Why Tanner Houck could be key piece of Red Sox' 2020 puzzle

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It was somewhat of a mirage, that moment on the back fields at JetBlue Park.

Tanner Houck, the Red Sox' first-round pick in 2017, gets his big chance during a spring-training workout, squaring off with both Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez. The results were eye-opening, with the then-21-year-old striking out both batters while coming away with the be-all, end-all moment of his young pro career.

And then @houck_tanner struck out Mookie Betts ... pic.twitter.com/v2AOfKB8eq

— Rob Bradford (@bradfo) March 6, 2018

That was a different Tanner Houck. That wasn't the pitcher who currently finds himself on the doorstep of his major league dream.

"I would say a lot better," Houck told WEEI.com when asked about how far he has come since that moment back on March 6, 2018. "At that moment I was still kind of searching for who I was, pitching in pro ball. I’ve definitely kind of blossomed a little bit. I’m more of a pitcher. It’s only two years ago but I’ve made huge leaps and bounds from then."

It's not difficult to decipher how much he has evolved.

That spike curveball he struck out Betts on has been scrapped. The four-seam fastball the Red Sox wanted Houck to prioritize is now thrown an equal number of times as the two-seamer he made his reputation on at the University of Missouri. The slider is still there in full force, although how he starts and finishes might be a bit different -- not landing so dramatically on the other side of the pitching rubber as was the case upon entering pro ball.

"I wouldn’t call it changing. I would say it was more like adapting," he said. "In college, I was a two-pitch pitcher. Two-seam, slider. Two-seam, slider. I would occasionally show a changeup maybe once every six starts. In pro ball, I realized I needed a third and fourth pitch so I developed that four-seam."

There is a lot going on with the former first-rounder, and always has been. Want proof? The pitcher whose unorthodox delivery Houck's motion might resemble best -- believe or not, Chris Sale.

"I’ve got a little bit of a comparison to him," Houck said. "Getting to know (Red Sox assistant pitching coach Brian) Bannister and talking about Sale, because it is similar arm slots … I have looked at it through his eyes. But I’m my own person. We all have our own journeys to get to certain situations. I would say my delivery and everything I do is a little bit unique from the typical pitcher. I throw across my body. I throw from a low, three-quarter arm slot. I have a lot of limbs moving at you in weird directions that shouldn’t happen. All of a sudden the ball looks like it is going to be thrown at you and it’s on the outside corner."

Hey @PitchingNinja,How about this slider from Tanner Houck? pic.twitter.com/lHXArVDDwW

— PawSox (@PawSox) July 18, 2019

Through it all, Houck has presented an interesting package to the organization. One which may lead to one of the more intriguing conversations heading into the 2020 season.

For the first time in his life, the righty found himself living life as a reliever starting last month. It was a move many viewed as the Red Sox' attempt at having Houck fill a role on this current team for the stretch drive, with his four-seamer hitting 97 mph while pairing with what has become a wipeout slider.

"They sat me down and said they wanted to see me in the reliever role," he said, reflecting on the conversation had with Double-A Portland manager Joe Oliver and Sea Dogs pitching coach Paul Abbott. "They said it wasn’t a demotion by any means. It was more to look at it in a positive way. This is a good thing. You get to see the other side of the coin. ... Starter or reliever, I’m not going to be picky either way."

But now Houck's path is on the verge of taking another turn.

He moved back into the role as a starter for his most recent appearance with the PawSox (although that was due to roster fluxation with September call-ups taking place) and figures to continue down that path when appearing in the Arizona Fall League. Once believed to be a potential answer for the big league club's bullpen, he has now seemingly re-entered the conversation for a spot in next season's rotation.

There figures to be at least one spot available heading into 2020 -- depending on Rick Porcello's free agency and Chris Sale's health. And that's where Houck may come in.

"It’s two sides to the coin," he said prior to morphing back into his latest foray as a starter. "I’ve only been a starter my whole life so I love starting. I like competing for six or seven innings. Going through a lineup for a third time. The guy has seen everything you have and you’re still getting them out with your best stuff. I like starting a little bit more.

"I would be lying if I wasn’t excited to think it’s one call away, it’s one step away. It’s been a dream of mine since I was playing in the front yard with a Wiffleball to say I would be in the big leagues one day. For me, it’s definitely a surreal thing to think, ‘Holy cow, I could potentially do this.’ It’s a surreal thing to think about and awesome. But at the end of the day where I have to continue to live in this moment right now. I know it’s cliche to say I have to live in the moment, but that’s the way it is. I have to soak up all the information I can get, whether it’s guys who have been there, been in the minor-league grind or guys who have been in the Show for a few weeks or a few years. I can learn a lot from them. It’s a surreal thing to think about it, but I have to put it to the side, show up today, get my work done because the work today will get me to that moment."