The Red Sox have a rotation spot to fill.
Multiple major league sources confirmed lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez is nearing an agreement with the Detroit Tigers on a five-year deal worth at least $77 million. The deal, which won’t be official until Rodriguez undergoes a physical with the Tigers, includes an opt-out after the second year.
Rodriguez went 13-8 with a career-worst 4.74 ERA over 157⅔ innings in 2021. The 28-year-old, in his first season back after missing all of 2020 with a COVID-19 infection and related myocarditis, posted a career-high strikeout rate (28.0 percent) and career-low 7.0 percent walk rate. Based on those numbers and the generally weak contact against him, Rodriguez had an expected ERA (xERA) — according to Baseball Savant — of 3.52, the same mark as American League Cy Young finalist and fellow lefthanded free agent Robbie Ray.
Rodriguez, acquired at the 2014 trade deadline from the Orioles for Andrew Miller, went 64-39 with a 4.16 ERA in 159 appearances (153 starts) for the Red Sox. He finished sixth in the AL Cy Young voting in 2019 (19-6, 3.81 ERA, 3.61 xERA).
The team was interested in bringing him back, having made a multi-year contract offer to him during the season and then making the one year, $18.4 million qualifying offer at the conclusion of the season, with the hope of either having Rodriguez back in 2022 or securing a multi-year deal.
“There is mutual interest in some kind of longer-term deal,” Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said at the GM Meetings last week.
However, that interest was not limited to the Red Sox, and the market for Rodriguez took shape quickly. The Tigers, according to a major league source, saw Rodriguez as a particularly intriguing target, a young (28 years old) veteran who had experienced both struggles and growth at the major league level as well as the postseason.
In Rodriguez, the Tigers saw a talented pitcher whose experiences would be an asset for a talented but young rotation that includes 24-year-olds Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize, and 23-year-old Matt Manning.
While the Sox were willing to pay Rodriguez more in 2022 than the $15.4 million base average annual value he received from the Tigers, and remained open to a multi-year deal, the Sox did not seem inclined to extend as far as Detroit did.
With Rodriguez gone, the Red Sox have five potential starters under team control for next year: Nate Eovaldi, Chris Sale, Nick Pivetta, Tanner Houck, and Garrett Whitlock. The team also has some prospects who project as potential big league starters, including Josh Winckowski (finished the year in Triple A), Kutter Crawford (Triple A), Connor Seabold (Triple A), Brayan Bello (Double A), Bryan Mata (missed all of 2021 due to Tommy John surgery), and Jay Groome (Double A). But that group is more likely to be treated as depth for later in the year.
Bloom said at the GM Meetings that the team was open to having both Houck (who started and relieved in 2021) and Whitlock (who worked exclusively out of the bullpen in his dazzling rookie campaign) start, but that the team wasn’t committed to such an approach, particularly given the bullpen holes created by moving both into the rotation.
And even if the team does commit to those five pitchers in the rotation, it will look to add additional help, mindful that it’s virtually impossible to navigate a season with just five starters and that the inexperience of Whitlock and Houck make them uncertainties.
“We certainly want to have more depth [regardless of whether Houck and Whitlock starts],” said Bloom. “I have no doubt that if that ends up being their role, that they’d be very capable. It just might not be the best alignment for our team.”
With Rodriguez likely headed to Detroit, the Sox now have a number of potential directions. With Sale and Eovaldi under contract, the team seems unlikely to look at free-agent starters who will require the longest-term deals, a group that includes Ray and Kevin Gausman.
If they are open to exploring high-cost, short-term options — as they were with the qualifying offer for Rodriguez — they could enter the market for a veteran such as Justin Verlander (who missed 2021 while recovering from Tommy John surgery) or lefthander Carlos Rodón (13-5, 2.37 ERA, 2.62 xERA in 132⅔ innings for the White Sox in 2021).
The team could also look at a less-expensive starter, leaving more money to spend elsewhere. Rich Hill (7-8, 3.86 ERA, 4.33 xERA in 158⅔ innings in 2021), Steven Matz (14-7, 3.82 ERA, 4.04 xERA in 150⅔ innings), and Anthony DeSclafani (13-7, 3.17, 3.90 xERA in 167⅔ innings) come to mind.
The Sox could also explore trades, with the A’s (Frankie Montas, Chris Bassitt, Sean Manaea) and Reds (Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray) among the teams that have already declared themselves open for business.
The Sox do have money to spend. Their projected payroll for luxury tax purposes is about $180 million, roughly $30 million below what they spent in 2021 and more than $50 million less than what they spent in 2018 and 2019. But they still have a variety of needs — one or more starters, multiple relievers, a second baseman/middle infielder, the bench, potentially a reunion with Kyle Schwarber, and potential extension talks with Rafael Devers and/or Xander Bogaerts. Spending less on a starter could fit a larger strategy to spread the table, much as they did last year.
Because the Red Sox issued a qualifying offer to Rodriguez, if his deal with Detroit is finalized, they’ll receive a compensatory draft pick following Competitive Balance Round B, just before the start of the third round. Such a selection is typically in the low- to mid-70s.