Red Sox should extend contract of right-handed pitcher Nathan Eovaldi

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 04: Nathan Eovaldi #17 of the Boston Red Sox pitches in the first inning of a game against the New York Yankees at Fenway Park on August 4, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 04: Nathan Eovaldi #17 of the Boston Red Sox pitches in the first inning of a game against the New York Yankees at Fenway Park on August 4, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) /

Eovaldi has had a phenomenal start to his Red Sox career. Dave Dombrowski should make sure that Eovaldi’s Red Sox career doesn’t end anytime soon.

The Boston Red Sox are in the midst of one of the greatest seasons in their franchise’s long storied history. To date, the Beantown ballclub is 79-34 and holds a stunning 9.5 game lead over the second place Yankees.

The Red Sox pitching staff has played no small part in that success. As a team, the Red Sox are 2nd in ERA (3.43), 3rd in WHIP (1.20), 3rd in K/9 (9.60), and 2nd in fWAR (17.3). However, until recently the Red Sox have had a hole in the back end of their rotation.

Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, and Eduardo Rodriguez have all gotten the job done. But the last holdover from the 2017 rotation has fallen off a cliff. After pitching like a star in 2017, expectations were high for Drew Pomeranz this season. However, through his first ten starts, the 29-year-old southpaw has produced -.02 fWAR and only still holds a rotation spot because Rodriguez is on the shelf. (I hate to say I told you so buuuut maybe Pom’s regression wasn’t so unpredictable).

The Red Sox have sent a smorgasbord of homegrown pitchers to try to fill that void with varying levels of success, but ultimately Boston needed another starter. Enter Nathan Eovaldi.

Eovaldi was acquired on July 25 from the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for Pawtucket reliever Jalen Beeks. Eovaldi came to Boston sporting a 3-4 record with a solid but unspectacular 4.26 ERA in 57 innings pitched. To many, Eovaldi was seen as a depth player and maybe a slight upgrade over Brian Johnson and Drew Pomeranz for the final rotation spot. However, a closer look at Eovaldi’s peripherals shows that maybe we should’ve expected more from the hard-throwing right-hander.

While his ERA before donning a Red Sox uniform was nothing to write home about, Eovaldi’s ability to keep runners off the bases was elite. In his time in Tampa, Eovaldi held his WHIP to 0.98 and his K/BB rate at 6.60; rates that would have ranked 7th and 3rd among all starters in baseball respectively had his innings total qualified. His 18.3% HR/FB seemed flukey at the time, especially considering his career HR/FB rate is below 10%, and his 3.51 xFIP looked much more like his true talent level. These facts were overlooked by much of the media at the time of this trade but were certainly not unnoticed by Dave Dombrowski.

Trader Dave has been rewarded handsomely thus far for his shrewd judgment. In 15 innings with the Red Sox, Eovaldi has struck out nine batters while allowing only seven hits, one walk, and zero runs. His latest eight-inning gem against the Yankees on Saturday has already propelled Eovaldi to fan favorite status in Boston.

But despite his recent success, Eovaldi is still being talked about purely as a rental. That’s how we tend to view trade deadline acquisitions for players in their walk years. However, the Red Sox should think twice before letting Eovaldi walk into the open market.

The fit here is readily apparent: Pomeranz is a free agent this offseason and the Red Sox, barring an Eovaldi extension, will have the same hole in their rotation that they had before the trade. Given the Red Sox’s depleted farm system the only viable alternatives to Eovaldi would be an internal replacement or a free agent acquisition. This Red Sox team is built to win over the next two years so it seems almost unfathomable that they’d risk their window by cutting costs and handing the ball to Johnson every fifth day.

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So that leaves the open market. Even with Pomeranz and Craig Kimbrel set to become free agents, the Red Sox – including estimated arbitration raises and club options that will be picked up (Sale) – currently have about $211 million committed to next year’s team. Assuming they want to avoid the maximum luxury tax penalty and leave money for in-season acquisitions, the Red Sox have about $20-$25 million to spend this offseason. That money should be budgeted almost entirely towards Kimbrel, or his replacement, and a starting pitcher.

Given that budget, we can all throw away our dreams of Clayton Kershaw coming to Boston this winter. Patrick Corbin, Charlier Morton, and Dallas Keuchel are probably out of reach as well. That leaves some interesting arms – Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, J.A. Happ, and Garrett Richards – potentially in Boston’s price range.

Cahill is probably too unreliable as this is the first year he’s been worth more than 1.0 fWAR since 2012. Gonzalez is intriguing because he still eats up innings and even this year has been more than serviceable, but his walk rate has kept jumping every year and now sits at 4.50 per nine; not ideal for a 32-year-old pitcher that will likely get a three or four-year deal. Happ is probably the best pitcher of this group currently, but he’s also 35 and, while he wouldn’t push Boston past the cap, his salary would probably only leave room for a small bullpen addition. That leaves Richards.

Richards is my favorite option out of this group. He has the potential to be an ace and isn’t that old. He’s a huge injury risk considering he hasn’t pitched a full season since 2015, but you can deal with that as a number five starter when you have solid depth options like Hector Velazquez, Stephen Wright, and Johnson. He also seems like a guy that could take a pillow contract to show that he’s healthy and make a run at a bigger deal next year. The risk is higher with Richards, but the rest of Boston’s rotation looks super solid for next season so they can afford to play the high-risk, high-reward option.

But there’s no guarantee that Richards will take a pillow contract from Boston and he’s too risky to give a longer commitment. Ultimately, the Red Sox would be smart to avoid this market altogether and just extend Eovaldi.

Eovaldi is not without his warts: he missed all of 2017 with his second Tommy John surgery, has never thrown 200 innings, and doesn’t generate the strikeout totals you’d expect from someone who throws 98 mph. But Eovaldi has a career FIP of 3.85, limits walks better than any starter on the market in the same price range, and has pitched at least 120 innings (including minor league innings) every year – besides last season – since 2011. He’s a good bet to be a slightly above average starter for 120-150 innings with decent breakout potential.

He also doesn’t figure to be massively expensive. A good starting point for negotiations might be Alex Cobb’s contract last offseason. Cobb was coming off a season with the Rays where he posted an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 3.66/4.16/4.24 with a 2.91 K/BB ratio and 2.4 fWAR in 179 innings. That was after missing all of 2015 and most of 2016 to injuries. Cobb missed more time than Eovaldi did, but Cobb was the better pitcher before his injury, posting ERAs below three in both 2013 and 2014. Steamer projects Eovaldi to finish 2018 with 2.1 fWAR, placing him in close company to Cobb’s 2.4 fWAR total in 2017. All told, Cobb’s value entering last offseason is about as good of a comp as we are going to find.

Cobb wound up getting a four-year $57 million pact with the Orioles. That works out to about $14 million per year. If the Red Sox were to extend Eovaldi, it’s possible they’d get a slight discount in exchange for saving Eovaldi from facing the uncertainty of a market full of good pitchers. However, even giving Eovaldi the same pact Cobb received would be stomachable enough. Pitching is expensive these days and with the cost of a win hovering over $8 million, it would not be hard for Eovaldi to outperform that deal.

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The Red Sox still have plenty of time to perform internal evaluations on Eovaldi. They will have a better look at him than anyone else in baseball for the next two months (or three if we count October) and will have far more data to make this decision than I do currently. However, from where I’m sitting, resigning Eovaldi seems like Boston’s best bet.