NEW YORK — It was very easy to watch Nate Eovaldi pitching off the mound at an empty Yankee Stadium on Friday afternoon and envision him being back in an actual game for the Red Sox sometime soon.
The righthander did not look like a pitcher who had elbow surgery only 5½ weeks ago. His fastball had its usual velocity and the secondary pitches were crisp, particularly his splitter.
Eovaldi threw 32 pitches in the bullpen then 22 to teammates Michael Chavis and Brock Holt in a simulated game. There were a few good swings but more bad ones.
“Everything felt really good,” said Eovaldi, who felt his stuff was game-ready.
All that’s left is rebuilding some endurance and that should come quickly.
Eovaldi could pitch in a minor league game as soon as next week and it’s possible he’ll be back in the rotation by the middle of June.
To repeat: In the rotation and not in the bullpen.
We all understand the Red Sox need another reliable late-inning option in the bullpen and Eovaldi showed in the postseason how effective he could be in that role. He pitched in relief four times and allowed one earned run on four hits over 9⅓ innings.
“What he did in October, that was unreal. That was fun to watch,” manager Alex Cora said.
But the Sox want more from Eovaldi, not less.
“Obviously this is a guy that is very important for us. The way we’re structured, that fifth game is very important for us,” Cora said. “When [the starters] are pitching the way they are, they start giving you six and seven innings. It helps.”
The best way to help any bullpen is to have a strong rotation. The Red Sox are built around a deep and expensive rotation and Eovaldi is part of that.
“Having that rotation and having those guys go deep into the game, that’s how we operate here,” Cora said. “That’s where we’re going with him.”
It’s also how Eovaldi wants to be used. When he became a free agent after the World Series, the righthander fielded several offers from teams who wanted to have him as their closer.
He turned them all down because he wanted to remain a starter and eventually signed a four-year, $68 million deal with the Red Sox in December.
There was a physical component to that decision, too. Eovaldi has twice had Tommy John surgery and the unpredictable nature of relieving would not serve him well compared to the structured four-day routine of a starter.
“I’ve always been a starter and that’s where I’m most comfortable,” Eovaldi said.
The Sox felt the same way. None of their internal discussions involved making Eovaldi into a full-time reliever. They saw the adjustments he had made over the previous year with Tampa Bay, particularly in how he used his cutter, and saw a pitcher on a verge of fulfilling what has always been vast potential.
“The way he threw the ball for us right after the trade was great,” Cora said “We found out a few things about him, [pitch] usage, how can we maximize his talent. And it worked.”
The Red Sox had conversations with Craig Kimbrel about returning to the team but found his demands at the time to be unrealistic and pivoted to Eovaldi. Now, six months later, that hasn’t changed. They want him to be a starter.
It’s a smart move. It will be much easier for the Red Sox to trade for relief help over the next two months as opposed to obtaining a starter who can approximate what Eovaldi can give them.
The alternative would be to keep using pitchers like Hector Velazquez, Ryan Weber, and Josh Smith as starters. They are 2-5 with a 7.09 earned run average in 10 starts and pitched only 33 innings in those games.
Eovaldi quite likely would be impressive as a closer. He has the stuff and mentality for it. But his greatest value to the Red Sox is to get back in the rotation with Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, and Eduardo Rodriguez.
That group pitched the Sox into the postseason last year and they can do it again.
The bullpen can be mended another way. The next time Eovaldi should be considered for that job should be in the playoffs.