Red Sox Notes: Paxton, Wacha, Houck, Sale

Red Sox lefty James Paxton, who underwent Tommy John surgery last year, seems to finally be healthy enough to start ramping things up. Chris Cotillo of MassLive reports that the southpaw recently faced lived hitters and is expected to throw in a simulated game this Friday. The next step after that will be for him to start a rehab assignment, which would be followed by a return to the big league club.

“He’s in such a good spot now that it’s not about the arm,” manager Alex Cora said about Paxton. “It’s about the pitch mix, the breaking ball, all that. When those guys start talking about that, you know they’re over the hump.”

Paxton’s form down the stretch will be very significant both for him and the club, regardless of where they are in the standings. Boston signed him to a unique contract over the offseason, knowing that he was rehabbing from TJS and unlikely to contribute over a full season. Paxton is making a $6MM salary this year and then the club will have to decide whether or not to trigger two $13MM options for 2023-2024 at the end of the season. If the team declines to pick up what is effectively a two-year, $26MM deal, Paxton can decide to trigger a $4MM player option for 2023 or decline it and return to free agency. Those decisions will surely depend upon what Paxton shows in the coming weeks.

The Red Sox could use some contributions from Paxton, both in this season and in the future, given the tumult of their rotation. Just about every starter in Boston’s rotation has either landed on the IL or been optioned to the minors at some point, with Nick Pivetta being the only constant. Michael Wacha has only made 13 starts this year due to a pair of IL stints, one for an intercostal strain and the other for shoulder inflammation. However, Cotillo reports that he threw 4 1/3 innings in a rehab start last night and should return to the big league club for his next outing. That should give the club a boost, as they look to finish strong in the AL Wild Card race. They are currently five games behind the Rays for the last spot.

Looking farther into the future, each of Wacha, Nathan Eovaldi and Rich Hill are slated to reach free agency this offseason, which is part of the reason why those Paxton options might seem alluring, even if he only returns for a brief period of time. The 2023 Boston rotation might also take a hit from the uncertainty surrounding Chris Sale. The lefty was once one of the most dominant arms in the game but has hardly pitched in recent years due to a cavalcade of injuries. Tommy John surgery wiped out his 2020 and limited him to nine starts last year. He began this year on the IL due to a stress fracture in rib cage, returning to throw one five-inning start before his second start was cut short after less than an inning when a comebacker broke his finger. While on the IL, he managed to get hurt again, falling off a bicycle near his home and breaking his wrist, eliminating any hopes of his return this year.

Due to all that, Sale will go into the offseason having thrown just 48 1/3 total innings over the past three seasons, which raises questions about how much the Red Sox can rely on him for the rotation next year. “We obviously need to think through what that means as far as planning out a full season with him not having carried very much of a workload the last few years,” chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom tells Jen McCaffrey of The Athletic. “If we want to play 162-plus we have to build our team to have a lot of starting pitching depth,” he added. With Hill, Wacha and Eovaldi headed to the open market and Sale and Paxton unknown wild cards at this point, there’s plenty of uncertainty hanging over Boston’s future rotation.

Turning back to the present season, the Sox placed reliever Tanner Houck on the 15-day injured list with back inflammation yesterday, Cotillo relays, which will deliver a hit to the bullpen. Houck has a 3.15 ERA on the year, with a 22.7% strikeout rate, 8.9% walk rate and 50.9% ground ball rate. That’s included many high-leverage spots, as Houck as eight saves and one hold on the year. He’ll join Tyler Danish, Matt Strahm and Josh Taylor among Boston relievers currently on the injured list. The bullpen is so banged up that Cora told reporters, including Alex Speier of the Boston Globe, that Hill might see some action out of the ’pen, despite having just started yesterday’s game.

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