The Red Sox rotation is taking shape, as the team reached agreement on Saturday with righthander Garrett Richards on a one-year, $10 million contract. The deal includes a $10 million team option for 2022 and a buyout, with escalators for both the salary and the buyout based on Richards’s contributions in 2021, according to a major league source.
Richards, 32, went 2-2 with a 4.03 ERA along with 8.1 strikeouts and 3.0 walks per nine innings for the Padres in 51⅓ innings in 2020 — his first full season back from Tommy John surgery in mid-2018. Richards had a 4.27 ERA in 10 starts; in four relief appearances, he allowed one run over five innings with five strikeouts.
The righthander is one of the hardest-throwing starters in this year’s free agent class, with a four-seamer that averaged 95.1 miles per hour last year. He also features an outstanding slider against which opponents hit just .147 with a .333 slugging mark last year. The veteran proved overpowering against righties (.189/.252/.337 with a 23.3 percent strikeout rate) but struggled against lefties (.296/.364/.490 with a 20.0 percent strikeout rate).
Those splits do raise questions about Richards’s rotation fit. One National League evaluator saw Richards as more of a reliever because of his struggles against lefties and the lack of an effective third pitch in 2020. It’s worth noting that the playoff-bound Padres shifted Richards to the bullpen in mid-September and kept him there throughout the postseason — even as they scrambled for starters.
Still, while Richards allowed a .313 average and .563 slugging mark on his curveball in 2020, the pitch was devastating against lefties from 2014-19, with lefties hitting just .119 with a .165 slugging mark. If Richards, with the benefit of more time back from Tommy John, can regain the feel for that pitch, he could represent a significant upgrade to the Sox rotation.
In parts of 10 big league seasons with the Angels (2011-18) and Padres (2019-20), Richards has struggled to stay healthy, missing significant time because of a succession of arm injuries as well as a torn patellar tendon suffered at Fenway Park in 2014. But when healthy, he’s had flashes of excellence.
Though limited to 86 starts from 2014-18, he had a 3.15 ERA in that time — fourth lowest in the American League among pitchers who made at least 50 starts in that span, trailing only Corey Kluber (2.85), Chris Sale (2.85), and Blake Snell (2.95). He also allowed 0.7 homers per nine innings during that stretch, lowest among that group of starters over those five years.
For the Sox, the signing of Richards comes with upside if there’s any chance that he can tap back into those prior performance levels. But even if his 2020 performance is more indicative of who he’ll be moving forward, Richards would add depth to a rotation that was woefully thin last season.
Richards would join a rotation that now features Eduardo Rodríguez, Nate Eovaldi, and Martín Pérez. Tanner Houck and Nick Pivetta represent considerations for the back end, while Matt Andriese offers a versatile depth option while affording time for prospects Connor Seabold and Bryan Mata to develop at the start of the season.
Jon Morosi of MLB Network and Chris Cotillo of MassLive.com were first to report on the talks between the Red Sox and Richards on Friday. Jeff Passan of ESPN was first to report the terms of the agreement.