Winckowski impresses in spring audition for rotation

February 28th, 2024

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Practically every team, every spring, is looking for some missing roster piece. And so, there’s always a battle between teammates to fill that void. This year, one of those competitions at Red Sox camp is for the coveted fifth rotation spot.

One of three players with their name in the mix to fill out Boston’s roster, made his first start -- and statement -- of Spring Training in the Red Sox’s 4-3 loss to the Nationals at CACTI Park of the Palm Beaches on Wednesday afternoon.

Winckowski spun a pair of no-hit innings against the Nats to kick off his Grapefruit League season. He got into a bit of trouble with a leadoff walk in the first inning, but worked out of the jam efficiently (a popout and two groundouts). Winckowski came back strong in the second, though, battling Dylan Crews -- Washington’s top prospect -- over seven pitches (four fouls) before securing a popout, a three-pitch strikeout and a groundout to end his outing.

“Got some butterflies, jitters out of the way or whatnot,” Winckowski said. “Obviously you don't like walks but a couple of them were just a ball off or even like 50-50 balls, so, you know -- certain walks are different than others. Obviously don't like to walk that guy with the speed, but I feel like it was close with the zone.”

Acquired as part of the Andrew Benintendi trade in February 2021, the 25-year-old had a breakout season in 2023 -- his first full Major League campaign -- finishing the year with a 2.88 ERA in 60 appearances (one start) and finishing third in MLB in relief innings (83 1/3).

Winckowski has already proved he has what it takes to make it in the big leagues as a high-leverage reliever, but now he’s looking to prove he’s got the stuff to survive as a starter. Winckowski has known since early in the offseason that Boston wanted to stretch him out this spring, but he was already planning on preparing for the season as a starter after he found success when he did just that the previous winter.

Ironically, all three pitchers locked in the arm wrestling match for that fifth spot -- Winckowski, Tanner Houck (the frontrunner) and Garrett Whitlock (whose focus is on staying healthy) -- have been built up from relievers to starters over the past few seasons. Having versatile arms in the bullpen is a big advantage for the Red Sox.

“We started in ‘21, right, with Garrett,” manager Alex Cora said. “He made the team and it was about surviving the whole season with him -- a 'Hopefully he can stay here' [sort of thing] -- and then he became a guy and he went multiple innings. … Tanner, basically the same in ‘22, ‘23, he was in the bullpen. … Is it perfect? No, it's not. … But having guys like this -- hybrids, versatile -- it helps us.”

Whether Winckowski makes the Opening Day rotation, there’s no doubt that he’ll be in Seattle with the Red Sox to open the season.

“With him it's about [if he can] maintain his stuff through an outing,” Cora said. “Obviously as a starter he's not going to be throwing the 97, 98 [mph] that we saw last year. But the good thing about him: He's getting better physically. He's a lot stronger than two or three years ago. His repertoire is a good one. … We're going to have a solid rotation, and I think the strength is gonna be the bullpen again. Because unless we decide to send somebody to Triple-A to stretch them out, they should be here.”

A prospect check-in

Ceddanne Rafaela -- the Red Sox’s No. 3 prospect and No. 76 overall per MLB Pipeline -- went 1-for-2, working a full-count walk in the first inning and hitting an RBI single in his next at-bat, though he struck out in his third and final plate appearance.

The outfielder/shortstop is vying for the center field starting spot. It’s not his defense that’s the determining factor, though: it’s whether he can show improved plate discipline and base stealing.

“We're pushing him to be a better base stealer; I think that's important,” Cora said pregame. “How much he can do it here is on him. If he gets on base a lot, he's gonna get a lot of tries for that. But the base running part of it -- we want it to be better.”