Boston Red Sox rotation picture becomes clearer with Michael Wacha as No. 4 starter; Rich Hill and Garrett Whitlock in the mix for fifth place

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Gradually, the picture of the Red Sox rotation is taking shape as Opening Day approaches.

Heading into the week, we already knew that Nathan Eovaldi will be Boston’s opening day starter, Nick Pivetta will pitch the second game of the year and Tanner Houck will “most likely” be part of the starting rotation. . On Tuesday morning, after being evasive a day earlier, manager Alex Cora said Michael Wacha would become the No. 4 starter to start the season. That leaves two pitchers – Garrett Whitlock and Rich Hill – for the fifth and final spot. Hill and Whitlock pitched two innings apiece in Boston’s win over the Rays on Tuesday and are squarely in the game for a starting role.

So Eovaldi will kick off April 7 in New York with Pivetta and Houck kicking off the weekend games against the Yankees after a day off. Wacha will begin the series opener in Detroit on April 11. Hill or Whitlock will pitch the next day, setting up a showdown between Eovaldi and former Red Sox left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez in the final game against the Tigers on April 13.

“They can’t wait to be there,” Cora joked.

With Chris Sale out for at least a few weeks with a stress fracture in his right rib cage, Boston’s throwing depth will be tested early in the season. Wacha, who worked about four hits to record three scoreless innings in his spring debut Monday, likely would have fought for a berth had Sale been healthy, but will instead open the year in the rotation. Given the uniqueness of a shortened spring training and the inherent risk of injury, the Red Sox are writing their rotation plans in pencil. For now, the top four starters will each pitch four innings on their next rotation. Each starter only has three starts left before the start of the season.

“You want me to tell you about the first 10 days and that’s impossible,” Cora said. We have a plan with some of them and we have to see how it goes here.

In Hill and Whitlock, the Red Sox have two very different pitchers in a similar boat. Hill, 42, is a proven big-league starter who has recorded 31 starts and 158 ⅔ innings in 2021. Whitlock, 25, was dominant as a rookie reliever and has starting experience in the minors but n ever started a major league game. Cora thinks both pitchers are capable of playing multiple roles for the Red Sox in 2022; stretching them will allow Boston to have options and contingency plans.

“We’ll stretch and see how we use them,” Cora said. “I think the most important thing is to get them through spring training and make decisions when we have to. We have the day off right now (April 8) so maybe they can come out of the bullpen on day one or even Saturday when Nick pitches in. Then we’ll see how that lines up in Detroit.

Reading between the lines, the safest bet is for Hill to stay in the rotation while Whitlock plays a multi-inning bullpen role. Cora also hasn’t ruled out using him as a prep or closer. Whitlock, for his part, said he would accept any role in the majors, joking that he would even be a janitor if the team asked him to. The Red Sox believe in Whitlock’s ability and ultimately want him to join their rotation, but they know he’s not a sure bet to go through seamlessly initially.

“I don’t think you know if he’s going to be a good starter or not,” Cora told reporters. “Everyone says he should be a starter. How do we know that? One thing we know is that he played a lot of rounds and he was really good last year. Yeah, he’s built like a starter and he’s done it before, but it’s uncharted waters. He was injured a few years ago. We have to be smart.

If 2021 is any indication, the roles the Red Sox choose for their pitchers at the start of the season will not be the roles they find themselves in when it ends. Whitlock started out as a cleanup guy, became a multi-inning deck shooter, and then a high-leverage endgame option by the end of the year. Houck has done everything from starting games to closing them. Martín Pérez and Garrett Richards each made 22 starts before taking on back-up roles down the stretch. If the Red Sox appreciate anything, it’s flexibility, and the eventual returns of Sale and James Paxton will give the team a lot of that.

“It’s not a 100-meter race. It’s over 162,” Cora said. “That’s what we’re trying to accomplish. You have to take your time and do things right. »

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