If a pitcher in the Red Sox’s system is going to pitch at the MLB level for the first time in 2022, it will likely be one of these folks.
No matter how healthy a team’s pitching staff is, new faces will always appear in the rotation or in the bullpen during any MLB season. For the Boston Red Sox, we have a decent idea of some of the pitchers who could get their first taste of big-league action in 2022 and a few others who have a decent shot. Let’s take a look at the top candidates.
On the 40-Man Roster
Brayan Bello, RHP
Bello is arguably the top pitching prospect in the Red Sox’s entire system, depending on whom you ask. SoxProspects is one of the outlets that has him at such a standing, ranking him sixth overall. The 22-year-old right-handed starter was signed as an international free agent in 2017 and has quickly moved up the ladder, finishing last season in Double-A with the Portland Sea Dogs after starting the year in High-A. He fared better at the lower level, as you might expect, producing a 2.27 ERA and 2.82 FIP across six starts (31 2/3 innings).
In Double-A, his ERA ballooned to 4.66, but his peripheral numbers held strong, as he had a 31.1 percent strikeout rate, an 8.6 percent walk rate and a 3.12 FIP. With all the options the Red Sox have for the rotation to start the season, it’s unlikely Bello, who participated in the 2021 All-Star Futures Game, will get an early chance at starting, but he could be called on to make some starts if injuries pile up. A shot from the bullpen seems more plausible, but Bello has made just one relief appearance in the minors, so the Red Sox might opt to hold off on changing his role.
Jay Groome, LHP
The wait for Groome may finally be coming to an end. A first-round pick in 2016, the 23-year-old southpaw has not had the easiest path to the big leagues, with injuries playing a role in hampering his progress, but he might be knocking on the door in 2022. Groome pitched in 21 games across Double-A and High-A last season (all starts), with the bulk of his work coming at the lower level. Despite an impressive strikeout rate (30.8 percent), something Groome has always had, he was hit pretty hard in High-A, surrendering a 5.29 ERA, but he flashed dominance after being promoted, tossing 15 2/3 innings with a 2.30 ERA and 1.15 FIP with Portland. SoxProspects doesn’t expect Groome to reach the majors until 2023, but with his pedigree, his spot on the 40-man roster and the promise he showed in Portland in 2021, there’s a chance he moves that date up.
Bryan Mata, RHP
Mata, who signed with the Red Sox as an international free agent in 2016, is another contender for the team’s top pitching prospect title, with SoxProspects ranking him 10th overall and FanGraphs ranking him fifth (and the best pitcher in the system). A right-hander starter, the 22-year-old has a strong fastball and changeup, but he didn’t pitch at all in 2021 because of an injury that required Tommy John surgery. Due to the injury and the cancelation of the minor league season in 2020, Mata has not pitched at the professional level in nearly two years, and the last time he was on the mound he had a 5.03 ERA across 11 starts (53 2/3 innings) in Portland. However, he was sporting a sparkling 1.75 ERA (3.07 FIP) through 10 starts (51 1/3 innings) in High-A before being promoted in 2019. My guess is the Red Sox will be slow in getting Mata back up to speed, but they clearly aren’t ruling him out completely as a potential contributor (however limited) since he’s on the 40-man roster.
Josh Winckowski, RHP
Unlike the first three pitchers we’ve discussed, Winckowski did not start his professional journey with the Red Sox. Originally drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2016, he was a part of the Andrew Benintendi trade last winter. In his first season pitching within the Red Sox’s system, the 23-year-old right-hander moved from Double-A to Triple-A for a quick two-start cup of coffee. He looked solid at the Triple-A level (2.25 ERA, 3.28 FIP, 28.9 percent strikeout rate in 12 innings), but that belies less stellar work over a larger (and more meaningful sample size) in Double-A (4.14 ERA, 4.02 FIP, 20.5 percent strikeout rate in 100 innings). Although his strikeout stuff isn’t as impressive as others, he has been a bit better at limiting walks, as evidenced by his seven percent walk rate in Double-A in 2021. Due to the fact that he’s already pitched in Triple-A and has a bit more proven durability, he may be the best bet to make his debut in 2022 from this group.
Thaddeus Ward, RHP
Like Mata, Ward is coming off a season cut short by Tommy John surgery, but the soon-to-be 25-year-old right-hander put together some impressive work at the lower levels before going under the knife. In 2019, just his second season in professional baseball after being drafted in the fifth round in 2018, Ward had a 1.99 ERA (2.85 FIP) in 72 1/3 innings in Single-A, and he followed that up with a strong 2.33 ERA (3.86 FIP) in 54 innings in High-A later in the year. While his strikeout stuff is unquestionable, Ward has had a tendency to miss the plate, as evidence by an inflated 14.1 percent walk rate at High-A in 2019. In 2021, prior to his surgery, he only managed eight innings and didn’t seem to clear up his control (12.8 percent walk rate), but what can you really tell from that many innings? Ward is another pitcher the Red Sox likely won’t (and shouldn’t) rush, but you never know.
Zack Kelly, RHP
Unlike others on this list, Kelly doesn’t have much prospect pedigree, but he may have a better shot at making his debut than everyone else because he’s primarily been used as a reliever across his pro career. Signed as a free agent prior to last season, the 26-year-old right-hander has made it this far despite being undrafted. He looked very good as a reliever within the Sox’s system in 2021, spending time in Double-And Triple-A and producing sub-3.00 ERAs and strikeout rates of 35 percent or better at both levels. No team ever has enough relievers, so maybe Kelly could get the call to shore up the Red Sox’s ranks.
Durbin Feltman, RHP
A mid-tier prospect in the Red Sox’s system, Feltman was drafted in the same 2018 class as Ward, although in the third round. He has a solid fastball and slider and he looked good in 2021 after a year off. Like Kelly, he has the advantage of being a reliever and one with a decent track record. He pitched 27 1/3 innings in Double-A last season, improving his ERA to 3.29 from 5.26 at the level in 2019. He also threw 24 1/3 innings at Triple-A in 2021, posting a 2.59 ERA and 3.40 FIP in 24 1/3 innings. Maybe he’ll do enough to get an audition for the bullpen during the 2022 season.
Frank German, RHP
German is more of a long shot, especially since he pitched above High-A for the first time in his career last season and managed a 5.12 ERA and 18.9 percent strikeout rate over 84 1/3 innings in Portland. But German is a top 50 prospect in the Red Sox’s system and might break camp with Worcester, so maybe there’s a path to a debut for the 24-year-old right-hander. After all, he came over to the Red Sox in the Adam Ottavino trade and the Red Sox already struck gold with another former reliever prospect from the Yankees just last year.