Garrett Whitlock? More like ‘Granite' for impressively remade Red Sox starter

Garrett Whitlock? More like ‘Granite' for impressively remade Red Sox starter originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – For a second, it looked like Jon Lester had shown up to Red Sox winter weekend in a No. 22 Garrett Whitlock jersey, and that's a good omen for the team's rotation.

There are transformations, and then there's what the 27-year-old right-hander managed this winter. Blessed with a healthy offseason for the first time in five years, Whitlock did not get cheated. He hit the gym and basically didn't leave, solidifying his 6-foot-5, 222-pound frame into something that can best be described as granite.

Whether it allows him to stay healthy for a full season in the rotation remains to be seen, but this much is beyond question – he absolutely looks the part.

"Wait 'til you see Whit," is all manager Alex Cora would say on Friday, and on Saturday it became clear why.

Whitlock said he hasn't gained a pound, but it's hard to believe. He looks like Lester, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound horse who fronted World Series-winning rotations in both Boston and Chicago. "You think I look like Lester?" Whitlock joked. "That makes me want to puff out my chest a little bit."

With the front office's stated goal of reinforcing the rotation this winter landing like last month's deflated birthday balloon, any improvements must come internally. Some of us (raises hand) have consistently advocated for Whitlock's full-time return to the bullpen, where he was such a weapon in 2021.

Teammates who have spent the offseason with him tell a different story.

"We've been down in Fort Myers and I've always thought Whitlock is like super gross," said right-hander Josh Winckowski. "His upside is crazy high, but I can tell you, I was with him last offseason and I've been with him this offseason and he is like miles ahead of where he was at. Last December he was still rehabbing the hip or whatnot and I just played catch with him on Thursday and his stuff is like at a crazy good level right now.

"There's something with Whitlock and not many people in baseball can do it – you play catch with him, and you can be at 60-90 feet and the ball will hit your glove and it seems like it's still speeding up. It's something that's truly unique to him. So I'm really excited where he's at right now."

With Chris Sale and James Paxton out, and only Lucas Giolito so far acquired to replace them, Whitlock will open camp as a starter and he hopes to stay there, because he intends to make amends for a disappointing 2023.

"I'll be the first one to say I think I was the worst guy on the team last year," Whitlock said. "I think I need to pick it up a lot. I think AC (Alex Cora) would tell you that. I think anyone who saw me last year would tell you that. So I put a lot on myself to try and really step it up and really put a lot of stuff on me this year."

"Worst guy" is a stretch on a staff that included Corey Kluber and his 7.04 ERA, but Whitlock has a point in the sense that so much more was expected of him than his 5-5 record and 5.14 ERA.

Coming off of hip surgery, he never found his stride, sidelined by separate elbow issues that limited him to 22 games and only 10 starts.

Thus the decision to attack the gym with his first clean bill of health since the winter before he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2019.

"This is the first offseason I've been healthy in a while, so I took advantage of it," Whitlock said. "I took one week off at the end of the season and then got to work in the gym, just trying to build strength, and build it the right way. Build the right muscles to be as healthy as I can be. Just making sure my shoulder is strong enough to be able to withstand whatever workload comes my way, and obviously it all starts from the ground up, so really building my legs and core and everything to be able to handle the whole 162."

New pitching coach and former Red Sox reliever Andrew Bailey wants to see what Whitlock can do.

"He's got big stuff," he said. "He looks in great shape. It's really exciting to see him coming in here. There's some pitch design going on with him and some understanding that there's already weapons in his arsenal and leveraging them appropriately. But, yeah, expecting big things for him and obviously the health is key, but he's in great physical shape."

Lots of players gush about being in the best shape of their lives, but Whitlock is hard to miss. Now he just needs to make the work of winter translate to the spring, summer, and hopefully fall.

"I'm fully built up, I'm fully healthy," he said. "They're not playing with kid gloves anymore. It's just, 'Hey, go.' I love that aspect of it and I'm eager to take that on."