FORT MYERS, Fla. — We’ve been waiting. And waiting.
Turns out, Eduardo Rodriguez has been waiting also.
To become what the experts thought he’d become. To become what his fellow starters (David Price, Rick Porcello, Chris Sale) thought he’d become. To become what he thought he’d become.
A No. 1 starter? That’s what many think the Red Sox lefthander is on the verge of becoming, and it’s what the experts have been waiting for him to become.
“I feel like I’ve been patient with my ups and downs and the injuries I’ve had,” said Rodriguez. “This offseason I’ve worked on trying to be healthy all the time, and I feel like I’m ready for that this year. I feel I can do that.”
E-Rod had his best season a year ago, when he went 13-5 with a 3.82 ERA. He made 23 starts and pitched 129⅔ innings, 7⅔ short of his high in 2017. Ankle and knee injuries the past three years have restricted his time on the mound, and prevented him from getting to the next level.
E-Rod will turn 26 on April 7, and at that age, with four years in the big leagues behind him, the time has come for him to arrive as a front-of-the-rotation starter.
God knows he has the stuff. Price drools at Rodriguez’s 95-plus fastball and wicked changeup. He’s a hybrid of Sale power and Price finesse. What he needs to be is Porcello-durable. If he can combine all three, he likely will fulfill the expectations.
The support staff he has is off the charts. Sale, Porcello, and Price, in particular, have drilled into him the confidence he needs. They have built him up as this pitcher who should have few peers in terms of overall talent.
They’ve tried to work with him on the mental part of pitching. How to approach the job. How to prepare. How to set up hitters.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora has listed him as one of the players he feels can take the next step. Rafael Devers and Andrew Benintendi are also on that short list.
While the next step is good for E-Rod, it’s also good for the Red Sox organization. While they have Price and Nathan Eovaldi under contract for a few years, both Sale and Porcello can be free agents after this season. It’s unknown at this juncture whether one or both or neither will be retained.
How much the Red Sox commit to Sale will depend on his health. How much they commit to Porcello will likely depend on his willingness to accept a shorter-term deal (whereas he may be able to get a longer deal in free agency). Porcello is 30 and Sale will be 30 in late March.
Rodriguez, who will earn $4.3 million this season, can’t become a free agent until after the 2021 season. If he could step up and be that 15- to 20-game winner, and act like a top-of-the-rotation starter, then the loss of either Sale or Porcello would be easier for the Red Sox to absorb.
“I’ve been lucky to have the type of teammates I’ve had, like Por, Dave, and Sale,” said Rodriguez. “And Eovaldi now. I’ve been learning a lot from them. The way they pitch, the way they prepare to pitch, and how they pitch to certain hitters.”
The one thing E-Rod does do is listen. He does absorb the knowledge around him. He even taps into hitters such as Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Dustin Pedroia to hear what they think about certain situations and how hitters think.
“The biggest thing for me is my physical health,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve spent the offseason with the trainers making sure my knee and ankle can hold up and be 100 percent. My goal now is to make 30-plus starts and pitch 200 innings. Those are the numbers in my mind.
“I’m not concerned about being No. 1, 2, 3, or whatever. I’m just concentrating on when it’s my turn to pitch, to take the ball and keep my team in the game and give them a chance to win the game. That’s what I’m focusing on.
“If I do that and stay healthy, the rest will take care of itself. I don’t want to be hurt anymore. That’s what’s held me back. I want my teammates to be able to lean on me like they do with David and Chris, Rick, and Nate.”
The Venezuela native has had his own personal angst about the horrible conditions in his homeland, but he politely declined talking about such things, as that can be a dangerous and tricky navigation of words.
In last year’s World Series, Rodriguez started Game 4 and lasted 5⅔ innings, allowing 4 runs. He was breezing along with five shutout innings, then allowed all four runs in the sixth, including a three-run homer by Yasiel Puig that prompted the famous glove-throwing into the mound by Rodriguez, who knew he made a bad pitch.
Cora had a long talk with Rodriguez about his pitch location. It was a perfect example of Rodriguez not quite making it to where he needed to be, but it also was a learning moment that he took into the offseason.
“I’m glad we’re all back together and get to come back here and start at zero again,” Rodriguez said. “We did it last year and we’ll do it again.”
He reflected on how far he has come since the Red Sox traded Andrew Miller to the Orioles to obtain him at the trade deadline in 2014. He remembers “driving from Bowie [Md.] to Portland [Maine] for about eight or nine hours with my wife and daughter. I was a young kid and I was a little sad.
“Then I came to Boston and realized how great it was here. Our goal was to win a World Series and we did that. Everything happens for a reason. I’m so happy to be here now.”
And he awaits that time and place when he becomes the superstar he seems destined to be. It is time. He knows it. It’s time to repay Price, Porcello, and Sale for the faith they’ve shown in him.
If he can, the wait was worth it.