Lucas Giolito’s Injury Puts the Red Sox in a Bind

Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

Spring training is a reliably terrible time for injury news. After a whole winter of not playing (though still training, of course), ramping back up to game speed inevitably creates new injuries or aggravates old ones. This process is always worse for pitchers, because their job is inherently more injury prone. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know in this introduction.

Here’s something you might not have known, and certainly didn’t know before this week: The Boston Red Sox look to be hit hardest by this yearly attrition. As Jeff Passan reported, Lucas Giolito is probably going to miss the entire season with an elbow injury. He has both a partially torn UCL and a flexor strain, a double whammy that almost always leads to surgery. That’s a tough injury for a team that absolutely couldn’t afford it.

Oh, sure, other teams have suffered unfortunate injuries to top starting pitchers. Justin Verlander will begin the season on the IL with shoulder soreness. Sonny Gray tweaked his hamstring and might miss Opening Day as a result. Kevin Gausman is dealing with shoulder fatigue and his timeline for returning is murky. The list goes on and on. But Giolito’s injury looks more severe and will likely require a much longer recovery time that the other ones will, and that puts Boston in a particular bind.

The Red Sox were always going to have a tough year ahead of them. With Giolito in the fold, we pegged their talent level as roughly average. But they play in the AL East, a division where average won’t cut it; we gave them only a 25% chance of reaching the playoffs, even with a full season of Giolito.

That problem was evident coming into this offseason. The Red Sox had some obvious problems in the pitching department last year. They had one of the worst rotations in baseball, certainly one of the worst among teams with postseason aspirations. Only Brayan Bello eclipsed 110 innings pitched, and his 4.24 ERA was the best among Boston’s starters with at least 10 (!) innings pitched.

The front office made a lot of changes this offseason, but Giolito was the only starter of note that the team acquired, and he wasn’t even a clean addition. He was brought in to offset the loss of Chris Sale, who was traded to Atlanta in exchange for Vaughn Grissom (currently hurt, obviously). Giolito struggled mightily last season, but he was one of the better pitchers in the game from 2019 through 2021, and the Red Sox were betting on his ability to return to form. Perhaps more importantly, though, they were banking on his health; prorate the 2020 season to 162 games, and Giolito has averaged more than 31 starts per season over the past half decade.

No other pitcher who got anything near Giolito’s contract in free agency could boast the same combination of reliability and upside. For Boston, who have plenty of interesting pitchers but none who have handled large workloads consistently, innings were the name of the game. No Red Sox starter projected for more innings or more WAR than Giolito in 2024; their roster looked set up to use Giolito as a workhorse, hope the innings he delivered were closer in quality to the ones he threw in 2021 instead of 2023, and then fill in behind him with Bello and a rotating cast of other intriguing options.

Nick Pivetta perennially seems like he’s a few adjustments away from being excellent. Kutter Crawford improved mightily last year while making the transition to full-time starter. Tanner Houck battled injury and ineffectiveness in equal parts last year, but his slider is so good that the team keeps banking on him to figure out something to pair with it. Garrett Whitlock can start in a pinch, though I think he’s better positioned as a reliever in an ideal world.

As the number three though six options on a team, you could convince me that this foursome represents a good risk/reward proposition. I think that one of Crawford or Pivetta will look spectacular this year, and I imagine the Red Sox will get at least a good season out of the other one, Houck or Whitlock. Staple that after a healthy Giolito and Bello, and you have a competitive starting rotation – one we ranked 13th in baseball on our Depth Charts, in fact.

If you remove Giolito from the equation, though, as looks likely at this point, things get bleak in a hurry. I can buy Bello as a low-end number one starter, but asking for all four of the next options to work out seems unreasonable. Workloads will get stretched, too: With Whitlock in the rotation, he can no longer fill in as a swingman, which means more work for the likes of Chris Murphy, Brandon Walter, Cooper Criswell, and Bryan Mata, all of whom represent a huge downgrade from the top group.

Honestly, the Red Sox were already in a bit of a pitching bind even with this pre-injury construction. Pitchers get hurt; it’s an inevitability. Their roster was set up in a way that they could withstand roughly one pitcher injury without a big dropoff. That’s playing with fire in 2024, with pitcher workloads at an all-time low.

Paradoxically, I think it might be a good thing that this injury happened when it did. It’s early in March, and there are a good number of useful pitchers still available. Jordan Montgomery and Blake Snell are great, of course, and Montgomery has already been linked to the Red Sox. Adding either of those two lefties would essentially upgrade Giolito’s former spot as a rotation anchor, in addition to boosting the team’s 2025 rotation. But there are even good options behind them. Mike Clevinger and Michael Lorenzen are the kind of options that you wouldn’t want as a top starter, but would be happy to have in an emergency. Rich Hill, Zack Greinke, and Jake Odorizzi offer old-but-maybe-playable vibes. Noah Syndergaard can probably eat some innings.

