Garrett Whitlock will play an important role in the Red Sox bullpen
Garrett Whitlock‘s role was one of the most pressing questions throughout spring training. He was stretched out during camp to compete for a spot in the Boston Red Sox rotation. There were whispers that he could ascend to the closer role. With Opening Day looming a few days away, manager Alex Cora revealed that his plan for the right-hander is a versatile role that falls somewhere in between.
According to MLB.com’s Ian Browne, Cora confirmed that Rich Hill will open the season as the fifth starter, which means Whitlock will be in the bullpen. Whitlock will remain stretched out by piggybacking behind Hill.
The veteran Hill pitched fewer than six innings in 23 of his 32 appearances last season. The Red Sox may only ask the 42-year-old to give them five innings if they can count on Whitlock to follow with at least two more.
Hill and Whitlock were paired together in games this spring. Cora seems to like the contrast between the soft-tossing Hill and the hard-throwing Whitlock. The drastic change between their styles will keep opposing lineups off balance.
Whitlock’s role won’t be limited to teaming up with Hill every fifth day though. He’s almost certain to get some work behind Nathan Eovaldi on Opening Day. With an off day following that first game of the season, Whitlock could be used again during that series in the Bronx and still be ready when Hill’s turn comes up in Detroit.
The Red Sox can also use Whitlock in shorter high-leverage situations on the days he isn’t paired with Hill. That doesn’t mean he’ll be the closer but the most important outs aren’t necessarily in the ninth inning. Cora will have some flexibility in when to utilize his most valuable bullpen arm.
Whitlock is the swiss-army knife of the bullpen, a versatile weapon that can be deployed in a variety of situations. Cora intends to lean on him heavily, stating he wants to use Whitlock for more than 70 innings, according to the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier.
Whitlock tossed 73 1/3 innings over 46 relief appearances as a rookie last season. He was dominant in that role, producing a 1.96 ERA, 1.105 WHIP, 9.9 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9. We should expect him to handle a similar workload this year.
Kutter Crawford has reportedly made the Opening Day roster and will be used as a multi-inning reliever, a role he can handle on days that Whitlock is unavailable. The abbreviated training camp resulted in a shorter window for starting pitchers to ramp up, which means they may not be asked to pitch deep into games early in the season. Boston will need more than one reliever capable of handling multiple innings if they are turning to the bullpen early.
Crawford impressed during his limited time in camp, allowing only one run on three hits over four innings. He walked one and struck out eight.
Roles can change over the course of a long season. Chris Sale‘s return from a rib injury will push one of the starters to the bullpen, giving the Red Sox another multi-inning reliever to work with. Boston should get James Paxton back in the second half of the season. The additional depth might allow Cora to save Whitlock for more high-leverage situations rather than using him to eat a few innings piggybacking behind a starter who didn’t go deep into the game.
Whitlock is capable of handling a variety of different roles. The Red Sox have a plan for when to use him early in the season but they can adjust that plan based on their needs later in the season. The only near-certainty is that regardless of how Whitlock is utilized, he’s going to be a valuable member of this pitching staff.