The Red Sox’ attempts to upgrade their rotation appear to be gaining some clarity.
They won’t be adding Japanese righthander Tomoyuki Sugano, whose window to negotiate with major league teams expired at 5 p.m. Thursday. The righthander — a two-time Sawamura Award winner as the top pitcher in the Nippon league — elected to return to the Yomiuri Giants. He went 14-2 with a 1.97 ERA in 2020.
While the Sox had interest in Sugano, who possesses excellent command of a four-pitch mix anchored by a low-90s fastball along with a slider and splitter, his asking price exceeded that interest.
Sugano reportedly will receive a four-year deal that includes opt-outs after each of the first three seasons. The Red Sox, according to major league sources, are uninterested in exploring deals of that length for pitchers this winter.
The Sox have been focused on deals of up to two or three years, according to those sources. One potential rotation addition who fits that is righthander Jake Odorizzi, a 30-year-old who has reached free agency for the first time. MLB.com reported Tuesday that the Red Sox have “serious interest.” The Athletic reported that Odorizzi has been seeking a three-year deal for $36 million-$42 million.
With the Rays and Twins from 2014-19, Odorizzi quietly forged a place as a solid rotation contributor, going 62-53 with a 3.88 ERA, a slightly better-than-league-average ERA+ of 106, along with 8.7 strikeouts and 3.1 walks per nine innings, while averaging 30 starts and 165 innings per season.
The 2019 season was particularly impressive for the veteran, who went 15-7 with a 3.51 ERA and a career-high 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings in an All-Star campaign.
Yet his hopes of building off that in 2020 were quickly short-circuited. Odorizzi made just four starts, going 0-1 with a 6.59 ERA and 12 strikeouts and 3 walks in 13⅔ innings.
His stop-and-start season was delayed two weeks at the outset by an intercostal injury. He returned to make three starts, but a liner off the bat of Royals outfielder Alex Gordon hit him in the chest and resulted in a return to the injured list for three-plus weeks. He returned in September, only to have a cut open on a finger on his pitching hand in a start against the White Sox.
Yet, as Odorizzi pointed out on the “Talkin’ Baseball” podcast in November, none of those injuries suggested a chronic issue. The intercostal injury came as a result of the rapid shift of gears from solitary work during the shutdown to facing live hitters in intrasquad games.
“You overexert yourself and badda-bing, badda-boom, you’ve got a quick intercostal — minor issue, that sets you back a week, but a week in that time span is like a month,” Odorizzi said on the podcast.
The liner off the chest likewise was random. Then, upon his return from that, the usual callus that forms on his finger during spring training wasn’t there because of the other injuries, resulting in the cut.
That succession of atypical injuries came on the heels of a six-year stretch from 2014-19 in which Odorizzi ranked 10th in the majors in starts (182) and 28th in innings (991).
“Obviously I had some weird luck this year,” he said. “I see things that people say, like ‘injury-prone.’ That’s just bad reporting if you think I’m injury-prone.
“I’ve had 28-, 30-plus starts every single year of my career. I’m not injury-prone. I’m COVID-prone of weird things happening. What can you do?”
In his brief time on the mound in 2020, Odorizzi showed the same fastball velocity (93.0 m.p.h.) he demonstrated in 2019, along with a splitter, slider, cutter, and curve. His fastball velocity (average 92.9 in 2019) has been up the last two years from where it was from 2012-18 (91-92).
“When I was out there healthy, my numbers analytically matched up with last year, which I think is the main thing to take away,” he said. “I didn’t lose velocity, the dreaded, ‘You’re going into free agency and your velocity is down.’ That’s a huge red flag.
“Mine’s not. Mine’s the same. I’ve actually gained velocity in the last year and a half, two years. I’m on a different direction than what you hear typically, and I take pride in that.”
Odorizzi is familiar with the AL East after pitching for the Rays from 2013-17 and with Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, who was part of that team’s front office when it traded for Odorizzi after the 2012 season and when he was dealt to Minnesota after 2017.
Odorizzi is one of several free agent starters still available. The top option, righthander Trevor Bauer, is not expected to be a target for the Red Sox, but others — including lefthander Rich Hill and righthander Corey Kluber (who will work out for interested teams Jan. 13) — remain unsigned.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora said last week that the front office “has been relentless as far as exploring the market and exploring everything. If you hear a rumor about the Red Sox and this guy, yeah, we’re doing our homework and we’re trying to be better.”