Pessimistic outlook for last year’s Red Sox rookies

DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 3: Bobby Dalbec #29 of the Boston Red Sox walks back to the dugout after striking out against the Detroit Tigers during the ninth inning at Comerica Park on August 3, 2021, in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 3: Bobby Dalbec #29 of the Boston Red Sox walks back to the dugout after striking out against the Detroit Tigers during the ninth inning at Comerica Park on August 3, 2021, in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images) /

An uncertain future for last year’s crop of Boston Red Sox rookies

A rapidly improving Boston Red Sox farm system started to bear fruit last season with several rookies making an impact. Despite showing at least flashes of brilliance that hinted at their potential upside, not everyone is convinced that these players have a bright future.

Chad Jennings of The Athletic recently posed a series of questions about the Red Sox to his colleague, Keith Law. One question asked about his expectations for Bobby Dalbec, Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock now that they’ve completed their rookie seasons. The response wasn’t encouraging for Red Sox fans.

Law was least optimistic about Dalbec, who he views as a player who will struggle to stick in the big leagues.

"“Dalbec is an emergency call-up; he’s 27 now and just had a 34 percent strikeout rate and sub-.300 OBP as a corner bat. He’s not a good defender, and he doesn’t hit enough to be a DH. I’m not sure that any team can keep a player like that on their bench in the era of the 13-man pitching staff,” said Law."

Expectations were high for Dalbec after the power surge he showed during his brief call-up in 2020 but that production didn’t carry over to the following spring. The first baseman stumbled through a miserable first half in which he hit a meager .219, briefly costing him his starting role and sending the Red Sox searching for an upgrade as the trade deadline approached.

The trade for Kyle Schwarber threatened to doom Dalbec’s roster spot since the Red Sox planned to convert their All-Star acquisition into a first baseman to replace the rookie. Instead, the trade ended up being the spark that Dalbec needed. Whether it was the motivation of his job being in jeopardy or Schwarber’s influence helping him make adjustments, Dalbec exploded in August by hitting .339 with a 1.205 OPS and seven home runs in 24 games. A rookie on the verge of riding the bus back to Triple-A was suddenly the hottest hitter in baseball for a few weeks last summer.

His hot streak clearly wasn’t sustainable but Dalbec gave us a glimpse of what he’s capable of. The power is certainly real, it’s just a matter of if he can get on base enough for it to matter. He was still striking out at an extremely high rate during his second-half surge, despite some moderate improvement. Nearly doubling his walk rate in the second half was promising though. If he can continue drawing more free passes to produce a respectable on-base percentage to go along with his outstanding power potential, the Red Sox can live with his low batting average.

Law isn’t giving Dalbec enough credit for his second-half adjustments but it’s fair to say that the first baseman still has much to prove. With top prospect Triston Casas expected to arrive at some point this season, Dalbec must show that his bat is an asset to the lineup instead of a liability.

Red Sox pitchers who might be destined for life in the bullpen

The Red Sox were focused on building depth for their starting rotation before the lockout put a freeze on baseball activity. Bringing in additional arms to compete for the role suggests they aren’t planning to simply hand Houck a rotation spot in the wake of his solid rookie campaign.

"“Houck still hasn’t shown me anything to demonstrate he can get LHB out consistently, and until he does, I think he’s much more likely to end up a reliever; teams will just load up on lefties when he starts and he’ll have trouble turning a lineup over twice,” said Law."

Houck has been notably more successful against right-handed hitters but he’s fared reasonably well against lefties, holding them to a .216/.304/.309 slash line for his career. His splits aren’t wide enough to assume he can’t beat lefties.

There’s also reason to believe Houck is improving against lefties by incorporating a split-finger fastball, which held opposing hitters to a .059 average last season, per Baseball Savant. It’s a pitch he seldom uses but 73 of the 85 splitters he threw last year were to a lefty.

The Red Sox rarely allowed Houck to pitch more than five innings due to concerns about his regression when facing a lineup for the third time through the order. That’s not uncommon in today’s game which is increasingly being dominated by bullpens. If Houck can find consistency with four pitches, including one that can put away lefties, he’s capable of being a back of the rotation starter who can give you five innings.

Law had nothing negative to say about Whitlock but his comments weren’t a glowing endorsement either.

"“Whitlock is what you saw in 2021, which is great for a Rule 5 pick,” said Law."

Whitlock was the best reliever in the Red Sox bullpen last year and one of the best in the league. He produced a stellar 1.96 ERA, 1.105 WHIP and 9.9 K/9. That’s an excellent season for any type of draft pick, let alone one from the Rule 5 draft.

Boston clearly uncovered a gem but Law’s comments suggest that we’ve already seen his ceiling. If Whitlock is what we saw last year, that means he’s not projecting him to develop into a starting pitcher. The right-hander can still be plenty valuable as a versatile bullpen weapon and he might even emerge as the closer if his dominance continues.

However, his long-term upside is slightly capped if he remains a reliever. It’s not a negative review but Law’s assessment pours a bit of cold water on the speculation that an impressive rookie season will translate into Whitlock becoming the future ace of the rotation.

All three of these rookies will have a role with the Red Sox when the 2022 season opens. While some other scouts will have more optimistic projections about their futures, Law’s analysis serves as a reminder that an encouraging rookie season isn’t necessarily a sign that they are on their way to becoming stars.

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