Boston Red Sox: Using Garrett Whitlock out of the bullpen the right move

Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Garrett Whitlock (72) Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Garrett Whitlock (72) Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports /

The Boston Red Sox regular season campaign is set to kick off later this week. Kind of weird to think about considering the sport was in the middle of a lockout that wiped out most of the offseason at this time a month ago, but here we are.

The Sox will play their final Spring Training game tomorrow before shipping off to New York to take on the dreaded Yankees to start the season on Thursday. It will be a battle right out of the gate in a loaded AL East division, and Boston would do well to not get swept in their first series like they did last year against the Baltimore Orioles.

The Red Sox are in a good spot to at least compete for a playoff spot despite being in a crowded division. Their quiet offseason has left some holes on their roster though, and those holes could end up being what comes back and hurts the team. Adding a top tier player like Trevor Story is exciting, but it also ignores the fact that this roster is more or less the same as last year’s.

One area that was left unaddressed all offseason long was the bullpen. It was clear that a closer was needed after Matt Barnes fell apart last season, and so far in Spring Training the pen has not looked good. Making matters worse, Alex Cora decided he wanted to try out star reliever Garrett Whitlock as a starter in Spring Training. Thankfully, Cora announced Whitlock will start the season in the bullpen, and that’s where he should stay for the entire season.

The Boston Red Sox are going to need Garrett Whitlock in the bullpen

The 2021 Boston Red Sox squad had a fairly inconsistent bullpen. Barnes was solid early on before collapsing down the stretch, which meant guys like Whitlock, Adam Ottavino, Hansel Robles, and Ryan Brasier were called on to get outs late in games. No one was really the closer, but it worked, so nobody really questioned it.

Banking on something similar to happen this season seems like wishful thinking. Barnes proved he cannot be trusted to just be the closer right out of the gate again, and he’s been iffy in Spring Training. Brasier has been even worse, Ottavino is gone, and Robles only recently showed up to camp on a minor league deal.

Offseason additions Jake Diekman and Matt Strahm figure to help, but adding just two guys isn’t going to solve this team’s problems. The pen hasn’t looked good in Spring Training, and the thought of taking their best guy and putting him in the starting rotation didn’t seem like a good idea. Cora sticking with Whitlock in the pen for now is a good sign, but this can’t just be a temportary solution.

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In just his rookie season, Whitlock was electric last year. He had an 8-4 record with a 1.96 ERA and 84 strikeouts. He was by far Boston’s best bullpen arm, and I stand by my belief that he saved their season in Game 4 of the ALDS against the Tampa Bay Rays with a clutch outing.

And frankly, Whitlock is going to need to be just as good this season if the bullpen stays in the same shape it’s in now. Many of the guys currently in it have been inconsistent throughout their careers, and while relief pitchers can often go on stretches of prolonged dominance, they can just as easily get smacked all over the field too.

While I am not outright saying Whitlock needs to be appointed the team’s closer (although I think he should be), keeping him the bullpen is going to be important for the Boston Red Sox this season. Yes, their rotation is a bit of a mess right now, but they actually reinforced their starting rotation more than the bullpen with the signings of Michael Wacha, Rich Hill, and maybe James Paxton if he ends up returning from Tommy John surgery this season.

Boston is in a better spot to account for a loss to someone in their starting rotation, which already happened with Chris Sale and his rib injury. Wacha and Hill can slide into the final two spots for the time being while Sale rehabs, with Nathan Eovaldi, Nick Pivetta, and Tanner Houck leading the way. There’s no need for Whitlock to join the starting rotation; the bullpen is where help is truly needed.

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Maybe it’s because of guys like Daniel Bard, but I am never really in favor of trying to convert a reliever into a starter just for the sake of doing so, and that seemed to be the case with Whitlock. Yes, he has arm stamina that allows him to go multiple innings, but he clearly excelled in his role last season, so why change anything?

Whitlock is going to be needed in the bullpen as the ace in Cora’s pocket that he can pull out whenever he needs. Converting him to a starter now is not the right move, and if Cora tries to get pretty with Whitlock midway through the season, there’s a chance it could backfire. And really, there’s no reason for Cora or the Boston Red Sox to try to make Whitlock a starter, so just leave him in the bullpen.