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The Case for Brandon Woodruff

If they won’t splurge and if they’re looking to the future, the Red Sox should round Woody up.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Chicago Cubs Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

I sit here writing this piece with 50-some-odd days left until the start of the 2024 Red Sox campaign. The Super Bowl is less than a week away, pitchers and catchers will be reporting later this month, and men across the country will soon begin scrambling for a Valentine’s Day gift. Spring is right around the corner, and Boston fans are still left with a question that was lingering when those same men were scrambling for holiday presents:

Who, exactly, will be in the Red Sox rotation next season?

It’s certainly a fair question, given the rotation’s issues in 2023. But I’ve got another proposal that looks more towards the future. On an anecdotal note, it’s a proposal that I haven’t really seen Red Sox fans consider:

If the team isn’t going to be splurging on pitching upgrades for this season, and if the organization is committed to Chief Baseball Officer Craig Breslow’s vision of aggressively developing minor league prospects such as Marcelo Mayer, Roman Anthony, and Kyle Teel as part of the plan to build the “fastest path to a World Series team,” doesn’t signing Brandon Woodruff to a multi-year deal make some sense?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Miami Marlins Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve got a solid idea right now of how that question regarding the 2024 rotation will be answered. Chris Sale will be swapped out for Lucas Giolito, while 2023 holdovers Nick Pivetta, Brayan Bello, and Kutter Crawford are shoo-ins. From there, it’s a mix of Garrett Whitlock, Tanner Houck, and Josh Winckowski for the final spot; your mileage on the idea of any member of that group being a reliable starter may vary.

Sure, whatever. There’s some upside to like within that group–we’ve seen how electric Nicky P can be when he’s firing on all cylinders, and Bello will have a chance to take a big leap in 2024. But even then, we’re talking about a returning group of arms that, by and large, wasn’t able to throw many innings last season. Bello was the only Red Sox pitcher with over 150 frames logged, while Pivetta and Crawford were the only other two guys who pitched more than 125 innings for Boston. The addition of Giolito helps in that regard (he’s only failed to pitch at least 170 innings once in a full season since 2018), but he’s just one guy. That rotation still raises the question of whether or not the group will be able to eat enough innings in 2024.

From here, perhaps an astute reader would suggest another free agent acquisition to boost the rotation. After all: the trio of Whit, Houck, and Winck out of the bullpen could be highly effective as the season goes on. The three of ‘em each have an ERA under 3.15 when working in relief during their young careers (with Houck and Whitlock registering sub-2 ERAs). Securing another starter to ensure that’s an option makes a lot of sense if you ask me.

But the reality sets in soon after considering that option. It sure seems like the Red Sox won’t be grabbing headlines with any new additions to the Boston rotation for the new year (well, they’d probably be grabbing our headlines at OTM, but you catch my drift–don’t be a smart ass.) Sam Kennedy threw cold water on any lingering dreams of a blockbuster deal this offseason during Winter Weekend, when he told Red Sox Nation that the team’s 2024 payroll is likely going to be more slim than 2023’s mark of roughly $225 million. Don’t hold your breath if you’re hoping the Sox will acquire the Jordan Montgomerys or the Blake Snells of the free agent world in order to bolster the pitching staff.

So, that all leaves us here. The scenario dictates that a top-of-the-rotation anchor is probably not going to be landing at Fenway Park before Opening Day this year. The other starters are fine, but there’s still something left to be desired going forward…

…Then, you see that a pitcher with a career ERA of 3.10 and a career WHIP of damn-near 1.00 is still available on the market — and he can be had for a relative bargain.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Milwaukee Brewers Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

When he’s on, Brandon Woodruff is easily a top 10 pitcher in all of baseball — maybe even better. Since the start of the COVID-shortened 2020 season, his 2.76 ERA is fourth-best out of all pitchers who have hurled at least 300 innings; only a pair of future first-ballot Hall of Famers (Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw) along with one of the best left-handed pitchers in the game (Max Fried) can boast a better mark in that time. During that stretch, Woodruff has compiled a 152 ERA+, a 0.98 WHIP, and nearly 11 strikeouts per nine innings compared to just 2.2 walks per nine innings. He doesn’t throw many hangers either, as he’s allowed exactly one homer per nine in his career.

The soon-to-be 31-year-old (his birthday is February 10; happy early, birthday Brandon!) complements a strong four-seam heater with a solid sinker, but his best offering is probably his changeup. In 2022, his last full season on the mound, Woodruff’s change prompted a 54% whiff rate along with an expected slugging percentage and xWOBA south of the .300 line (according to Baseball Savant).

