'Swiss Army knife' mindset freeing up Whitlock

February 24th, 2024

SARASOTA, Fla. -- If you didn’t know ’s new-and-improved mindset, you’d probably think his Grapefruit League debut in the Red Sox's 4-3 loss to the Orioles on Saturday afternoon was yet another year of the right-hander trying to carve out a specific role on the team.

Starter? Reliever? The debate raged the past two seasons.

Only, this season, Whitlock isn’t buying into it. Put him anywhere and he will be just fine with it. All he wants to do is stay healthy. The last time Whitlock was healthy for most of the year was 2021, when he was a dominant performer as a Rule 5 pick.

Credit to a mentor of Whitlock’s, former Major League righty Adam Warren, for helping him understand the truest value of all: versatility.

Though Whitlock, ever the unselfish teammate, always said the right thing, he now admits he was too preoccupied with being a starter in the past. Warren helped drive that point home.

“The last couple years, I felt that kind of chip like, ‘Everyone says you need to be a starter, everyone wants to be a starter,’ and I kind of took a page from Adam Warren,” Whitlock said. “He told me, ‘Once you adapt that mindset of that Swiss Army knife, where it's just like, ‘Throw me in anything, and I'll go out there and do it,’ it frees everything else up.’ It’s like, I don't feel like this chip or this burden like, ‘I've got to be a starter. I've got to be a closer.’ It’s like, ‘Dude, you’re on a freaking big league team, enjoy that, have fun and compete.’”

Whitlock threw a pair of solid innings against a tough Baltimore lineup on Saturday. The only blemish was a hanging changeup that Adley Rutschman put just over the outstretched glove of center fielder Ceddanne Rafaela for a wind-blown solo homer.

“I catch that 99 out of 100 times,” said Rafaela, as gifted a defender as you’ll find in center.

“He threw the ball well,” credited Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “Overall, it was a good one. The quality of the pitches were good, so now we move on to the next one.”

Whitlock will move on to the next one with far less time in the training room than this time a year ago. Not only is his mind healthier, but his body is much healthier.

Perhaps it was discounted last spring that Whitlock was coming off significant offseason surgery on his right hip.

“Felt healthy,” said Whitlock. “Happy about that and things are good. For me, it's not hard to get back up for a follow-up inning and everything. Last year, it was really hard for me to kind of get that hip loose and everything going for multiple innings, and now I'm feeling back to normal and feeling good in that way.”

As for that competition for the fifth spot in the rotation, it appears to be between Whitlock, Tanner Houck and Josh Winckowski.

Circumstances could change if chief baseball officer Craig Breslow makes an external addition in the coming weeks. But that’s where things stand now.

The three-man competition for one spot could last for most of Spring Training. Technically, it could be a four-man competition for two spots, but Kutter Crawford seems to have the inside track on the fourth spot. All four pitchers are between 25 and 27 years old and have been with the organization for several years.

“We know about all of them,” said Cora. “Each one of them has their strengths and have shown some weaknesses throughout their careers. Tanner, strike throwing [has been the issue]. Kutter, can he maintain his stuff [throughout a start]? Whit, can he stay healthy? Winckowski, can he maintain his stuff?”

One thing Cora made clear is that linescores in Grapefruit League games will not be anywhere near a deciding factor.

“These are important games, and obviously we're competing, but at the same time, the decision will be made taking other stuff or other information into consideration,” Cora said.

Whitlock is happy to leave that evaluation in the hands of Cora and others. He has his own goal.

“I want them to feel comfortable with me starting, relieving, setup, closer, middle relief, whatever it is,” Whitlock said. “I want to be able to have that ability and to have that confidence [from] AC where he says, ‘I don't care what part of the game it is, I feel comfortable giving Whit the ball.’”