Can the Return of Key Players Salvage the Red Sox Pitching Staff?

The Red Sox have started the season with one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball. Can the return of a few key arms turn things around?

FT. MYERS, FL - FEBRUARY 16: Garrett Whitlock #22 of the Boston Red Sox looks on during a Boston Red Sox spring training team workout on February 16, 2023 at jetBlue Park at Fenway South in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

Heading into the 2023 season, fans were prepared to allow pitchers a bit of grace early on as they adjusted to the new pace of play. But after allowing a whopping 38 runs, 26 walks and 14 stolen bases through the first six games, it’s clear the Red Sox pitching problems extend far beyond adapting to the pitch clock.

The pitching staff currently has a 6.00 ERA, the third-worst in the league. The starting pitchers have a 10.09 ERA.

So far, no starting pitcher has made it to the sixth inning. The first time through the rotation, every starting pitcher gave up at least three runs. Kluber allowed five and Sale and Crawford each gave up seven runs.

Looking at the Red Sox starting rotation, that “ace” pitcher just isn’t there. The two-time Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber, isn’t the pitcher he used to be. Chris Sale, the $145 million man, has barely pitched since 2018 and has not looked like himself when he has. Tanner Houck and Nick Pivetta have been serviceable, but neither can carry a pitching staff. Kutter Crawford is essentially a placeholder and will likely be removed from the rotation as soon as possible.

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The struggling starting rotation has put the Red Sox bullpen in a bad spot. They’re being called on early in games and usually down runs. And yet the bigger issue is the lack of reliable relievers. Richard Bleier has looked shaky at the start of his Red Sox tenure and fans hold their breath when they see Ryan Brasier or Kaleb Ort trotting out to the mound.

Zack Kelly, John Schreiber, and Chris Martin have had promising starts to the season. The three have allowed only two runs, but walks and hits have been an issue. The Red Sox need relievers to shut down innings and keep their opponents momentum at bay.

Josh Winckowski has improved since last season and is currently their best reliever. He’s getting strikeouts and eating up innings. But if the Red Sox continue to need him for multiple inning stints, it will limit his availability out of the pen.

The addition of Kenley Jansen marks the first season in years the Red Sox have had a proper closer. But through the first six games he’s only been needed once, and not in a save situation. His outing was solid and the Red Sox won that game, but ideally your closer should be in a position to pitch more than once every six days.

The upside for the Red Sox is Garrett Whitlock, Brayan Bello and James Paxton are close to making their returns.

Whitlock is expected to make his first start on Tuesday against the Rays. Bello needs one more rehab start, but should be back with the club by mid April. Paxton made his first rehab start this week and is aiming to be back by the end of April.

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In 2021 Whitlock was dominant out of the bullpen in his first season with the Red Sox. Last season he was used as a starter and in relief, but the plan for 2023 is to keep him in the starting rotation. In 2022, Whitlock recorded a 4-2 record with a 3.45 ERA and 82 strikeouts over 78 1/3 innings. In his Triple-A start last week, he allowed one earned run on six hits through four innings.

Last season Bello appeared in 13 games (11 starts) for the Red Sox. He posted a 4.71 ERA. His biggest strengths were the speed of his sinker (96.3 mph on average) and his changeup, which opponents were just 9-for-57 against. Cora told reporters Bello’s velocity is already back up to the 94-95 mph range and he’s showing consistent control with the changeup.

Paxton, of course, has been a successful major league pitcher since 2013, but he’s only made six starts in the last three years due to injury. He’s never pitched for the Sox, but Cora said Paxton looks “really good” and is hitting 95 mph in his extended spring training outings.

Whitlock is expected to take over Crawford’s place in the rotation. Later, when Bello and Paxton join the team, it is likely Houck and Pivetta will move to the bullpen and Brasier and Ort will be designated for assignment.

If these moves happen, it could mean big things for the Red Sox pitching staff.

The starting rotation would get a huge upgrade and hopefully lead to the team being less reliant on the bullpen. Houck and Pivetta have previously done well as relief pitchers. Their presence in the pen would take some pressure of Winckowski and allow relief appearances to be more evenly distributed.

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The Red Sox offense got off to a hot start this season, but it hasn’t been enough to make up for the pitching woes. If the pitching gets sorted and bats stay alive, we could see the Red Sox outperform expectations. But that is all heavily reliant on the team getting and staying healthy, something they’ve struggled with the last few seasons. The outlook on Whitlock, Bello and Paxton returning is promising for now, but there’s no guarantee it will be enough to turn the Red Sox season around.