Feast your eyes on some of his highlights. Try to contain yourself if you’re watching this at work or around loved ones, because the noises you’ll be making when watching some of these pitches could suggest that you’re looking up some NSFW content…you sicko, you.

TL;DR: the dude is really good at throwin’ the cow hide.

The trouble with Woodruff is, unfortunately, related to his health. Issues with his right shoulder came up back in April of 2023, causing the then-Milwaukee Brewer to be shelved until August. He made nine appearances on the bump from then until late September. Everything looked fine under the hood when he was able to pitch for the Brew Crew last season; his average fastball velocity sat at 96 MPH, his expected ERA and expected batting average were in the 95th and 89th percentile league-wide (per Savant, again), and he was good for a 2.28 ERA and a 0.82 WHIP over 67 frames. Those skills brought a tear of joy to Bernie Brewer’s eye, I’m sure of it.

Then, the other shoe dropped. The team announced that Woodruff would not be on their roster for the Wild Card round in October, as he underwent surgery on his shoulder’s anterior capsule. I’m no doctor — just a blogger with jester’s privilege — but that doesn’t sound good, does it?

The outlook for Woodruff to return to action suggests as much: he’s expected to miss most–if not all–of the 2024 season, a season which was going to be his contract year. With only one season left until he was set to hit the open market, Milwaukee non-tendered Woodruff this offseason and sent him to free agency one year earlier than expected.

Plenty of teams could find use for Woodruff — including the team we like to talk about here at OTM.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Now I know what you might be thinking, and I agree: shoulder injuries for a pitcher on the wrong side of 30 can be some pretty scary shit. Who knows how effective Woodruff will be when he finally toes the rubber again?

But consider the concept that any contract for Woodruff’s services would have those injury concerns baked into it. It’s almost Valentine’s Day and one of the absolute premier pitchers in baseball (when healthy) is still sitting in the free agency pool, awaiting for the likes of Monty or Snell to set the market. A guy who would’ve easily commanded nine figures over, say, seven or eight years is now going to have to settle for a smaller deal that could re-establish his value.

Why couldn’t Boston be a place for him to do exactly that? Breslow and Co. could offer him something along the lines of a two or three year deal (with or without options, let them figure that out) at a reasonable average annual value, have the man rehab in ‘24, and then let him cook when he’s ready to be unleashed. We can cross our fingers and hope that 18 months away from game action is enough time to resolve any trouble with Woodruff’s shoulder.

That schedule lines up with the time frame that Breslow himself mentioned with the development of the prospects, doesn’t it? If the injuries persist or if Woodruff isn’t the same, c’est la vie. But if he’s able to bounce back, he’s a bonafide DOG atop the rotation, right when the team could use one. Hell, maybe he could even be a two-way star in Boston!!! He’s done that before!!!

Eat your heart out, Shohei.

One of the hallmarks of the pitching philosophy for Andrew Bailey, the new pitching coach for Boston, is that he likes dudes who can pepper the zone. It’s all about strikes for ol’ AB, baby. Do yourself a favor and visit Woodruff’s Savant page, then take a look at his heat map for his command. The guy has lived in the zone, with resounding and consistent success to show for it. That sure seems like someone who Bailey would appreciate working with!

Now don’t get me wrong: the Red Sox can and should be in on a guy like Jordan Montgomery. I think he’d be a great addition. The organization has the facilities to improve the current iteration of their pitching staff; whether or not they feel inclined to open that war chest is a different discussion, but the fact that they hold the key to that chest remains.

But I’m trying to be realistic with you here, folks. In spite of the just anger and frustration we’ve collectively expressed this winter, it doesn’t seem like a big splash is going to be made for the 2024 rotation. As more and more time passes, the odds of signing Gumby or Snell or whoever seem to shrink, especially considering those recent comments made by Kennedy regarding the size of the payroll. Nothing, to me, has suggested that I should expect anything different on that front.

If that’s the reality we’re living in, then it’s only logical for Brandon Woodruff to be a target for Boston. His deal wouldn’t break the bank and he can provide some incredible upside down the line, even if he can’t contribute in this upcoming season. You would only need one hand to count how many starters have a ceiling similar to his. Plus, it would give me an excuse to reference “Woody’s Roundup” from Toy Story 2–the best of the bunch–any time it’s his turn to pitch. How would I be able to pass that up?!

Teel’s gonna need an ace throwing to him when he’s called up and placed behind the dish, anyways. Why not have Brandon Woodruff be that guy?