What does Lucas Giolito’s injury mean for the Red Sox rotation?

FORT MYERS, Fla. — For much of the offseason, there were expectations that the Red Sox would add more starting pitching.

They’d signed free agent Lucas Giolito as their lone major addition, but traded away Chris Sale and didn’t have a set fifth starter as camp began, with several pitchers competing for that final spot in the early days of spring training.

On Tuesday, that pitching picture got even more complicated.

Manager Alex Cora announced that Giolito — signed in part for his durability the last several years — would miss time with elbow discomfort. ESPN’s Jeff Passan later reported it’s likely Giolito will need Tommy John surgery for a UCL strain, though Giolito and the Red Sox maintain they’re still gathering information and have not determined next steps.

Giolito first felt pain in his elbow toward the end of his last start on Friday. He loaded the bases on a single and two walks before exiting the game. All three runs later scored.

“I felt something in my elbow which is never fun to deal with,” Giolito said. “It’s not the first time. We deal with stuff as pitchers all the time with our elbows and shoulders.

“We’re still trying to figure out the next steps,” he added. “Obviously it’s early and stuff is happening in real time so we’re working through all that.”

Though Giolito has thrown 160 or more innings and made at least 29 starts each full season since 2018, his career did begin with arm trouble. He missed much of his senior season at Harvard-Westlake High in Los Angeles with an elbow sprain, but chose rest over surgery. He was drafted in the first round out of high school by the Nationals in 2012, but following his first professional start, he injured his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery.

Giolito has avoided any major arm injuries for the better part of the last decade and didn’t want to compare his current injury to the early-career issues.

“It was so long ago, it’s hard to remember exactly the physical feelings that happened in a split moment when you’re throwing a baseball,” he said. “But any type of discomfort in your elbow while you’re pitching, it kind of makes you think … just working with the medical staff to figure out where to go from there.”

The right-hander had an MRI and it’s likely he’ll get a second opinion in the coming days.

“Obviously concerned about it,” Cora said. “It’s not a good day for us.”

Offseason addition Cooper Criswell has impressed with his strike-throwing ability this spring. (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

What Giolito’s injury means for the Red Sox will be the next big question mark hovering over the team.

All offseason, the Red Sox have been tied to free-agent stater Jordan Montgomery. Both Cora and chief baseball officer Craig Breslow said they’re comfortable with the team’s internal options to replace Giolito, but did not rule out future outside additions.

“I’m comfortable,” Cora said. “Like I’ve been saying all along, the offseason is not over and Craig and the group, they’re still working, and there’s a lot of good players out there and we all know that. And I think the 29 other organizations are doing their homework and trying to get better. So there’s something that, regardless of the news today, is something that we are doing as an organization, doing our homework and keep making calls. We’ll see what happens in the future.”

Breslow used a similar tone, implying he’d keep all doors open.

“Over the last couple of weeks, I do think it’s become evident that there are a number of guys that we have in camp that appear ready to take a step forward,” Breslow said. “And I think that’s a credit to the work that they’ve done and a credit to the pitching infrastructure and the work that Andrew (Bailey) done. We’ve also maintained that if there was an opportunity to improve the team through some external acquisition that we needed to be responsible and try to track that down as well.”

Even before Tuesday’s news, Cora made clear that he expects more out of his current group of starters. At the outset of camp, Giolito, Brayan Bello, Nick Pivetta and Kutter Crawford were penciled in for the first four rotation spots with Garrett Whitlock, Tanner Houck and Josh Winckowski vying for a fifth. Cooper Criswell, the only other free-agent pitcher signed this winter, has also been in that mix.

But Cora has repeatedly challenged that group this spring to pitch deeper into games. Last season, the Red Sox ranked 27th in baseball with 774 1/3 innings, averaging just 4 2/3 innings per start.

Getting more out of the pitchers is part of what’s gone into a more intense and focused camp under Bailey, the new pitching coach.

“We need these guys to (pitch deeper),” Cora said. “That’s with Lucas or without him. Like the Tanners and Kutter and Whit, whoever is in the rotation, that’s what we’re pushing and that’s what we want.

“I’ve been saying all along, it really doesn’t matter who you sign, who you don’t sign, the guys here, they have to take a step forward and now most likely somebody has to do that,” Cora added.

For the last few weeks, the fifth starter spot seemed to be coming down to Whitlock, Houck and Winckowski with Criswell initially pegged as more of a long man. But twice on Tuesday, both Cora and Breslow, mentioned Criswell as more of a rotation option. The 27-year-old right-hander has pitched parts of three seasons in the majors with a 5.97 ERA over 12 games, including two starts, but the Red Sox liked his raw numbers while with Tampa Bay the last two seasons.

“It would be unfair to say we overlooked him, but we just weren’t as familiar with him given that he wasn’t with us,” Breslow said. “I think what has been impressive and what we knew we were getting is an elite strike-thrower. I think there were some questions as to whether or not we can help boost the stuff and I think in pretty short order, it’s ticked up a little bit while maintaining the ability to shape pitches very, very well and pounding the strike zone. So I think he’s definitely put himself in the conversation.”

The Red Sox are likely going to use all of those pitchers in some capacity in the majors early in the season. Not only does the team begin the season with a two-week stretch on the west coast, but after the home opener April 9, they’ll play 13 games in a row.

Cora said because of that intense early schedule, even before Giolito’s injury, there was consideration for using an extra starter in April, whether it be a spot starter or a bullpen game.

On Tuesday, Whitlock took the mound in his latest bid to earn a starting spot. He allowed two runs on four hits over three innings. Having had Tommy John surgery in 2019, Whitlock knows the rigors of recovery from the surgery and was sympathetic to whatever lies ahead for his new teammate.

“Any injury, you always feel for a guy,” Whitlock said regarding Giolito. “I’m not sure what all is going on but I just really want to be there for him and be a good teammate and support him.”

As for Giolito, frustration is an understatement for a pitcher who was eager for a fresh start with a new team.

“It’s pretty unfortunate,” he said. “I’m choosing my words carefully. I don’t want to be swearing, but yeah, it’s obviously not fun to deal with.”

(Top photo of Giolito with catcher Tyler Heineman earlier in camp: Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

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