Red Sox: Path clearing for Tanner Houck to open season in major league rotation

Sep 15, 2020; Miami, Florida, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Tanner Houck (89) delivers a pitch in the 1st inning against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 15, 2020; Miami, Florida, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Tanner Houck (89) delivers a pitch in the 1st inning against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports /

Tanner Houck could open the season in the Red Sox rotation

Tanner Houck appeared to be a long shot to break camp with the major league team but circumstances have cleared a path for him to join the Boston Red Sox rotation.

We learned last week that Eduardo Rodriguez will not be making his anticipated return to start on Opening Day after he experienced “dead arm” in his last appearance. While he remains hopeful that it won’t be a lengthy absence for the lefty, manager Alex Cora admitted that Rodriguez is running out of time to be ready and there’s a “pretty good chance” that he will open the season on the injured list.

Even a brief stint on the IL means Rodriguez wouldn’t be eligible to return until April 8, at which point the Red Sox will be preparing for their eighth game of the season.

An off day on Friday could allow Opening Day starter Nathan Eovaldi to pitch the fifth game of the season on April 6 against the Tampa Bay Rays on normal rest but Saturday’s starter wouldn’t be ready to go again the following day. The Red Sox still need a starter for the finale of the three game series with the Rays on Wednesday, one day before E-Rod would be eligible to return.

Cora could get creative with his pitching staff but it doesn’t appear he’s willing to go too far outside the box. He’s already stated that he isn’t in favor of bullpen games.

Matt Andriese has rejoined the team and should be ready to begin the season after quarantining in the wake of Matt Barnes‘ false positive COVID-19 test. He can log multiple innings with the ability to spot start but Cora confirmed he will start the season in the bullpen, likely ruling him out as an option to start on April 7. The same can presumably be said for Garrett Whitlock, who hasn’t pitched since March 19.

Even with an off day built into the schedule, it’s going to be difficult to skip utilizing a fifth starter if these options aren’t being considered.

With the alternative options dwindling, the odds of Houck cracking the rotation are improving. The right-hander hasn’t been able to recapture the magic from his brilliant September audition,  producing a 5.06 ERA and 1.78 WHIP in four spring appearances, including two starts. He struck out 10 batters but walked 11 in 10 2/3 innings.

His last start was by far his best though, as Houck shut out the Atlanta Braves over 4 1/3 innings. He allowed only two hits without a walk and struck out six, showing significantly better command as he carved up a powerful Braves lineup.

As encouraging as his most recent performance was, it’s clear from what we saw this spring that Houck needs more seasoning in the minor leagues. He needs to find more consistency with his command and continue developing a split finger fastball to attack left-handed hitters with.

Cora hasn’t confirmed how his rotation will line up behind Eovaldi. Assuming Rodriguez will miss the first turn through the rotation, it’s likely to be Houck and Nick Pivetta over the weekend followed by Garrett Richards. Martin Perez, who starts the final Grapefruit League game of the year this afternoon, will probably be saved for the back of the rotation before turning it back over to Eovaldi on April 7.

Hopefully, Rodriguez would then be ready to join the mix, sending Houck back to Triple-A before his spot in the rotation comes up for a second time.

Rodriguez is making progress and the Red Sox will reevaluate his status following today’s bullpen session. The arm fatigue that cut his last outing short appears to be behind him but the Red Sox want him to face live batters before throwing him into a regular season game. There simply isn’t enough time for him to do so before the team breaks camp.

Expect the team to be cautious with the lefty considering he missed the entire 2020 season while recovering from COVID-19 that resulted in myocarditis. The Red Sox would be wise to monitor his workload so there’s little reason to push him this early in the season.

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It’s certainly not ideal to call up Houck before he’s ready for potentially only one start before optioning him back to the minors but the Red Sox might not have a choice due to their limited options if E-Rod hits the IL.