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Red Sox Top Prospect Voting: Tanner Houck tries to find his role

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Tanner Houck | Kelly O’Connor; https://sittingstill.smugmug.com/

The likely-reliever comes in at number nine.

After Thad Ward won our last round of voting in a close one with a slightly more veteran pitcher, the other pitcher didn’t find himself any competition in this latest round of voting. That pitcher is Tanner Houck, who comes in at number nine in our rankings after getting a whopping 76 percent of the vote.

Houck was one of the more intriguing pitchers of his class for most of his college career after getting drafted in the 12th round by the Blue Jays out of high school but opting to go to the University of Missouri. His stock was perhaps at its highest at the start of his junior year following a big sophomore year, and he was looking to be taken in the first half of the first round with another big year. Instead, he took a step back. He wasn’t bad, to be fair, but there wasn’t a leap forward that some were hoping for. Still, he was ranked 17th in the class by Baseball America and 20th by MLB Pipeline and ended up falling to the Red Sox with the 24th overall pick in that 2017 draft.

There were some questions about whether or not his future would be as a starter or reliever coming out of the draft, but the Red Sox were going to give him time as a starter. In fact, they messed with his repertoire a bit, trying to have him lean more on a four-seam fastball than a two-seam and trying to clean up his mechanics a bit. In his pro debut he tossed 22 13 innings with Lowell over ten starts, pitching to a 3.63 ERA with over ten strikeouts per nine innings. There was plenty to like, though there were enough lapses in command that it wasn’t a total standout debut.

They really started to try to get him to use the new four-seam-led arsenal starting in 2018 when he made his full-season debut in Salem. It didn’t really take, and he struggled over the first half of the year with a 5.19 ERA and 45 strikeouts with 44 walks over 60 23 innings. Over his final 11 starts of the year, however, they let him get back to his college style of pitching and he pitched to a 3.24 ERA over 58 13 innings with 66 strikeouts and 16 walks. It was a totally different pitcher, and he was clearly more comfortable with this style.

As we moved to 2019, though, the change wasn’t all good. There was more stress on his arm with this style, and he was still lacking a third pitch. All of this pointed more than ever at a future in the bullpen, which wouldn’t be a terrible result because he had (and still has) late-inning potential. The team was going to keep him as a starter to start 2019, though, as he got his season started in Portland. He made 15 starts with the Sea Dogs, tossing a total of 81 13 innings with a 3.65 ERA, 78 strikeouts and 30 walks. From here, though, he converted to the bullpen as the team thought they may use him in the bigs in the second half. That didn’t happen, but he made 18 relief appearances (16 of which were in Pawtucket) covering 26 13 innings with a 5.13 ERA, 29 strikeouts and 16 walks. The numbers were not great, but those who saw him still saw the potential.

And really, this is where Houck is now in terms of his scouting report. The Red Sox still say they are going to put him back in the rotation to start 2020, but basically every scout agrees he’s a reliever eventually, and likely sooner than later. Like I said, though, there is a late-inning ceiling here thanks to that two-seam fastball along with his slider. There might be some control issues, but he has enough swing and miss to make up for that in shorter stints.

Even if he does indeed start this coming year as a starter, I would suspect he’ll be in the bullpen by late May or June and take a similar path as Darwinzon Hernandez last year. Like Houck, Hernandez was clearly a reliever long-term and it was just a matter of when the conversion would happen for good. If all goes well, Houck should definitely make his major-league debut next year, and likely around the All-Star break.

Here is our list so far (note that Jeter Downs was acquired after voting started and was retroactively voted in ahead of Triston Casas):

1A. Jeter Downs

1B. Triston Casas

2. Bobby Dalbec

3. Bryan Mata

4. Noah Song

5. Gilberto Jimenez

6. Jay Groome

7. Jarren Duran

8. Thad Ward

9. Tanner Houck

Now, you can head down into the comments and vote for the number two. As a reminder, to do this you go down below and find the comment from me corresponding with the player for whom you’d like to vote. When you find said player, just click the “rec” button, and that will count your vote. To do this, you will need to be logged in as a member of the site. If you’d like to vote for a player who is not listed, just leave a comment saying “Vote for ___ here” and I’ll rec the comment to count your vote. Until next time…

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