If the Red Sox are serious about competing for a playoff spot this season, they’ll have to add at least one of those pitchers. The internal options just aren’t good enough to hang the team’s collective hat on. The rest of Boston’s injuries – Grissom strained his groin, Kenley Jansen’s lat has prevented him from ramping up – are garden variety spring training stuff. Those can be worked around. The only workhorse on a thin starting rotation missing the entire season? That’s not so easy to handle.

That’s the team angle on this – the Red Sox need to adapt or give up. This is far worse from Giolito’s perspective, though. Two years ago, he looked like a candidate for a big contract extension, or alternatively a marquee free agent. That didn’t quite pan out, obviously; two straight down years and a strange summer of repeated team switching meant that he hit the market as something of a reclamation project. His deal – two years and $38.5 million with an opt out – was all about rebuilding his value while providing him some financial certainty.

The good news is, that financial certainty is real. You could live comfortably for your whole life with what’s left over from that contract after taxes, without even cutting into his previous earnings. But I think this injury essentially ends Giolito’s chances at ascending to the top tier of pitchers, at least from a compensation standpoint. The next time he hits free agency, he’ll have at most one excellent year under his belt out of the last four – and that’s assuming he bounces back strongly in 2025 in his return from injury. That doesn’t sound like a pitcher teams would be tripping over themselves to sign – and that’s the best case scenario.

Well, that’s the best case scenario if Giolito needs surgery this year, at least. There’s still some chance that the early returns are incorrect and that he’s able to return for at least some of this year. I’m not sure that’s realistic, but I’m not a doctor, and we’ve certainly seen pitchers return sooner than expected from injuries, though generally not ones that involve multiple damaged elbow parts.

Unfortunately, spring and injuries will always go hand in hand. This won’t be the last article like this to get written. It probably won’t be the last one this year. Pitching is too inherently dangerous for anything else to be true. The Red Sox got hurt by it this time, and they won’t be the last team. Coming into the season with six starting options is almost never enough. It doesn’t always strike so early in the year, but it does always seem to strike. Pity the Red Sox – but, at least if you’re a rival executive, learn from them too.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Devern Hansack
2 months ago

This contract was baffling from the moment it was signed and I’m floored by Boston’s lack of strategy and foresight here.

2 months ago
Reply to  Devern Hansack

Yeah, it seemed like a pretty large overpay on day one, and obviously it only looks worse now.

Severino and Giolito both seemed like guys who should be available on a one year, “prove it” deal, and somehow the Red Sox committed two years and nearly $40 million for Giolito…

Devern Hansack
2 months ago

Exactly – Severino, Gibson, Flaherty, Miley, Paxton, Lynn all got one year deals. Not that I’d particularly want any of the following guys, but there’s no way Lorenzen, German, Boyd, Hill, Syndergaard, or Odorizzi would command very much at this stage. If you’re signing Giolito for bulk innings, you could get one from the first bucket, one or two from the second, and likely have money left over to add elsewhere.

2 months ago

Giolito should have gotten a better deal than Severino. He was a 4-win pitcher as recently as 2021, and he was functional in 2022 and the first half of 2023. Severino was abysmal in 2023, was functional in 2022 but not great, and hurt for three years. You have to go back to 2018 to find a time when Severino was an elite pitcher.

That doesn’t mean that the Red Sox should have done this, it was kind of ridiculous to go to two years because he was unplayable in the second half of 2023. And now the Red Sox have just thrown away a lot of money, but realistically Giolito should have gotten about twice as much as Severino.

2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Severino also has much better stuff than Giolito, whose big selling point was reliability (he had barely missed a start as a big leaguer before this).

2 months ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

Yeah, we can argue who was a better bet for 2024, but the fact is, I wouldn’t have wanted to commit two years to either Severino or Giolito. Even if you do think Giolito should get twice what Severino got (which I don’t personally), the Red Sox doubled the Severino monetary commitment, and then added another $11 million on top of it.

2 months ago

The Giolito deal seemed a bit high at the time but don’t forget the team option (14mil for 2026 if under 140 innings) which has a solid chance of being picked up now.

Jason Bmember
2 months ago
Reply to  Matt

Which seems odd too..

“Here’s a deal that seemed like an overpay from the outset – but now you can extend it and add another year for a guy who was not good in 2023 and then broken for all of 2024!”

As a Jays fan, I hope Boston keeps renewing and extending as long as he wants to remain in the league 😀

2 months ago
Reply to  Matt

As a Sox fan I have zero faith in Giolito being worth that 2026 option price. Rosy projection for 2025 is 120 IP 4.40 ERA, if he has ANY bad luck on BABIP or similar, he’s toast IMO.