TORONTO – Waiting for the trade deadline was no longer an option.
For weeks, the Red Sox pitching staff — both in the rotation and bullpen — has been springing leaks. The two-game debacle in London against the Yankees revealed a team that could no longer regulate its water levels to navigate the locks through a 162-game season. Though he dismissed the notion that the 2019 Red Sox now felt a sense of desperation, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski acknowledged that repairs had assumed a dimension of “urgency” for a club that looked like it might soon be submerged.
And so, a move of Nate Eovaldi from the rotation to the bullpen — which Dombrowski and the Sox dismissed just two weeks ago — suddenly became the new blueprint. Two key reasons for the decision:Eovaldi’s rehab from his mid-April elbow surgery has occurred at a pace far more deliberate than expected, and the Red Sox’ pitching woes seemed to grow by the day.
“We have to pitch better from the first to the ninth inning,” said manager Alex Cora. “We understand that.”
Eovaldi always represented a key component of that upgrade, but while the Sox had viewed his biggest impact coming as a member of the rotation — thus addressing a fifth starter spot that has been a carousel of calamity — the combination of expediency and bullpen need prompted a change.
Expectations of Eovaldi’s return in early June to the rotation proved at least a month too optimistic because of a biceps strain suffered during his rehab. Given the team’s need for as much help as possible, as quickly as possible — and five bullpen losses with a 7.02 ERA in the last two weeks — the Red Sox welcomed the idea of a shortcut with Eovaldi.
Rather than returning as a fifth starter in perhaps late July or even August, the Sox hope Eovaldi might be available as a reliever as soon as July 12. Cora and Dombrowski said his bullpen role was to be determined (neither would commit that he would be used as a traditional closer, Dombrowski allowing only that “we’re looking at him more toward that”).
“We saw what he’s capable of doing in the postseason last year. His stuff is phenomenal. Any time you can have somebody throwing 100 with three other plus pitches, he’ll help this team in any capacity as long as he’s on the mound,” said reliever Matt Barnes. “He makes this team better. The sooner we can get him back to help this ballclub, obviously the better, in whatever capacity it is.”
There is an aching need for bullpen help. The Red Sox entered Tuesday with 17 blown saves, most in the American League. Barnes and Marcus Walden have been wilting recently with escalating workloads, at a time when Heath Hembree has been on the injured list because of an elbow strain.
Still, even if Eovaldi helps to stabilize the bullpen, there is a question of whether the Red Sox are plugging one leak while risking a burst of the dam. After all, it is the repeated, abbreviated starts by pitchers such as Hector Velazquez and Josh Smith and Ryan Weber — not to mention rotation mainstays Rick Porcello and David Price — that has placed a huge tax on the bullpen, and that has dictated how the Sox build out their roster.
“We’re probably in a spot where we need to stay with 13 pitchers most of the time due to our fifth starter spot right now,” Dombrowski said. “We don’t have a fifth starter that’s going to go out and get seven innings on a consistent basis.”
With no obvious in-house option to help the rotation, the focus of what the Red Sox will try to do between now and the July 31 trading deadline will center on finding pitching help.
First, the team could trade for a starter, likely exploring a rental market in which the cost wouldn’t be a top prospect. (Eovaldi, for example, came to the Sox as a rental last summer in exchange for Jalen Beeks.)
Or, the team could trade for bullpen help, thus opening the door to stretching out Eovaldi for the rotation. But is that realistic? There are precedents that suggest the answer is yes.
In 2005, Curt Schilling opened the year on the injured list after his ankle surgery, then made three starts before going back to the sideline in mid-April (after just three starts) for the next three months. When he returned after the All-Star break, it was as a closer. Though his first appearance against the Yankees was a dud and he put up a 5.18 ERA in the role, he stabilized the back of the Sox bullpen for a time, in one- to two-inning stints, converting nine of 11 save opportunities.
But with Jonathan Papelbon emerging in the bullpen, the Sox thought Schilling could help in the rotation down the stretch. So the veteran righthander spent the last five weeks back in the rotation, going 3-3 with a 5.08 ERA. His most impressive outing came against the Yankees in the final game of the season; Schilling and the Sox cruised to a 10-1 win.
“I remember he pitched Game 162,” said Cora, Schilling’s teammate that year. “We’ll see [with Eovaldi].”
More recently, David Price returned from elbow tendinitis as a reliever in the final two weeks of the 2017 season and dominated out of the bullpen — eventually building to four scoreless innings against the Astros in Game 3 of the ALDS, positioning himself as a potential starter had the Red Sox season not ended in the next game.
So, precedent suggests it’s possible that Eovaldi still could help in the rotation. But while the Sox view Eovaldi as a starter in 2020, and also left open the door to his getting stretched out as a starter this year, Dombrowski acknowledged that the team is working on the assumption that he will be part of the bullpen for the rest of the year.
That move reflects the sense that there is no time to waste. Upgrades are needed in the bullpen and the rotation, and the Red Sox no longer feel they can be picky about where the help comes from.