The Boston Red Sox starting rotation is more battered and bruised than an NFL secondary, and the latest injury is the most frustrating of them all.
Chaim Bloom built a lot of starting pitching depth leading into this season specifically to prevent this kind of issue. Chris Sale, James Paxton, Garrett Whitlock, Tanner Houck, Kutter Crawford, Nick Pivetta, Josh Winckowski, Brayan Bello, and Corey Kluber were all on the 40-man roster to start the season. Each of them had legitimate MLB experience that made them solid options to man the rotation, be it by design or in reserve to combat injuries. When you factor in Chris Murphy, Brandon Walter, and Bryan Mata, who began the season in Worcester alongside Winckowski, the front office felt that they had 12 decent options that could realistically toe the slab for the Red Sox in 2023.
Yet here we are, three weeks before the All-Star break, and the Red Sox find themselves desperately seeking arms.
The decrepit Sale hurt his pitching arm just as he regained his peak form, and it is uncertain if he will pitch again this season. Pivetta stunk his way into a relief role. Kluber did the same before falling victim to the type of injury (shoulder inflammation) that usually results in an early end to a pitcher’s season. Winckowski established himself as a crucial reliever whose shift into the rotation would further shorten a bullpen that is already missing Joely Rodriguez, Richard Bleier, and John Schrieber. Murphy, Walter, and Mata were all abysmal as starters in Worcester.
And then there were five.
Even after all that lost depth, I was very much behind a rotation of Paxton, Bello, Whitlock, Houck, and Crawford. Paxton has undergone a career resurgence very similar to what Sale experienced until mid-June. Bello, Whitlock, and Houck have all lived up to their potential so far this year, and I’ve been high on Crawford since early 2022. Even with all the injuries this season, I feel very positive about the next generation of Red Sox starting pitchers.
On top of that, they delivered. The Red Sox have had one of the best rotations in baseball from mid-May until now, not just surviving all the attrition, but thriving.
However, as has been the case for the past 15 months, it’s always good news/bad news with this team.
Right in the middle of a 15-5 Fenway drubbing of the New York Yankees, backup catcher Kyle Higashioka, the longest tenured member of this uninspired version of the Bronx Bombers, pulverized Tanner Houck’s face with a line drive. Houck was cut under his eye, but he walked off on his own power and seemed to be fine. Then we found out he had a fractured bone in his face that required surgery. Just like that, one of Boston’s most promising arms was ripped out of the equation, with no timetable set for his return.
Now down eight starting pitchers, the rotation continued to perform well. Save for a spot start in Cleveland from Matt Dermody and a bullpen game last week in Minnesota, Boston’s hurlers have kept the Red Sox in every game they’ve played in June. That includes this past weekend’s series in Chicago, where the Red Sox lost two of three despite only yielding ten total runs.
Saturday’s 5-4 loss was one of the most frustrating games of the season for me, and it has nothing to do with pulling off a dramatic two-out, ninth-inning comeback only to lose in the bottom of the ninth to yet another dramatic two-out, ninth-inning rally.
My problem with Saturday’s game was the handling of James Paxton.
Paxton departed after the fourth inning of a 1-1 ballgame with a sore knee. Considering the direction of the 2023 Red Sox, it may not surprise most fans that the team took a cautious approach with Paxton, a 34-year-old veteran with a long injury history that has been nails this year. If the Red Sox are going to make any kind of run at the playoffs, they will need Paxton healthy through the duration, right?
It aggravates me beyond belief that the Red Sox took James Paxton out after the fourth inning on Saturday.
Paxton had been solid in the four innings he pitched, giving up one earned run on two hits with three strikeouts and no walks. If he could have gutted out two more scoreless innings, the Red Sox would have been in a good position to win the game. Instead, he came out after four innings for precautionary reasons.
After the game, he said he felt a little discomfort in his right knee, but overall was fine and plans to make his next scheduled start. In fact, he said he began feeling the soreness in his knee during his previous start in Minnesota, where he pitched 6.1 strong innings for the win.
So my question is this:
If Paxton felt fine overall, pitched through the same knee discomfort during his last outing, and is now scheduled to make his next start … why in the name of sweet baby Jesus was he taken out after four innings on Saturday?!
The Red Sox, who are last in the AL East and currently three games out of the second wild card spot, were 40-37 at the time that Paxton was removed from that game. They were playing the Chicago White Sox, a 32-45 team that is essentially playing out the string of a failed season. Having won Friday night’s game, Boston simply needed to win on Saturday in order to win the series and secure a winning road trip.
Josh Winckowski took over for Paxton in the fifth. Pitchers get as much time to warm up as they want when entering the game due to an injury, but it certainly takes a reliever out of his routine to come in under those circumstances. Winckowski promptly gave up three solo home runs in two innings. The Red Sox eventually lost, 5-4.
Had Paxton remained in the game with a sore knee — a sore knee that he had successfully pitched through in his last start — would those three runs have scored? Would James Paxton have shut Chicago down for two more innings to set up a Red Sox victory?
Know Your Role
This is not the time to be playing for September. The Red Sox need to win every series they can possibly win right now. Eight of the twelve potential starting pitchers that were on the depth chart at the beginning of the season are, for one reason or another, no longer viable options. The time has come for virtually everybody to suck it up and grind out every single game.
I say virtually everybody because, of course, there are exceptions. Three of them, to be exact.
If Brayan Bello, Tanner Houck, or Garrett Whitlock feel some slight discomfort on the mound, I am fine with taking them out of the game. I’m even fine with any of those three missing a start or two if they feel some mild discomfort. Those are talented young pitchers with a ton of potential who are in the Red Sox’ long-term future plans. Everyone knows this team is not in “win now” mode. They are not about to risk the health of any young arms that are under team control for the next several years in the name of winning a couple extra games in 2023.
