Red Sox Rumors: What’s Garrett Whitlock’s role when he returns?

BOSTON, MA - JUNE 1: Garrett Whitlock #72 of the Boston Red Sox delivers during the first inning of a game against the Cincinnati Reds on June 1, 2022 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JUNE 1: Garrett Whitlock #72 of the Boston Red Sox delivers during the first inning of a game against the Cincinnati Reds on June 1, 2022 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images) /

The Red Sox are considering putting Garrett Whitlock in the bullpen

Garrett Whitlock is nearing a return from a stint on the injured list due to right hip inflammation. What role he’ll be returning to with the Boston Red Sox remains to be seen.

Whitlock emerged as one of the league’s most dominant relief pitchers during last year’s rookie campaign, posting a 1.96 ERA and 9.9 K/9 over 46 appearances. His versatility out of the bullpen was invaluable. He could be used for multiple innings or for a few outs in high-leverage spots. Whitlock could do it all as the bullpen’s most dangerous weapon.

The Red Sox used Whitlock in a similar relief role to begin this season but he moved to the rotation in late-April to replace the unvaccinated Tanner Houck prior to the team’s first trip to Toronto. Whitlock made nine starts prior to landing on the injured list.

Will he reclaim his rotation spot when he’s ready to be activated or will the Red Sox send him back to the bullpen? During an appearance on WEEI’s Merloni, Fauria & Mego show, manager Alex Cora revealed that the topic is being discussed internally, leaving the door open for Whitlock to transition back into the relief role he has thrived in.

"“We’re talking about it. Obviously health has to do with it,” said Cora. “There’s different thoughts, of course. Going back to the bullpen is one of them.”"

Calls from the fanbase for Whitlock to return to the bullpen have intensified in the wake of Tuesday’s crushing loss in Toronto. Houck had settled in as the team’s closer but since his vaccination status prevents him from traveling to Canada, the ninth inning was left in the hands of Tyler Danish and Hansel Robles to protect a one-run lead. The pair of relievers combined to allow a walk and three singles without recording an out in the ninth to blow the game.

This was the seventh time this season that the Red Sox have lost a game on walk-off. Red Sox relievers have been charged with 15 losses this season, tied for the sixth most in the majors, per FanGraphs.

Houck is taking plenty of heat for putting himself ahead of the team with his decision to remain unvaccinated. We’ll never know if he would have converted the save in that situation but we certainly would have been more confident with Houck on the mound.

Boston will travel to Toronto again near the end of the regular season and they could potentially meet the Blue Jays in the playoffs. They can’t afford to be put in this position again. The Red Sox have the rotation depth to find a spot starter if they need it. They can’t be left scrambling as they patch together the final few innings with an undermanned bullpen.

Setting Houck’s status aside, the Red Sox need another right-handed arm to lean on late in games. Austin Davis, Matt Strahm and Jake Diekman have been reliable options against lefties but Cora shied away from them with the right-handed heavy portion of Toronto’s lineup looming in the ninth. Once the John Schreiber card had been used in the seventh, Boston was out of right-handed relievers they could trust.

Whitlock can be that extra right-handed arm to balance the bullpen late in games. As their best reliever, a case can certainly be made for inserting him into the closer role. If the Red Sox prefer to be more flexible with his role to get the most out of him, let Houck keep the official closer gig while Whitlock handles the most important outs leading to the ninth.

Whitlock, Houck and Schreiber along with the aforementioned trio of lefties is a very strong core of relievers.

We saw last season how vital Whitlock was to the bullpen. He allowed only one earned run in 9 2/3 innings (0.93 ERA) as a reliever this season. Whitlock went 1-1 with a 4.15 ERA in his nine starts. His strikeout rate dipped notably from 10.2 K/9 as a reliever to 8.8 K/9 as a starter. He’s not the same pitcher when he has to pace himself for a starter’s workload.

The Red Sox might envision Whitlock as a starter in the long term knowing that a top of the rotation starter is more valuable than any reliever. That’s fine if he eventually develops into that but he hasn’t proven himself as an ace. He is proven as a lights-out reliever. For this season, would the Red Sox rather have a mediocre starter or a dominant reliever to help finish games?

Chris Sale’s rehab assignment has him targeting a return before the All-Star break. Nathan Eovaldi should make it back soon after the break, followed eventually by James Paxton. The Red Sox will have a surplus of starters before the season ends if they can keep them all relatively healthy.

Cora isn’t ready to tip his hand about his plans for how to utilize Whitlock when he returns. His long-term development and the best way to monitor his workload from a health perspective are factors during their internal discussions, but in terms of what would help this Red Sox team the most right now, the choice is clear. Whitlock needs to go back to the bullpen where he can lock down innings near the end of games.

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