For now, the pitching future of Eduardo Rodríguez remains something between a secondary concern and an afterthought. The 27-year-old’s recovery from myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart muscle that resulted in his inability to pitch this season – in the wake of his summer COVID-19 infection is foremost about assuring his health.
Nonetheless, as the awful 2020 campaign nears its ignominious terminus, the Red Sox are trying to make sense of how much they can rely upon the lefthander in 2021 – an exercise that, for now, comes with more questions than answers.
Foremost, is Rodríguez now completely recovered from myocarditis — the condition that left him exhausted and short of breath when attempting to throw in mid-July, and that lingered beyond expectations over the next two weeks, prompting the August 1 announcement that he would not be able to return this season? If so, is he able to follow a normal offseason strength program? And even if he does, can the Red Sox assume that he can contribute without any restrictions next year?
Rodríguez, according to manager Ron Roenicke, is “doing well” in his convalescence. He flew to Boston on Wednesday for a Thursday checkup on the state of his recovery.
The results of that examination – not yet available as of Thursday afternoon – are significant as the team tries to make sense of when Rodríguez can return to life as an athlete and, based on that, how he might be able to contribute to the rotation next year.
“They’re getting all these reports, talking to the doctors, seeing what they see,” said Roenicke. “Hopefully whenever [the evaluation is completed], we’ll have a better idea on when he can start working out and building up that endurance again.”
Since the Red Sox announced the decision to shut down Rodríguez, front office members have consistently said that they expect him to be part of the rotation next season. Even so, on Thursday, the team acknowledged a measure of uncertainty about precisely what that might mean.
If Rodríguez is cleared to resume workouts now, then he could well be ready to participate in spring training next year with few if any restrictions. Any delay, however, could prove significant.
Rodríguez has been unable to engage in strength and conditioning activities while resting at home. To prepare to pitch again, he’ll have to offset two months (and counting) of inactivity.
“The biggest question is, when is he cleared to start activities again?” said Roenicke. "I think to build him up properly for next year, hopefully he can start getting on a strength program within the next couple months, make sure he’s strong enough going into next year. If we’re still looking at taking care of him in two or three months and he can’t do physical activity, it’s going to take a long time to build him up. So hopefully he’s cleared before then and he can start getting his strength.
“You lose a lot when you’ve been down as long as he has and I know the physical part of it especially with a starting pitcher trying to last through the year is pretty important what they do in the offseason to build up that kind of endurance to be able to last the season.”
Even if Rodríguez is able to follow a normal offseason workout program, however, pitching coach Dave Bush noted uncertainty about his potential workload next season given that he’s been unable to pitch this year.
“Two-hundred innings last year and zero this year, we’re still figuring out exactly what we can expect from him next year and what’s a reasonable amount so he can pitch and be part of the rotation, but also to make sure that we don’t overdo it and don’t put him in danger at that point,” said Bush. “We’re working on it. It’s complicated for a lot of reasons.”
Rodriguez went 19-6 with a 3.81 ERA with 9.4 strikeouts and 3.3 walks per nine innings in 2019, logging 203⅓ innings over a major league-leading 34 starts. He finished sixth in Cy Young voting, and after Chris Sale underwent Tommy John surgery in March, Rodríguez was viewed as the ace to anchor the team’s pitching staff in this compressed 60-game campaign. Instead, his infection offered proof that the sports world was not immune from a pandemic, and that even elite athletes remained vulnerable to a virus without a vaccine.
For the Red Sox, the novelty of Rodríguez’s ailment creates a potential challenge as the team maps out a path forward. Obviously, the team will hope for a full, healthy 2021 season for Rodríguez — certainly a possibility if he gets a clean bill of health.
But after the Red Sox were undone in 2020 by their inability to withstand the absences of Sale and Rodríguez. Now, the team is planning at least to begin next season without Sale (a normal Tommy John rehab timeline would have him back around late-May), while trying to find out more about precisely what it can expect next year from Rodríguez.
In other words, the test of the team’s pitching depth — one that the Red Sox failed badly in 2020 — almost certainly won’t be limited to a single season. The only question is about the magnitude of that test, with the coming days offering the first hints of an answer.