Somehow, it keeps getting worse.
A miserable year for the Red Sox rotation keeps assuming ever darker dimensions. The anticipated rotation of Chris Sale, Nate Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodriguez, Rick Porcello, and David Price made all of four turns this year before the need for Eovaldi to undergo surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow set in motion a series of health woes that continues to grow even in the season’s final weeks.
Though Eovaldi — the Red Sox starter went five innings and allowed one run on one hit with four walks in Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the Twins — has made it back into the starting five, Sale is out for the year. And on Thursday, manager Alex Cora disclosed that Price — the scheduled starter Friday against the Yankees — experienced tightness in his left wrist during a Wednesday bullpen session and won’t be available in the forthcoming series against New York.
With their playoff hopes now down to a fraying thread, the Red Sox will thus enter the four-game series against the team with the best record in the majors entrusting their first two starts to “TBA, TBA.” Both games will be bullpen affairs, with manager Alex Cora suggesting that recently signed righty Jhoulys Chacin would be a candidate to work as “the opener” in the first contest.
It’s possible that Price will be back before long. Cora raised the possibility that the lefthander might be ready to pitch as soon as next week in Toronto — though he also allowed that there is a bigger picture to consider.
“As badly as we want to win, and we know David can probably go out there and compete for two innings throwing fastballs, it doesn’t make sense to me,” said Cora, who noted that Price wasn’t able to throw his cutter or changeup freely due to tightness related to a cyst in his left wrist. “He’s a big part of what we’re doing this year and what we’re trying to accomplish the next few years. I’m not going to put David’s health in jeopardy just because we’re going to be selfish and just push him for two innings.”
The Red Sox view the cyst as a one-time issue. Still, it’s not the only issue that has compromised Price’s availability this year. He missed 14 games in mid-May with left elbow tendinitis, and the Red Sox carefully managed his innings after his return, explaining his average of fewer than five innings per outing in his 22 starts.
Sale, of course, isn’t coming back. The lefthander is on the 60-day injured list after receiving a PRP injection to treat his left elbow — the second straight year in which he missed significant time late due to an injury.
The absence and struggles this year of Sale, Price, and Eovaldi have played a huge role in a disappointing Red Sox season. The rotation features a 4.98 ERA, and its inability to provide consistent innings has left a huge burden on the bullpen.
All that, of course, is well known. The story of a championship defense that has gone awry begins with the starters’ struggles. Now, however, the question looms: Can the team expect better in 2020?
After all, Price is now 34. Sale will turn 31 in the initial days of 2020. Eovaldi, who turns 30 in February, has eclipsed 125 innings just twice in a nine-year big league career. With roughly $73 million committed to that trio (for luxury tax purposes) next year, it’s not hard to imagine that the foremost cause of the Red Sox’ struggles in 2019 may already be casting a shadow upon 2020.
Are the Red Sox concerned about the durability and effectiveness of their rotation for next year?
“I don’t really worry about that,” said president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. “I just sort of weigh a lot of different factors.”
■ “I’m assuming that for the [medical] situation, Chris is going to be fine,” Dombrowski said. “From that scenario, I don’t really worry about it. And I think part of it is that when you look at it, you look at pitchers’ pure stuff.”
Dombrowski said that he thinks there were several positive indicators – including strikeout rate and WHIP – that suggest that Sale remains “one of the best pitchers in the league.”
■ Though Price has produced the lowest three full-season innings totals of his career over the last three seasons (74⅔ in 2017, 176 in 2018, and 107⅓ this year), Dombrowski said that the cyst is viewed as an isolated event. He also noted that when healthy, the lefty topped out in the mid-90s this year, and that his elite command gives him some room for a natural age-based decline in the quality of his pitches.
“You look at [Zack] Greinke, who just got traded and everyone is talking about how great he is. Well, they’re very similar, aside from lefty vs. righty,” Dombrowski said. “I’m not worried about the durability, but I don’t expect him to be the guy he was when he was 28. When we signed David Price . . . you feel that there’s downside when he gets to years five, six, and seven. He’s not going to throw as hard. But he knows how to pitch.”
■ While the fact that Sale and Price have crossed to the “wrong” side of 30 would seem a red flag, Dombrowski feels that they belong to a very specific demographic for which that age does not inherently represent a red flag.
“I haven’t found [the notion of significant risk of decline after age 30] to be true, especially if you look at elite pitchers. They’re different. They’re much different actually. And [Sale and Price] are both considered elite pitchers,” said Dombrowski. “We’ve done a lot of work, a lot of homework, a lot of analysis on that . . . Elite pitchers can lose a little something and still be really, really good.”
That is, of course, true — so long as they are on the mound. But for the Red Sox, who have already made an enormous commitment to three pitchers who have significant stretches of the year with injuries, it’s hard to take health for granted. Certainly, it is possible that this year represents a health anomaly — perhaps not shocking, given the toll of last October. But if it does not, then the stagger through 2019 may bleed into next season — a possibility for which the Red Sox need to account in what promises to be a challenging offseason.