Tomase: Whitlock is a great reliever, but it's time to keep him in the rotation


Garrett Whitlock plays a vitally important role in the Red Sox bullpen, and I hope he never throws another pitch in relief ever again.

The story of Saturday night ostensibly was being no-hit for nine innings by the Rays, taking a lead in the 10th, and then getting walked off by Kevin Kiermaier after a Trevor Story error.

That loss inflicted some short-term pain, but the long view is infinitely more reassuring, because the real story was what Whitlock did in his first big-league start.

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Anyone wondering how his dominating arsenal would translate from the middle of games to the beginning of them now has their answer. Whitlock chewed through the Rays like a table saw, striking out seven in four shutout innings. He allowed one hit and two walks and retired the first nine batters he faced.

He'll probably get another start on Thursday in Toronto, and here's hoping that Tanner Houck just Wally Pipped himself right out of the rotation, because for all of Whitlock's value as a multi-inning, high-leverage reliever, let's not lose the thread here. Even as a reevaluation of roles puts more emphasis on relievers, there's a reason starters still command some of the biggest contracts in the game.

They throw two or three times as many innings as the best relievers, and call me old-fashioned, but I want my best pitchers throwing the most innings. I suspect the Red Sox feel the same way, which is why they signed Whitlock to a four-year, $18.75 million extension. While he's certainly worth that money as a hybrid long man/closer, he's an insane bargain for that amount in the rotation.

The Red Sox know this, and so does Whitlock. His extension includes escalators based in part on innings pitched that could take the total value of the deal to six years and $44.5 million. Neither side is negotiating based on innings pitched if they believe Whitlock will remain a reliever.

This is not a revelation. However, Whitlock transitioning permanently to the rotation right now would qualify as a surprise. He'll have that chance if he pitches well again in Toronto in place of Houck, who is not vaccinated and thus will not be able to accompany the team over the border.

A straight swap of the two would provide manager Alex Cora with certainty vis a vis future trips to Canada (the Red Sox return in June), would still give him a dynamic multi-inning arm for the bullpen (a role that may better suit Houck anyway), and most importantly, put Whitlock where he belongs in the rotation. He'd immediately become the team's No. 2 starter, and it's not crazy, given his stuff, to picture him starting Game 1 of a playoff series.

That's a lot of conclusions to draw from four innings, yes, but Whitlock is that good.

"You come to expect that from him," bench coach Will Venable told reporters in Florida, including Chris Smith of Mass Live. "Any situation you put him in, he is who he is. He's calm and collected. He was the same today, just in a different role. But same Garrett."

Whitlock hadn't started a game since his minor-league days in 2019 with the Yankees, before Tommy John surgery made him expendable in the Rule 5 draft. All he has done through his first 51 appearances with the Red Sox is post a 1.76 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 87 innings.

The first 50 of those appearances came in relief. Here's hoping the rest of them are starts.

"I always say they make those decisions," Whitlock told reporters, including Ian Browne of "They get paid for those decisions. That's not my job to do. I'll go out there and throw until they come and take the ball away from me."

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