FORT MYERS, Fla. — You remember the names Anderson Espinoza and Michael Kopech. Projected aces of the future who fueled the prospect hype industrial complex, they were used as bait to bring Drew Pomeranz and Chris Sale to town. There has been so much hand-wringing about the potential top-of-the-rotation talent the Red Sox surrendered that a talent they still possess has been overlooked.
Eduardo Rodriguez refreshed some memories in his first start of spring training on Thursday.
On a day when the Sox faced the daunting and dispiriting prospect of potentially losing an elite lefty for the season, Rodriguez flashed his potential to evolve into an elite lefty. If Rodriguez can put that potential into practice it bodes well for the Red Sox, whether David Price’s ominous soreness and tightness in his elbow are serious or not.
Rodriguez picked up where he left off last season, overpowering the Tampa Bay Rays with two innings of spotless work and two strikeouts. The 23-year-old featured an electric fastball, as he made his opening statement for a spot in the rotation and submitted evidence that the Sox still have a young pitcher to swaddle in lofty predictions and projections.
Manager John Farrell termed Rodriguez’s outing “very encouraging, particularly in light of some of the early morning news today.”
The ennui of an uneventful Sox camp was broken when Farrell revealed in the morning that Price had an MRI on Wednesday on his elbow and was getting additional opinions from Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Neal ElAttrache, better known as the doctor who operated on Tom Brady’s torn ACL in 2008. The three words that are anathema to pitchers — Tommy John surgery — popped to mind.
The Sox were more sanguine on Price’s status following their 19-2 bludgeoning of the Rays at JetBlue Park. But Price will still be in Indianapolis on Friday to be seen by Andrews and ElAttrache, who are at the NFL Combine.
Whether Price just endured a scare or needs to go under the knife, Rodriguez represents a promising pitcher who already has shown the stuff to succeed at the big league level, yet is still scratching the surface of his ability. Farrell said that “no one can deny that Eddie Rodriguez has as good stuff as any of the big names we have in our rotation.” What’s holding him back is experience and consistency.
“He burst onto the scene where I think his talents really allowed him to have the success he did,” said Farrell. “But much like every new guy that comes into the league, the league catches up to you, so it’s going to come down to consistent execution, to pitching to a scouting report . . . So, there are no secrets. He is into his third year in the big leagues. Guys know what to expect. He is a known commodity. But he has got as good of stuff as anybody in our rotation.”
The former Baltimore Orioles farmhand was a pleasant surprise in 2015, becoming the first Red Sox rookie lefthander to win double-digit games since John Curtis in 1972. Rodriguez went 10-6 with a 3.85 earned run average. The expectation was that he would take a leap forward in 2016, but his season got sidetracked in spring training when he subluxated the patella in his right knee while fielding fly balls during a popup drill.
The Sox initially downplayed the severity of the injury and were hopeful Rodriguez would be ready for the start of the season. He never pitched in spring training and missed the first 51 games. When he came back he was tentative and out of synch. In his first six starts, he went 1-3 with an 8.59 ERA. The Sox sent him back to Pawtucket for re-tuning after he allowed a career-high-tying nine runs and a career-high 11 hits against the Rays on June 27.
He rediscovered his Eddie Money form after he returned on July 15. In his final 14 starts, Rodriguez posted a 3.24 ERA and struck out 79 batters in 77⅔ innings, while allowing 60 hits. In September he pitched a near-no-hitter against the Oakland A’s and struck out a career-high 13 against the Rays.
It’s only spring training and the Rays didn’t exactly bring a Murders’ Row lineup from Port Charlotte, but Rodriguez was sharp. That was particularly encouraging because he had tweaked his right knee playing winter ball in his native Venezuela.
“I feel really happy for that because last year I didn’t throw any innings, any games,” said Rodriguez. “I was watching other people pitching and play the game, so this year is really important for me to be healthy and just fight for my spot.”
He might no longer have to fight Pomeranz and knuckleballer Steven Wright for one of the two final spots in the rotation. The best-case scenario for Price is rest and rehab, and that would make it difficult for him to be ready to start the season.
“I mean, I don’t know nothing about that, about how he is right now,” said Rodriguez. “I just want him to be fine because I don’t like to be in the spot because somebody got hurt. So, I just want him to get back and just battle for my spot like I’m supposed to.”
Hopefully, the news on Price is encouraging, and Rodriguez can just add depth to the rotation behind the desired and designed Big Three — Sale, Rick Porcello, and Price.
Either way, the Sox are not in a position to simply curl into a Fenway fetal position and cede their championship aspirations. Boston is built to win now, and its championship clock is ticking. Sale, Porcello, and shortstop Xander Bogaerts can become free agents after the 2019 season. After next season, Price can opt out of the seven-year, $217 million deal he signed.
There will be snarky Sox fans who will claim that since Price has never won a playoff start (0-8) his loss to injury would actually increase the odds of the Red Sox winning their fourth World Series this century. That’s caustic tripe. Having Price’s season end before the baseball season begins would be a major blow. It would require someone to step up as a front-line starter.
Rodriguez possesses the talent and the repertoire to do so eventually. He might have to immediately.