At a time when the Red Sox face increasing complexity regarding their future, Nathan Eovaldi offered the club an enticing application of Occam’s razor, an instance where the simplest solution emerged as the right one.
While the Red Sox will return much of their 2018 World Series-winning team, they are trying to chart a course not just for 2019 but beyond. Chris Sale and Rick Porcello are eligible for free agency after the coming season, as are Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez (who has the first of three opt-outs in his five-year deal after 2019). Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. are eligible for free agency after 2020.
The Red Sox face difficult negotiations with many of those players. There are no guarantees that they will be able to retain any of them.
The opportunity to re-sign Eovaldi thus represented a bird in hand, with the team able to retain a pitcher who in three months after his trade to the Red Sox showed premium stuff, outstanding makeup, and the ability to handle pitching in Boston (and at Fenway Park). He proved his ability to dominate against top lineups.
On top of that, Eovaldi signaled a willingness to sign for known terms, a four-year, $68 million deal. In this case, the Red Sox looked at all of those elements and reached a conclusion: Don’t overthink it.
Eovaldi represents a good fit who not only rounds out the rotation for 2019, but also helps alleviate some of the questions that exist beyond that.
“It’s part of the equation, very important,” said president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. “We know that there’s a lot of question marks about [the] long-term contract status of part of the members of our club; it’s going to be a juggling act over the next several years. We know we’re not going to be able to sign everybody, but the more stability that’s out there, the better off we are.”
Dombrowski noted that with Eovaldi, David Price, and Eduardo Rodriguez, the Red Sox have at least three rotation spots accounted for in 2020.
“We hope we have five of them,” he added, alluding to the interest in retaining Sale and Porcello.
But doing so might not be possible. After all, lefthander Patrick Corbin — coming off a 2018 season (11-7, 3.15 ERA, 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings in a career-high 200 innings) that departed from a more modest career line (56-54, 3.91, 8.5 strikeouts per nine) — just commanded a six-year, $140 million deal on the open market. If Sale (about three months older than Corbin) is healthy and performs anywhere near his perennial Cy Young-caliber standards in 2019, he’ll blow well past that, and possibly beyond the $200 million marks surpassed by Price, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer.
A few hours after the news conference to announce Eovaldi’s return, Dombrowski held another media session in the Red Sox suite at the Winter Meetings. He reiterated the difficulty that the Red Sox face in trying to retain members of the championship core.
“I do caution, and the one thing I keep talking about, is that it’s just from a financial perspective and rule perspective, it’s not going to be possible to keep everybody that we have,” he said. “You have to realize that if anybody is signed long term now, it may have an effect on some other things that you may do later on.”
In the team’s eyes, Eovaldi represented an opportunity to strike something of a balancing act, offering greater roster stability while also not proving so prohibitively expensive that he’ll hamstring the efforts to retain other players — at least not the big fish of future offseasons.
There was a zero-sum calculation with Eovaldi, but it came at the expense not of players such as Sale, Bogaerts, Martinez, and Betts, but of Craig Kimbrel. Much as the Red Sox decided at the trade deadline that they preferred Eovaldi to relief options such as Zach Britton, they prioritized the righthanded starter over the top-end closer market.
“We prefer that move than go in the direction of putting that money in let’s say finding a closer,” said Dombrowski. “It doesn’t mean we can’t still do some things in that regard, but [Eovaldi] was really our priority.”
Eovaldi is now part of the team’s future. That status is valued by the decision-makers, who are trying both to give the team a chance to mount a title defense in 2019 and to sustain a competitive roster beyond next season.
Alex Speier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.