Red Sox set young rotation with Garrett Whitlock and Tanner Houck taking final spots

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Six years ago, in his first season as Boston Red Sox manager, Alex Cora left spring training with Chris Sale, David Price and Rick Porcello at the top of his rotation. Those three had two Cy Young Awards, 11 All-Star selections and more than 700 major-league starts to their names. They went on to make 90 starts and throw more than 525 innings as the Red Sox bullied their way to 108 wins and a World Series championship.

It’s going to be a little more complicated this time around.

Now in his sixth and potentially final season as Red Sox manager, Cora on Friday announced a season-opening rotation that has only one starter, Nick Pivetta, who’s thrown as many as 160 innings in a major-league season or made more than 41 career big-league starts.

“This is the first time somebody has mentioned innings about them,” Cora said. “We see them as mature kids that have gone through the process. They’re stronger compared to last year. And at one point, you have to stretch them out.”

Earlier in the week, Cora announced that second-year starter Brayan Bello would pitch Opening Day, followed by Pivetta in Game 2. The rest of the rotation will be Kutter Crawford, Garrett Whitlock and Tanner Houck — in that order — with fifth-starter candidate Cooper Criswell optioned to Triple-A to serve as depth.

It’s a rotation with upside — one rival executive said this week that he thought the top three starters in particular had a chance to be better than some people think — but it’s light on certainty, especially with free-agent addition Lucas Giolito lost to elbow surgery.

Bello is one of the more promising young pitchers in the game, but Pivetta lost his rotation job last season before earning it back with a tremendous second half. Crawford’s stock soared last season as he became a surprising source of stability after opening the year in more of a swingman role. Houck (a 2017 first-round pick) and Whitlock (a Rule 5 pick turned dominant multi-inning reliever) have long battled the perception that their long-term future is in the bullpen. Whitlock in particular has been far better as a reliever (2.65 ERA) than as a starter (4.76 ERA), though his strength, command and pitch mix suggest a starter’s upside if he can stay healthy.

“People are going to talk about, is he a reliever? Is he a starter?” Cora said. “You know what, he’s a starter. Let’s put that to rest. If he struggles, then we’ll pivot, but we see him as a starter, and I’ve been saying (that) all along. … Over 162 (games), we need these guys to go five, six innings every turn — regardless of the results — for this to happen.”

Whether he intended to acknowledge this or not, that “regardless of the results” line seemed to be an acknowledgment that the Red Sox lack the depth to easily fill in for injured or exhausted starters. Criswell and Brandon Walter are the only 40-man pitchers currently ticketed for the Triple-A rotation, and Josh Winckowski — who was being stretched out early in camp — has moved back into the bullpen, on which the Red Sox might have to lean heavily if the starters struggle to go more than five innings game after game. That was a problem last year.

Houck and Whitlock, though, were also coming back from hip and back surgeries last season. Both have looked good this spring, as have Crawford and Criswell, and Whitlock in particular is noticeably stronger after a regular offseason of workouts without rehab.

“I think that’s what’s given me the confidence going forward,” Whitlock said. “I’ve had a healthy offseason. I’m feeling good, and so it’s just knowing that I put the work in in the offseason to make sure that I give myself the best opportunity to just stay healthy moving forward.”

The only other Red Sox roster decision on Friday was optioning reliever Zack Kelly to Triple A, which came close to resolving the bullpen, at least for now.

Kenley Jansen and Chris Martin felt fine the day after their spring training debuts on Thursday night and are expected to pitch twice more before Opening Day, which could be enough time for both to break camp with the team. Winckowski and left-hander Brennan Bernardino also seem assured of roster spots, and Rule 5 pick Justin Slaten has to either make the team or be offered back to the Texas Rangers (he has yet to allow an earned run this spring). New relievers Greg Weissert and Isaiah Campbell could take two more spots, and either Joely Rodríguez or Lucas Luetge — both non-roster players — could make the team as a second lefty, something Cora wants given his all-right-handed rotation.

“Joely, we know who he is,” Cora said, noting Rodríguez pitched for the Red Sox last season. “The swing-and-miss stuff is good. The changeup against righties is always a weapon. The challenge is to get him in the zone, and he did a good job in the last (outing). Lucas, he’s been trending in the right direction. The breaking ball has been good, especially against righties, which is very important.”

The Red Sox could, however, end up adding a bullpen option or two as players opt out or get cut from other camps in the final days of spring training. They could also find a right-handed bench bat that way. Right now, either Bobby Dalbec or C.J. Cron could fill that spot, but Garrett Cooper — in Cubs camp on a minor-league deal — has the right to opt out if he doesn’t make the team. The Red Sox were interested in Cooper previously this offseason.

Cora still won’t commit to Ceddanne Rafaela making the team as the primary center fielder, but the team seems to be leaning in that direction. He would be just one more young player on the youngest roster Cora’s ever managed.

“It’s actually fun, to be honest with you,” Cora said. “We can mold this team however we want. There’s a brand that we’re looking for. We’ll make sure that we play that way. … I think these guys are talented. They are. Now we have to go out there and prove it, and I believe they will.”

(Photo of Garrett Whitlock: Kim Klement Neitzel / USA Today)

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