactly earned it. His overall career has been impressive, but so is Corey Kluber's track record. Ask anyone how much those old Cy Young awards have helped him in 2023 so far. Furthermore, unless Boston moves to a 6-man rotation (which seems doubtful) Paxton would have to take another starter's place, and while the rotation as a whole hasn't been very good, I'm not sure he represents an upgrade over any of the existing options. Could Paxton be better than Nick Pivetta? Maybe, but Pivetta is significantly more reliable in terms of health and by extension, the sheer number of innings he can provide.
So what should Alex Cora do with a veteran starting pitcher who can't pitch out of the bullpen, but might not be one of the team's 5 best starters? I believe I have the answer.
The opener strategy was popularized by the Tampa Bay Rays during Chaim Bloom's tenure with the team, and we've seen it used by other teams (the Red Sox included) to varying degrees of success over the past few seasons. The idea is to reduce the starter's workload by making him a "bulk reliever" who enters the game after the opener has completed the first inning or two. Not only is it easier for the main pitcher/bulk reliever/would-be starter to reach (and get through) the 7th, 8th, or even 9th inning when the first inning or two have already been completed by someone else, it can also help a bullpen stay rested. Using an opener and a quasi-starter to get through 7-8 innings is simply more efficient than allowing the starter to go 4-5 innings before using 4+ additional arms to get through the final 4 innings. The latter isn't sustainable over a long period of time.
One other benefit to using the opener strategy is how it impacts the opposing team's lineup construction. Giving an opponent one look to start a game, then immediately smacking with an entirely different look can certainly throw off their rhythm. At the very least, it should force hitters to make adjustments. It probably drives the other team's manager mad as well. Imagine putting together a lineup that's designed to feast on a southpaw, heavily loaded with RH hitters, only to watch a RH pitcher with nasty movement enter the game after one time through the order. Suddenly, your own strategy is being used against you.
And that leads me to my original point. James Paxton should be used exclusively as an opener, at least for the time being. If he's able to put up multiple goose eggs on the scoreboard after several successful (albeit brief) starts, then maybe you give him a longer leash. Perhaps more injuries will inevitably push him into that traditional starting role before summer ends. But to start his 2023 campaign, Paxton should be limited to one turn through the lineup in his starts. Both Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock have experienced success coming out of the bullpen and providing Alex Cora with multiple innings. Both are viewed as starters, long term, in the eyes of the organization. What better way to aid their transition from talented young weapons to full-fledged MLB starters than by shortening their starts on the front end while forcing opponents to account for a LH pitcher?
Continuing to stretch Paxton out as a starter makes sense. Relying on him to pick up where he left off in 2019 would be extremely risky, and the perfect safety net is already built into the equation. Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock are each familiar and comfortable pitching multiple innings out of the bullpen, and putting them in positions to succeed will not only help the team compete in the short term, but it can also help their development long term. Each pitcher can still get accustomed to throwing 90+ pitches and facing a lineup more than once while coming out of the bullpen using the opener strategy. Their confidence will grow as they learn the keys to being a successful starter, and they'll have veterans who have been there in Paxton, Kluber, and Sale to help guide them along the way.
At the risk of sounding arrogant, I think this plan benefits everyone involved, and not just the players directly impacted, but the team as a whole. Selfishly, I hope to see if implemented, if not tonight, then possibly in the next week or two.