But what does any of that have to do with James Paxton?
James Paxton is not young, he does not have a ton of potential, and he is not in the Red Sox’ long-term future plans. Chaim Bloom took a flyer on him last year (a $20 million flyer), in hopes that he may be able to recover from his never-ending series of injuries and give the rotation a boost at the end of 2022. He never pitched last year, so with no other suitors, he exercised his $4 million player option to stay with Boston in 2023. He will be a free agent after this season.
Has he been stellar this year? Yes. Was I expecting anything close to the level of performance he has given the Red Sox this season? Not a chance. Do I want to preserve his health for as long as possible so he can maximize his time in the big leagues?
Paxton has pitched a grand total of 64 innings since the start of 2020. A cavalcade of injuries to his back, elbow, hamstring, and even his butt cheek had turned him into a professional man of leisure until this season, earning him exorbitant sums of money for little more than working out and saying stuff like, “I’m feeling good, just taking it one day at a time.”
Who in their right mind actually thinks James Paxton has a prayer of pitching late into this season? You can protect him as much as you want, pulling him out of the game whenever mild knee pain or a Charlie horse begins to plague him. It ain’t gonna save him.
It starts with the knee this week, but before long it will be compounded with a hip, back, elbow, or shoulder issue that will require him to miss a couple starts. Then he’ll go to Worcester for a rehab assignment, at which point his hammy or calf will start barking. Before you know it, he’ll be two MRIs deep and shut down for the season.
“Late Summer James Paxton” is not a thing. There is no “Late Summer James Paxton.” I’ll admit it’s been fun, but Paxton’s 2023 is a sprint, not a marathon. He was on borrowed time the moment he took the mound in Fenway Park on May 12th. James Paxton is not a guy you remove from a game in late June because you want to nip a potential injury in the bud.
James Paxton is a flash in the pan who you ride until the wheels fall off.
There is No Tomorrow
He’s been great this season. Therefore, the best course of action is to continue sending him out to the mound every five days and have him pitch as many innings as possible right now. Paxton is the blinking star in Super Mario Bros. Once you have it, you run as fast as you can and get as far as you can until it finally wears off. You need to ride James Paxton into the ground in 2023. Pump him for every 96 mph fastball you can get out of him now before his star fades, which could happen at any moment.
Why should the Red Sox be cautious with him?
Because they want to preserve his health and re-sign him at the end of the season? Because that would be such a wise investment, right?
Because they want to trade him at the deadline? Pitching through slight knee discomfort that doesn’t negatively affect his performance will only raise his market value. And even if he is lights out until August, how much can you possibly get for him in a trade? The word has been out on him since 2021. Nobody is going to give up any assets of significant value for a guy who has spent exponentially more time on the treadmill than he has on the rubber over the past three years.
You know what really could have upped his market value? Pitching six strong innings on Saturday, then in the post game media scrum saying something like: “My knee felt a bit sore midway through the game, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. I’m a starting pitcher in the big leagues. That job is always gonna come with a little discomfort.”
Taking James Paxton out for precautionary reasons was the wrong move, and it may have cost the Red Sox a much-needed win. Removing him is a move you have to blame on Alex Cora, first and foremost. However, I place a significant amount of the blame on Paxton himself.
There’s only one way anyone could have known about Paxton’s sore knee. He mentioned it to somebody.
Was it a matter of self preservation? Was he afraid to go back out to the mound for the fifth inning because he’s a free agent at the end of the year and he doesn’t want to hinder his value?
Why should that be the Boston Red Sox’ problem?
The Red Sox paid this man $20 million to do literally nothing on the field last season, and they are paying him another $4 million this year. He owes them every bit of gas he has in the tank while his motor is still operating. If this knee issue was minor enough for him to pitch through it in his last game … if he will not even miss his next start because of it … he should have kept his mouth shut about about it and gutted out every last pitch.
The Red Sox have lost practically two rotations worth of starters due to injury, ineffectiveness, or role change. With Chris Sale on the shelf, perhaps forever, James Paxton should have taken it upon himself to do what Chris Sale would have done in his situation.
“Knee? What knee? Gimme the damn ball.”
So, the knee soreness was bad enough for him to leave a winnable game, yet Paxton will take the mound once again on Friday. Will he pitch well? Will he leave the game early yet again with slight knee discomfort? Will the knee issue worsen before then and make him a late scratch?
None of us can say for sure. One thing we can say for sure is that James Paxton is not the kind of guy who pitches a lot of innings. He may pitch a few more games this season. He may even pitch well in a few more games this season. But it’s only a matter of time — a short amount of time — before he is added to the stack of bodies in the Red Sox trainer’s room that get treatment for a half hour and then head home for the day.
Remember when they used to call this guy “Big Maple?” You can’t carry a nickname like that and come out of an important game with slight knee soreness. “Big Maple” isn’t a guy that comes out of a game for precautionary reasons. “Big Maple” is a guy who doesn’t know what precautionary means, and if you try to take the ball out of his hand, you’ll pull back a bloody stump.
Unfortunately, James Paxton is far more of a Clay Buchholz than he is a Randy Johnson. And the Red Sox are apparently too nice to run this dying racehorse into the ground.
At least Paxton is okay. For now. As are Bello, Whitlock, and Crawford. Hopefully Houck will return this year. Maybe Chris Sale will too.
But how far back will the Red Sox be in the standings by the time that happens? And will James Paxton even still be pitching by that time, even with all the coddles and snuggles Chaim Bloom and Alex Cora seem all too willing to give him?
The Boston Red Sox are in last place. The same place where all the other nice guys finish.