It wasn’t too long ago that Garrett Whitlock was at a crossroads in his professional baseball career.
The lanky right-hander — originally selected by the Yankees in the 18th round of the 2017 amateur draft out of University of Alabama — had his 2019 season cut short after undergoing Tommy John surgery that July.
He didn’t know it at the time, but Whitlock had pitched in his last game as a member of the Yankees organization on July 3, 2019 as his recovery from Tommy John coincided with the 2020 minor-league season being cancelled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The deadline for clubs to add Rule 5-eligble players to their 40-man rosters came and went in November, and Whitlock — who was eligible — was not added by New York, meaning he was now eligible for the 2020 Rule 5 Draft.
The following month, the 24-year-old was taken off the board by the Red Sox, breathing new life into his baseball journey as a kid from Snellville, Ga.
By being selected by Boston in the Rule 5 Draft, Whitlock was now tasked with making Boston’s Opening Day roster out of spring training and sticking there for the entirety of the 2021 season or he would otherwise have to be offered back to his former club.
Prior to joining the Red Sox over the winter, Whitlock had primarily served as a starter in his time with the Yankees organization, but given the fact his new team is flush with starting pitching depth, a spot in Boston’s Opening Day rotation was essentially out of the question.
Instead, the 6-foot-5, 190 pound righty was to be made a swingman of sorts who could pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen or make a spot start or two when needed.
He was to still be stretched out over the course of the spring, but not with the intentions of being a fulltime starter once the season begins.
Thus far, handing down that role to Whitlock has netted nothing but positive results at big-league camp in Fort Myers.
Through his first four Grapefruit League appearances, the Georgia native has yielded just one earned run on eight hits, no walks, and 12 strikeouts over nine total innings of work, most recently fanning five Rays hitters over three scoreless, no-hit frames at JetBlue Park on Friday afternoon.
“What Garrett did today, that was impressive,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “But he’s been doing that the whole spring. It’s a good fastball. He’s able to elevate with it late in counts, and it was a great day for him.”
For someone who had not pitched in a competitive environment in nearly two years, the way in which Whitlock has gone about his business on and off the mound has stood out to Cora.
“He was hungry to compete,” said the Sox skipper. “He hasn’t been able to compete in a while. And he’s bought into the concept of the things that we do here, and he’s executing. He’s very talented… He watches every bullpen, he watches the B games, he goes to sim games, and he goes to the dugout when he’s not pitching. That makes you a better baseball player, and in his case it makes him a better pitcher.
“I think it’s that confidence that he has,” Cora added. “First of all, we trust him, right? Because we decided to pick him in the Rule 5 after coming from surgery. Second, with the things that we’re preaching and what he’s doing, he has to feel great. But one thing about him, he’ll show up tomorrow and he’ll ask a question: ‘What can I do better?’ That’s the key of this thing and he’s done that the whole camp.”
Working the sixth through eighth innings of Friday’s contest against the Rays, Whitlock, donning the No. 72, was one of three pitchers who relieved starter Nathan Eovaldi.
A fellow right-hander who knows the ins-and-outs of Tommy John surgery, it’s safe to say Eovaldi has been impressed with what he’s seen from Whitlock so far at camp.
“I’m very excited for him,” Eovaldi said during his in-game media availability. “The first time I saw him throw at spring training, it was early in camp and I was impressed. He’s got a great changeup, he’s got great command, he’s quiet, he’s very quiet and determined to be a part of this team, and he’s going about his business the right way.
“So I’m not surprised with what he’s been able to do out there on the field just because of the way he’s handling himself in and around the clubhouse and out there in the bullpen,” the fireballer added. “He’s kind of our secret weapon right there, so he’s looking great.”
Whitlock himself is not taking anything for granted this spring. He explained on Friday how undergoing Tommy John surgery changed his perspective on multiple facets of his life — including his faith — and how he is just overjoyed to be playing baseball for a living.
“When you have an operation like Tommy John, it’s never given that you’re going to play again,” he said. “I promised to myself that if I was going to get a second chance and I was going to be back out on the field, I would never take a day for granted again. Because every little kid’s dream is to play professional baseball, and I don’t care if it’s in the [Gulf Coast League] level or the major-league level, I get to play a kid’s game for a living. It’s so much fun.”
Given how he has performed this spring, Whitlock, as previously mentioned, is a sure bet to make the Sox’ Opening Day roster as a swingman/hybrid-type reliever who can also start when necessary.
Regardless of what role he undertakes beginning April 1, though, Whitlock will just be going out there to do his job, or in other words, get outs. That is something that was drilled into him during his time at UAB.
“My college coach told me the best pitching advice I’ve ever had,” he recalled. “And that was: ‘When they hand you the ball to go get outs, you go get outs until they come take the ball away from you.’ And so whatever role that is, that’s always going to be my mindset.”
(Picture of Garrett Whitlock: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)