Last week, we looked at how presumably the Red Sox would begin to put together their position-player roster.
This week, the pitching staff.
In the starting rotation, it’s likely that the Boston staff won’t look all that different from the 2021 edition that finished the season, and that makes some sense, because the starters’ 4.49 team ERA in the regular season was eighth-best in the AL (and its 4.44 team ERA in the postseason was fifth-best in all of baseball, and tops in the league).
Nathan Eovaldi, entering the final year of a four-year, $68 million deal, was 11-9 with a more-than-respectable 3.75 ERA, and teammate Eduardo Rodriguez had a 13-8 record, although his ERA was a run higher than Eovaldi’s. Garrett Richards and Martin Perez were in the rotation at the beginning of the season, but both failed to impress, especially after MLB’s crackdown on the sticky stuff on the fingers, and both were eventually relegated to the bullpen, where Richards actually flourished while Perez was just “meh.” Both were not tendered in the offseason and received buyouts instead, so both are free agents and unlikely to return.
Tanner Houck pitched started 13 times for the Sox, but his 1-5 record was misleading, because his ERA was just 3.52 and opposing batters hit just .204 against him. The problem was that Houck was only allowed to complete the fifth inning five times, and invariably he would be pulled before he had to face the opposing lineup a third time through, and saw relievers usually blow whatever lead he may have built. He’s only 25 and a former first-round pick of Boston’s, so he’ll likely stay in the rotation and hopefully improve at being trusted to go later into games.
Rodriguez was a free agent, and perhaps surprised the Red Sox by accepting a five-year, $77M offer from the Detroit Tigers last week, but Boston may have considered offering him a similar salary, but it’s unlikely they would have given him five years, as the Tigers did.
Still, the return of a healthy Chris Sale has to be gratifying for Boston. The lanky lefty returned from Tommy John surgery in August, although his 5-1 record and 3.16 ERA over nine starts was a little misleading, as he more often than not was facing some of the dregs of the league, including the last-place Orioles (three times), Rangers, Twins, Nationals, and the free-falling Mets. Still, pitchers returning from that procedure typically are usually back to normal the year after they return, and sometimes are even better than before, so that’s encouraging for the team, even though Sale will be 32 on Opening Day and is the highest-paid player on the team at $30 million annually.
Reliever Garrett Whitlock, who also returned from TJ surgery this past season and pitched tremendously out of the bullpen, is another candidate for the starting rotation, although he was so effective as a middle reliever that he may stay out there. Also in the mix for a starting role could be Nick Pivetta (9-8, 4.53 ERA) and minor-league up-and-comers Brayan Bello, Josh Winckowski (acquired in the Benintendi trade), and Kutter Crawford.
Whitlock may even become the de facto 2022 closer if Matt Barnes fails to return from early-2021 form, when he notched 24 saves and became an All-Star for the first time. However, perhaps because of overuse, Barnes got derailed beginning in early August, and did not record another save the rest of the season, and was largely ignored or even left off the roster in the postseason. This is especially foreboding because Barnes was signed to a two-year $18.75M extension shortly after the All-Star Game, and Boston had better hope it gets a better return on its investment than it saw in the final couple of months of the regular season.
Two of General Manager Chaim Bloom’s unheralded trade-deadline signings — Hansel Robles and Austin Davis — may return as middle relievers, although Robles, who was surprisingly money down the stretch for the Sox, is a free agent. Late-season closer Adam Ottavino, acquired in an offseason trade with the Yankees, of all teams, is also free to sign anywhere after his mildly impressive season in Boston (7-3, 4.21 ERA, 11 saves).
Other bullpen arms who are re-signed for 2022 and overall compiled an MLB 13th-best 3.99 ERA, include Josh Taylor, Hirokazu Sawamura, Darwinzon Hernandez, Ryan Brasier, and Phillips Valdez.
Free-agent additions will likely be necessary to keep this unit strong, especially if Whitlock moves into the rotation and Ottavino and/or Robles depart via free agency.
Also perhaps factoring in the future of the bullpen, perhaps even in 2022: Durbin Feltman, a third-round pick back in 2018 who was a sensation as a college closer at Texas Christian. When he got called up to Triple-A last summer, he compiled a 2.25 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and more than five strikeouts for every walk through 20 innings in Worcester. He had been similarly dominant the previous six weeks in Double-A Portland, and his ascension to the big leagues may be just a matter of time, depending on how things unfold in the Boston bullpen next spring and summer.