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Boston Red Sox v San Diego Padres

Monday Morning Brushback: Feelin’ Stronger Every Day

The Red Sox week in review dives into Chris Sale (again), the rotation log jam, and Enmanuel Valdez.

Photo by Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres/Getty Images

Man, imagine if the Red Sox could play a West Coast-based team every day!

Another week of Boston baseball is in the books, as the fellas marched closer to Memorial Day Weekend with a pair of series dubs under their collective belts. Two wins out of three against Seattle to go with two wins out of three in A Whale’s You-Know-What—that’s the good stuff, folks.

For those keeping track at home: the Sox are now 7-3 against teams from out west—not that it really matters at the end of the day, as I’m sure one of our beloved readers will point out in the comments section below, but hey! It’s nice! Maybe if we all rooted for the California Red Sox, we could expect a beautiful Duck Boat parade amid a beautiful Pacific sunset! But I digress.

Boston begins a new week with a 26-21 record, just shy of being good enough for a wild card spot. After a rough stretch the week prior, including an ugly sweep at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals, it was nice to see the team get back on the saddle with some complete wins. The offense was clicking, the pitching was generally quite good, and there wasn’t too much to complain about in spite of the bookend losses. It’s going to be a bar fight to get into the American League playoff party—nine teams in the Junior Circuit have at least 25 wins as opposed to just five in the Senior Circuit —but so far the Red Sox are showing they’re worthy to at least be a part of that conversation.

So long story short before we get into the nitty gritty: it was a nice week! Let’s keep it up.

It’s Monday Morning Brushback time, y’all.

Allow Me To Reintroduce Myself

Boston Red Sox v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

In last week’s Brushback article, I spoke about one Christopher Allen Sale after his stellar outing against those Red Birds, adding that he’s “officially re-applying for the role of certified ace.”

Well, his application has been received and his LinkedIn endorsements have been pouring in. It looks like he’s got the gig.

Yes, his ERA on the year is still at 5.01. No bueno, of course, but that’s more reflective of his awful start as opposed to the fantastic wave he’s currently riding. That wave carried into America’s Finest City, as the lefty threw seven strong innings Saturday night/early Sunday morning (for us) to clinch a second consecutive win against the Dads.

In his last four outings, Sale’s posted a 2.30 ERA and a 0.70 WHIP over 27.1 innings with 32 strikeouts —vintage stuff from the $145 million man. He’s still pumping gas (lovedddd that 3-2 fastball he blew past Juan Soto), he’s still missing a ton of bats (89th percentile in chase rate, per Savant), he’s limiting the free passes (just three walks over 21 innings in May compared to 10 over 29.1 frames in April), and he’s working deep into games (he’s pitched through at least the sixth in each game during that four-game hot streak).

These are the performances that are needed from the leader of the pitching staff.

I said it in our pre-Opening Day roundtable discussion, and I’ll say it again here: the 2023 Red Sox will go as Chris Sale goes. There had been flashes of his prior brilliance before this year, but we’ve seen it more consistently throughout May. Alex Cora being able to hand the ball to a legit stud is massively important to Boston’s aspirations going forward.

The offense has been there, so having a stopper on the hill raises the club’s potential ceiling—Chris Sale has shown off that stopper status.

The Great Boston Arms Race

Boston Red Sox v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

While we can identify who the ace for the Red Sox is, the rest of the rotation is beginning to come together as well.

James Paxton’s second start in a Boston uniform was a tremendous follow-up to his first, as he earned himself the win against San Diego Friday night thanks to six innings of one-run ball. He’s sat 14 guys down by way of the K over 11 innings and has gotten his fastball velocity up to 96 MPH on average following his Tommy John surgery—both of those tidbits are encouraging signs.

Brayan Bello meanwhile has been, to borrow a line from the band Chicago, feelin’ stronger every day. The 24-year-old’s victory against the Mariners Wednesday evening at Fenway Park was his third straight win. He walked wayyyyyy too many hitters in that appearance—five, to be specific—but the raw stuff in his arsenal is starting to pay off as he’s averaged just over a strikeout per inning this month. He’s trending in the right direction.

The Paxton and Bello developments come just as Kutter Crawford and Garrett Whitlock get closer to their respective returns from the IL.

