Early impressions of a 4-3 Red Sox team that feels a lot more like the four than the three at the moment . . .
* Take a bow, scouting department. Right-hander Garrett Whitlock was by no means an obvious rule 5 pick.
The Yankees prospect hadn’t pitched since 2019 thanks to Tommy John surgery, and the pandemic meant the Red Sox had little recent evidence to go on beyond his medicals and some video he had posted on Instagram.
Prior to blowing out his elbow, Whitlock looked like a possible big league starter with a three-pitch mix. The Red Sox bet they could carry him as a reliever in 2021 and then explore starting down the road. After a dominant spring, Whitlock has carried his success into the season.
After throwing two scoreless innings in Thursday’s 7-3 victory over the Orioles, Whitlock is checking all the boxes of someone who will one day be entrusted with a much bigger role. He has struck out eight in 5.1 scoreless innings, walking none. On Thursday, he showed off a filthy changeup to go along with his mid-90s fastball.
“Great kid,” said catcher Christian Vazquez. “He’s got great stuff, heavy fastball, plus changeup. He’s doing good. I think he’s going to help us big-time.”
* On the other end of the spectrum, the Red Sox should be concerned with the two power lefties in their bullpen. Josh Taylor imploded in Sunday’s loss to the Orioles (which sent New England into a panic), while Darwinzon Hernandez has been unable to throw strikes with any consistency.
Taylor has allowed 10 hits and six runs in three innings, while Hernandez has walked four in 2.1 innings while also throwing a wild pitch.
Manager Alex Cora is still sorting out who slots where, but if the two lefties don’t get untracked in front of Matt Barnes, Adam Ottavino, Hirokazu Sawamura, Whitlock, and Matt Andriese, Chaim Bloom will be forced to act.
* J.D. Martinez told anyone who would listen that 2020 was an aberration, but after a mediocre spring, we all held our breaths a little before the opener. Turns out those worries were unwarranted. Martinez owns at least one extra-base hit in all seven games the Red Sox have played, and he is bringing thunder to the middle of the lineup.
“Spring training is always hard,” Martinez said. “I’ve never hit in spring training, ever, I don’t think. The constant new pitcher every time you go out there, you have no idea who you are facing and stuff like that. Just grinding through a lot of things. Seeing what is working, what feels good, what doesn’t feel good and what I’m going to take into the season.”
* With everything that has gone right over the last week, one experiment that has yet to bear fruit is Cora’s decision to hit Kiké Hernández leadoff.
Even after homering in his final at-bat on Thursday, Hernández is only hitting .179 with a .226 on-base percentage. After being signed as the primary second baseman, Hernández has instead taken most of his action in center fielder, where he’s probably the team’s best defender.
“He’s just a little bit jumpy at the plate,” Cora said. “He’s still working the count. He’s getting pitches he should handle. The at-bat before, he was talking about it. He saw the ball well. He was just late on it. And I’m like, well, maybe that’s a good sign because he’s been jumping out.
“He was able to stay on that breaking ball, and when he hits the ball in the air, he has some power. But we need him to keep controlling the strike zone, stay down the middle of the ballpark. If he can do that, he’s going to be OK.”
* This is a team having some fun. Vazquez has taken a couple of laundry cart jaunts across the dugout after home runs, and Verdugo plays with a perpetual smile and constant energy. The failure to mount much of a title defense took a clear toll in 2019 and everything about 2020 was a challenge, but so far the 2021 Red Sox look like they’re enjoying themselves and their rare underdog status.
Maybe it will even last.