ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It was obvious this offseason that the Red Sox didn’t want to break up their World Series-winning team. They wanted to keep the band together for an encore performance. But there was, as former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein might say, a fatal flaw in that plan. It led the Sox to commit to players who have a track record of breaking down or wearing down.
Too much downtime for expected contributors leads to a downward spiral.
The 8-13 start to their World Series title defense has been painful for the Red Sox. But what really hurts a baseball team is when players who are part of the grand diamond design spend more time facing health issues than opponents. The Sox’ slow start wasn’t foreseeable, but players like Nathan Eovaldi, Eduardo Nunez, and Dustin Pedroia landing on the injured list was. So, was ace Chris Sale lacking electric stuff after mild shoulder inflammation truncated what looked like a certain Cy Young campaign last season and reduced his velocity and dominance in the playoffs.
You have to ask if president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski made the right moves by putting together a roster that relied on such players remaining in peak health and peak form. You simply can’t be surprised when players with documented injury histories or durability concerns succumb to those issues. You better think twice when counting on those players and letting them count their contract money because it could cost you in the end.
How much did Dombrowski weigh injury history when trying to keep his team intact with players who could fall apart or fall off during the season?
“Well, you always weigh everything. That’s one of those things that’s included,” said Dombrowski. “There’s a lot of guys in the big leagues that have injuries, unfortunately, especially when you talk about pitchers. That’s just part of the [deal]. This is a very unusual situation, so, hopefully, it’s a short-term type of thing.
“Unfortunately, it’s part of the game, and you deal with those things. You weigh it. You’re as thorough as you possibly can be, you do all the tests that you possibly can. But things happen. Things happen in sports in general.”
The ineffective Sox starting rotation absorbed another blow Saturday when the team placed postseason hero Eovaldi on the injured list with a “loose body” in his pitching elbow. The Jake Gyllenhaal doppelgänger is on the IL and might need arthroscopic surgery to remedy the issue.
Eovaldi had a similar ailment last year pitching for the Tampa Bay Rays. Ironically, he was scratched from a start against the Red Sox. He had surgery March 30, 2018 to remove two loose bodies and returned for the Rays on May 30. A decision will be made Monday, when Eovaldi visits a doctor, as to whether he will undergo surgery this time. But he seemed to be leaning that way when he addressed the media prior to the Sox’ game against his old team at Tropicana Field.
Eovaldi said having the free floater surgically removed would provide peace of mind. But the Sox can ill afford to miss a key piece of their starting rotation for an extended period of time. Boston entered last night with the worst starters’ ERA in baseball at 6.61. Plus, the hard-throwing righty was coming off an encouraging outing in New York, where he pitched six innings, allowed one run, and struck out six.
This is why Eovaldi’s four-year, $68 million deal to return to the Fens came with a Citgo sign-sized caveat emptor. After acquiring him from the Rays as a rental, the Sox got the most out of him they could’ve hoped for. He went 2-1 with a 1.61 ERA in six appearances last postseason. He earned a place in his teammates’ hearts and in Boston baseball lore with his valiant six-inning performance in relief in the Sox’ galvanizing 18-inning loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 3 of the World Series. At that point, the Sox could have severed a mutually beneficial relationship.
Eovaldi, who has undergone Tommy John surgery twice, is the guy you take as your fun date to a destination wedding. He’s not the guy you marry. The Sox made a long-term commitment to Eovaldi despite an injury history rivaling “War and Peace.”
Overlooking injury history is a pattern under Dombrowski. Do Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg ring a bell?
Nunez hasn’t displayed the same range since he injured his knee for the Sox in September 2017. You can practically hear Nunez’s knee crunch like oyster crackers when he goes to field a ball. He somehow played in 127 games last year. Now, making $5 million in the second year of his deal, he was sent to the IL with a balky back on Friday. The scratched cornea of infielder Brock Holt is bad luck, but Holt has his own history with concussions.
This team needs reliable options at second base with Dustin Pedroia recovering from the aftermath of cartilage restoration surgery. We all root for Pedey. He’s a Boston baseball treasure, but he’s a bigger gamble than anything offered at the copper colossus of a casino in Everett.
The decision to give Sale a five-year, $145 million extension before he threw a pitch that counted this season looks premature. Sale’s velocity was up in his last start against the Yankees, but his ERA remains elevated (8.50). The swings and misses he once easily generated have evaporated. He is winless in four starts and has admitted to being at a loss to explain his struggles. The obvious explanation would be the shoulder issue that sidelined him twice in a month with injury stints.
Forecasting injuries is the final frontier in sports analytics. Dombrowski evoked the Celtics signing Gordon Hayward and then watching him mangle his ankle last season five minutes into his Celtics career. The difference is that Hayward didn’t sport an injury history. He was hurt as the result of a freak accident on an alley-oop. The Celtics shouldn’t have expected that to happen.
The Sox can’t be surprised that Eovaldi, Nunez, and Pedroia are on the IL. They can’t be shocked that they’re not getting Cy Sale. If they are, then they also might be surprised to learn that traffic is horrible heading to the Cape on summer weekends.
The Sox can take solace in the fact their roster isn’t as brittle as the Bronx Bombers. The Yankees, a team built to mash is now a MASH unit with slugger Aaron Judge the latest Yankee to be hors de hardball. He left Saturday’s win with an oblique injury.
The Patriots have a credo: Dependability is more important than ability.
If you build a team that relies on players you can’t depend on then you’re hurting yourself.