John Tomase

Whitlock injury robs Red Sox of a potential Big Three atop rotation

The right-hander looked impressively sharp prior to his injury.

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Tanner Houck and Kutter Crawford comprise a formidable duo atop the Red Sox rotation, with All-Star berths guaranteed for both at their current pace.

That makes it easy to forget, but no less disappointing, that they were almost a trio.

Whatever magic pitching coach Andrew Bailey has worked to unlock his two promising starters, it appeared a third young arm would join them.

Garrett Whitlock was every bit as good as both through his first three starts, going 1-0 with a 1.26 ERA. Coming off his first healthy winter in five years, Whitlock arrived to Fort Myers looking the part of a potential horse atop the rotation, his 6-foot-5, 222-pound frame remade into something chiseled and lean.

He then delivered on that promise, overhauling his arsenal to prioritize his changeup, de-emphasize his sinker, and become a true five-pitch pitcher. He even added an offering with a name: a bullet slider, labeled in some corners as the mythical gyroball, which flummoxed left-handed hitters with its hard downward bite.

The Red Sox had believed since his arrival in 2021 as a Rule 5 draftee that Whitlock one day could be an impact starter, but injuries constantly got in the way. This year was supposed to be different.

Instead, after missing time for hip, oblique, and pectoral injuries over the last four years, Whitlock finally got the news every pitcher dreads on Monday: a compromised UCL.

He'll receive a second opinion from Dr. Jeffrey Dugas in Birmingham, Ala., this week, but season-ending surgery looms as a distinct possibility, ending one of the team's most promising seasons practically before it began.

"There's damage in the ligament, so there's a possibility he'll get surgery," manager Alex Cora told reporters in Tampa, including Ian Browne of "He'll fly to see the doctor this week and they'll go from there."

Whitlock has been on the injured list since April 17 with an oblique strain, and as recently as last week seemed on pace to return after throwing 4.2 shutout innings in a rehab start at Triple-A Worcester. He complained of elbow soreness the next day, however, and testing revealed damage to his UCL.

He has already undergone Tommy John surgery once, in 2019 while a Yankees farmhand, and a second procedure would sideline him for the rest of this year and potentially most of next year, too. He could also be a candidate for an internal bracing procedure, which could cut his rehab time in half, but would still cost him the rest of 2024.

It's a huge blow not just to the Red Sox, but to Whitlock, who had never seemed more confident or relaxed in a Red Sox uniform, his joking, fun-loving personality emerging because he finally felt healthy.

Now he faces the potential of another long rehab. The Red Sox have weathered his absence not just because Houck and Crawford have been so exceptional, but because right-hander Cooper Criswell has stepped up in Whitlock's absence.

The Red Sox (2.97) currently trail only the Yankees (2.86) in team ERA, and their pitching has kept them afloat in the American League playoff race. After shutting out the Rays on Monday, the Red Sox are 24-24, just a half game out of the final wild card spot.

Making the postseason would've been easier with an emergent big three in the rotation that included Whitlock, but it looks like his season is over.

"We've been through this path before," Cora told reporters. "I know it sounds harsh, but we've got to turn the page and be ready to go."

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