The Red Sox optioning rookie right-hander Tanner Houck to the alternate training site in Worcester on Wednesday did not come as much of a surprise.
With Eduardo Rodriguez set to make his season debut against the Orioles on Thursday, the Sox needed to open up a roster spot in order to activate the left-hander from the injured list.
Considering the fact that Houck has minor-league options and Boston’s starting rotation already consists of Nathan Eovaldi, Garrett Richards, Nick Pivetta, and Martin Perez, optioning the young righty seemed like the most logical step to take so that Rodriguez could be slotted back into the rotation.
Since being called up by the Red Sox for the first time last September, Houck has posted a 1.17 ERA and 2.51 FIP over five outings (four starts) and 23 innings pitched. That includes his first start of the 2021 season against the Orioles over the weekend in which he gave up three runs (two earned) over five innings as well as a relief appearance in the 11th inning of Tuesday’s contest against the Rays in which he allowed one unearned run in one inning of work.
To say the 24-year-old out of Collinsville, Ill. has gotten his big-league career off to an impressive start would be an understatement, but the Sox still feel as though there are some things he can improve upon.
“Tanner pitched great, both in his start and his appearance out of the bullpen,” chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom told The Boston Herald’s Jason Mastrodonato on Wednesday. “Simply put, this is about depth. We’re fortunate to have five guys we feel are good and capable major league starters. Tanner, we feel, is a sixth. We want to keep them all starting and keep them all pitching.”
Bloom acknowledged that while Boston’s starting rotation is set for the time being, injuries are inevitable and having Houck available to come up from Worcester could prove to be extremely valuable.
While Houck will be limited to just throwing bullpen sessions and in simulated games at Polar Park for the time being before the minor-league season begins next month, one aspect of his game the Sox would like to see the former first-round pick build on is continuing to develop a third pitch.
That third pitch, a splitter, is one that is still relatively new to the 6-foot-5, 218 pound hurler. Of the 100 pitches the righty has thrown so far this season, only three have been splitters.
“I think Tanner Houck is a capable major league starting pitcher right now, but that doesn’t mean he’s a finished product,” Bloom told Mastrodonato. “We know his ceiling could be even higher if he gets really comfortable with a third pitch. We know he can get lefties out, executing the fastball and slider the way he has in his big league starts, but if he can get more comfortable with that splitter, he’ll be even better. While he’s in Worcester, it’ll be easier to work on that than it would be while he’s pitching in a close game at the big league level.”
To put it simply, Houck is still “a work in progress” in the Red Sox’ eyes.. The hope is that he will be able to make more developmental strides while at the alternate site before being called upon once again.
“Keep working on his craft, on his pitches,” Red Sox manager Alex said in regards to what Houck can do to improve in Worcester. “Keep throwing strikes. Keep developing his secondary pitches. And just be ready. That’s all he needs to do. Where we’re at right now, we knew that this was going to happen. You look at the guys that have pitched for us, they’ve done an amazing job. And the difference between this team and last year — and even 2019 — we’re a lot deeper.
“He was a professional when we talked to him,” Cora continued. “He understands. Whenever we need him, he’ll be here and he’ll perform.”
(Picture of Tanner Houck: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)