All of this is to say that the Red Sox’s rotation options are growing. A six-man rotation isn’t in the team’s long-term plans, so something’s gotta give.

As a matter of fact, something did give this week: Nick Pivetta, much to his chagrin, was moved to the bullpen. That answers one aspect of the overall rotation question, but the ultimate fates of Crawford, Whitlock, Corey Kluber, and Tanner Houck are all up in the air. There are worse problems to have than having multiple pitching options—including not having enough pitching options—but it looks like the five-man rotation for now is Sale, Paxton, Bello, Houck, and TBD (I’d say Kluber, but Sunday afternoon’s disasterclass has him in limbo).

Yet I’m curious who y’all think should—not will—be included in that rotation.

The Sale, Paxton, and Bello trio seems locked in. From there, I would personally go with Whitlock and Crawford.

Tanner Houck’s so volatile when he starts, man. It’s all hands on deck when the opposing lineup flips over for the second go-around.

Houck’s stuff is good enough for two to three innings at a time. Partnering him with someone like Josh Winckowski or (now) Pivetta in the ‘pen could be pivotal in shortening contests for the club and building a bridge to late-game options such as Chris Martin and Kenley Jansen. I think that type of role would make Houck extremely effective. It’s not like Whitlock hasn’t had his ugly moments as a starter—because he has—but I’m more confident being stretched out as a starter than Houck henceforth.

As for Kluber, I’m just all set on him. No thank ya, please. Sunday’s ugly showing in San Diego only confirmed my notions on him. You could look at Kluber as an innings eater, but Crawford can also eat those innings—at a more effective rate, too.

Kluber’s 5.60 ERA in May (even if it’s better than his overall season-long ERA of 6.26) is not gonna cut it. The man is seemingly addicted to throwing first pitch balls to begin an AB. He’s already issued 18 walks over 41.2 innings in 2023—he walked 21 batters over 164 frames in 2022. I call his Savant page Eiffel 65 because it’s basically all blue, da ba dee da ba di.

On the other hand, Crawford was pitching quite well (besides that game against Pittsburgh; other than that, Mrs. Lincoln...) prior to his injury. His Savant page is lookin’ nice! He’s limited free passes and he’s gotten guys to whiff! Even with that huge blowup game against the Buccos in mind, he’s got a 3.51 ERA and a sub-1 WHIP.

The upside Kutter presents is undeniably greater than whatever you’re getting from Kluber. If they both pitch about five innings every time they get the starting nod, I’m taking what Crawford offers every day. Let Kluber take on the mop-up and spot-start duties.

But hey, I’m not calling the shots for the Sox.

So Far So Good, So Good, So Good

Boston Red Sox v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

A little tip of the cap for Enmanuel Valdez to round out this week in review!

The youngster’s been solid on offense ever since getting the call up to the bigs, posting an .838 OPS while slugging .500 and chipping in three steals to boot. We don’t have to talk about the defense, though—this is a happy place right now.

Valdez’s ability to quickly turn through the zone with authority is already on display, as his three-run blast off of Joe Musgrove in the second inning on Saturday was enough to clinch a series win. He’s squaring up pitches at an impressive rate. The dude looks like a legit hitter.

I’m also not the first person to point this out—and I won’t be the last—but his resemblance to Juan Soto at the dish is crazy.

Sure, it’s far too early to make a complete determination on Valdez. He hasn’t even reached 100 at-bats in his major league tenure. Baseball is a game about adjustments, meaning he’ll have to adapt as teams change their approach against him.

Nevertheless, he’s been impressive thus far. He’s added potent potables depth to the lineup and he’s making a very compelling argument to including him in the squad routinely. As long as the defense isn’t completely catastrophic, Valdez just might be the full-time second baseman for the Red Sox. And hey: even if he isn’t, I still think he could be a nice option off of the bench.

Song Of The Week: “Punching In A Dream” by The Naked And Famous

Where my FIFA soundtrack fans at?! I feel like I’m about to score a screamer with Robin van Persie any time I hear this banger of a song.

Same time and same place next week, folks. Go Sox.

Red Sox 3, White Sox 2: A Battle of Incompetence

Game 154: White Sox at Red Sox

Kim Ng for President (of Baseball Operations)