The Red Sox rotation entered Wednesday’s game against the Giants with a 4.92 ERA, 20th in the majors and worst among teams with a record of at least .500.
As of Wednesday, David Price has been shut down for the rest of 2019 to have a wrist cyst removed, and to have his wrist examined to see if there are any other issues that need to be addressed. He will finish the year having pitched well when healthy enough to take the mound — he went 7-5 with a 4.28 ERA (114 ERA+) — but having logged just 107⅓ innings in 22 starts, or fewer than five innings per.
The last three seasons, the 34-year-old averaged 119 innings. In addition to the wrist cyst, which cost him almost all of the final eight weeks of this season, he’s been sidelined by multiple bouts with elbow discomfort — most recently when he landed on the injured list for a couple weeks in early May, a far cry from the more than half-season he missed in 2017 — while also missing time in 2018 for carpal tunnel and circulatory issues in his wrist. He has three seasons remaining under contract, counting for $31 million per season for luxury tax purposes.
Lefthander Chris Sale is on the 60-day injured list while recovering from a plasma-rich platelet (PRP) injection to treat what the team describes as elbow inflammation. The elbow issue concluded a 6-11 season with a career-worst 4.40 ERA, while contributing a career-low 25 starts and 147⅓ innings. It comes on the heels of a 2018 in which he also set a career low for starts (27) and innings (158), workload limits that arose from a shoulder injury. The 30-year-old begins his five-year, $145 million extension next season.
Righthander Nate Eovaldi, in the first year of his four-year, $68 million deal, missed roughly three months while recovering first from surgery to remove bone chips, and then biceps tendinitis. In 10 starts this year, the 29-year-old has yet to record a decision while posting a 6.44 ERA and allowing an alarming 2.7 homers per nine innings.
Meanwhile, while the Red Sox have an emerging group of potential big league starters forming at the lower and middle levels of their system — including Bryan Mata (who finished the year in Double A), Thad Ward (High A), and perhaps Tanner Houck (who relieved in Triple A, but is getting ready to start in the Arizona Fall League) — the team’s struggles to replace Eovaldi and others in the rotation this year suggest an absence of reliable big league-ready starting depth, at least at the beginning of 2020.
The Red Sox are clinging to optimism when it comes to the state of their rotation. That their two highest-paid rotation members will finish the year without pitching, and that their third has never in 2019 been able to replicate the dazzling performance he showed at the end of 2018, the team insists — hopes? — is not cause for alarm.
“There are not too many red flags in the situations that will be, like, ‘We’re not going to count on these guys next year,’ ” said manager Alex Cora.
Price, Sale, and Eovaldi served as the rotation anchors of a World Series run in 2018, and the notion of a rebound by all three in 2020 can’t be dismissed out of hand.
When healthy in 2019, Price showed elite command that still allowed him to navigate lineups carefully and successfully. The procedure to remove a cyst should address the issue that has sidelined him for the last third of the season.
“We need this guy healthy, ready to go, and I think this is the best move for the player and obviously for the organization,” said Cora.
Sale, who is currently rehabbing in Fort Myers, Fla., is due to be reexamined by Dr. James Andrews in the coming weeks. Cora said that the lefthander “has made strides” in all his rehab work to date that offer initial cause for the team to believe he’s on the road back to the rotation for 2020.
The fact that he still struck out batters at one of the highest rates in the big leagues suggests that his inconsistency may have been the sort of one-year aberration that can befall even Hall of Fame-caliber pitchers.
Eovaldi’s arm strength remains elite. And so, with a full, healthy offseason, the righthander has a chance to reestablish himself as a solid mid-rotation option.
That, of course, is the glass-half-full view. But there are plenty of precedents to suggest that the Red Sox can’t simply rely on best-case scenarios. In Price, Sale, and Eovaldi, the Red Sox have made their most aggressive long-term rotation investments since the beginning of this decade, when they committed hundreds of millions of dollars to Daisuke Matsuzaka, John Lackey, and Josh Beckett.
That trio endured a steady decline in both health and performance while together, resulting in negative returns on investment in 2012 that threatened to choke the roster for years — until the Dodgers ex machina bailout that August, which included taking on the final years of Beckett’s deal, gave the Sox a reboot.
Of course, part of that reboot was also achieved in the surprise championship season of 2013 thanks to bouncebacks of Jon Lester, Lackey, and Clay Buchholz — pitchers who were either injured or performed below career norms in 2012.
As much as the Red Sox need to remain mindful of the risks presented by the current state of the rotation, there is also evidence that pitchers with track records of success can bounce back, both individually and as a group.
That, of course, is the Red Sox’ desperate hope. Yet the uncertainty surrounding the rotation suggests that the organization is in need of a different rotation depth model than the one it pursued entering 2019.
There is a chance that the team’s well-compensated starters reclaim the form that they’ve shown either for most of their careers (Sale and Price) or in somewhat recent glimpses (Eovaldi). But the Red Sox can ill-afford to bet next season on the presumption of rotation health without preparing for the possibility that the 2019 season represents a flashing red warning light that will extend into the team’s future.