Demand for controllable starting pitching is, as always, through the roof in Major League Baseball, but it’s in perhaps shorter supply than at any point in recent years. The Marlins are one of the few teams with starting pitching available on the trade market, as they’re reportedly open to offers on just about anyone other than ace Sandy Alcantara and top prospect Eury Perez. Other options are few and far between, though Chris Cotillo of MassLive.com writes that the Red Sox have received “significant” trade interest in righty Tanner Houck as teams explore alternatives to Miami’s starting pitching glut.
That’s not to say that a deal of Houck is expected or likely. Houck doesn’t have a definite role on Boston’s starting staff thanks to the presence of Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, James Paxton, Garrett Whitlock, Nick Pivetta and Brayan Bello, but the injury risk among that group means that Houck can’t be expressly ruled out of the running, either. Sale has pitched just 48 1/3 innings over the past two seasons, and Paxton has just 21 2/3 frames across the past three MLB seasons combined. Kluber rebounded with 164 innings in 2022 but prior to that had thrown just 116 2/3 innings over a three-year period himself.
Moreover, the 26-year-old Houck could yet find himself with a pivotal role in Boston’s bullpen after impressing as a reliever in 2022. Just four of Houck’s 32 appearances last year were starts; he tossed 43 1/3 innings out of the Red Sox’ bullpen and worked to a sterling 2.70 ERA with a solid 24.2% strikeout rate, 8.4% walk rate and 53% grounder rate. Overall, the former No. 24 overall draft pick logged a 3.15 ERA in 60 innings between his two roles, showing roughly average strikeout rates with slightly below-average command but above-average ground-ball tendencies.
It was the continuation of a strong start to Houck’s still-fledgling career. The hard-throwing righty made his debut when he started three games in the shortened 2020 season, and overall he’s pitched 146 innings of 3.02 ERA ball at the MLB level. However, he’s never topped 119 innings in a professional season, and his 2022 campaign ended in August when he required surgery to address a back injury.
Prior to his big league debut, Houck had some struggles against left-handed opponents, although he’s worked to incorporate a splitter, which has helped to remedy that issue. A hefty 89% of the splitters Houck has thrown over the past two seasons have come against left-handed batters, and in his career opponents have mustered an awful .115/.207/.231 output against the pitch.
Houck is controlled for another five seasons and won’t reach arbitration until after the 2024 campaign. As such, it’s only natural that opposing teams would inquire about his availability. That doesn’t necessarily mean a trade is looming, although the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier reported just two weeks ago that the Red Sox were open to dealing a big league pitcher — “potentially including Houck” — in the right deal. Cotillo, meanwhile, adds that the Sox would be more willing to part with Houck than either Whitlock or Bello, although again, that’s a far cry from saying Houck is someone the Sox are looking to move. That Speier report came before it was publicly known that Trevor Story’s entire 2023 season was in jeopardy following an elbow injury that necessitated internal brace surgery.
In the weeks since that report from Speier, the Red Sox have agreed to a one-year deal with outfielder Adam Duvall, whom they believe can handle center field for them, and brought in veterans like outfielder Greg Allen and catcher Jorge Alfaro on minor league deals. The Red Sox aren’t punting on the 2023 season in the wake of Story’s injury — not after already signing Kluber, Justin Turner, Masataka Yoshida, Kenley Jansen, Chris Martin and Joely Rodriguez for a combined $173.2MM.
As such, it stands to reason that any deal involving Houck would need to involve Major League talent heading back to Boston. The Sox could theoretically withstand the subtraction of Houck from the pitching staff thanks to those aforementioned bullpen additions and a decent crop of depth options in the rotation (which, in addition to the previously listed names, includes Josh Winckowski, Bryan Mata and Kutter Crawford). There’s also quite a bit of rotation depth still available in free agency, so the Sox could always look to backfill via the open market in the event that they trade a current starting pitcher.
Potential areas for improvement on the big league roster include the middle infield, where Enrique Hernandez and Christian Arroyo figure to play prominent roles following Story’s injury, and behind the plate, where the combination of Reese McGuire, Connor Wong and Alfaro could all vie for time. It’s feasible, too, that the Sox could still pursue a long-term option in center field, although those are also in short supply this winter and the addition of Duvall at least ostensibly lessens such a need.
For now, it seems the Sox plan to head to camp with the idea of Houck stretching out as a starter, then scale him back to a short relief role if necessary. That said, given the dearth of options for teams seeking rotation help on the trade market, this probably won’t be the last time Houck’s name pops up on the rumor mill in the weeks leading up to Spring Training. There’s no indication a deal is likely, but other teams will surely make efforts to pry Houck and others loose — particularly now that a major injury to Story has altered Boston’s 2023 outlook.
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