Red Sox

Red Sox

Dave Dombrowski recently told the Boston Globe that he'll have a better handle on the team's needs by the All-Star break.

Let's hope that's not too late.

Thanks to a significant change in baseball's trade season — there's only one deadline now, and it's a hard one at July 31 — players won't be moved in August waiver deals anymore. That's how the Astros acquired ace Justin Verlander in a salary dump by the Tigers on Aug. 31, 2017, and it's how the Red Sox have augmented their roster in years past with players like Rod Beck, Dante Bichette, and Mark Kotsay, as well as Lou Merloni.

One theory when the change was announced was that it would force teams to act more aggressively in June, which is how the Yankees landed AL home run leader Edwin Encarnacion from the Mariners on Saturday, only halfway through the month.

Aggression typically isn't an issue for Dombrowski, who added Steve Pearce last June and Nathan Eovaldi a week before the trade deadline. But with teams not wanting to be shut out at July 31, perhaps the Encarnacion deal will spark a run on talent as contenders assess their needs.

So what do the Red Sox need? We've spent the last month detailing the ways in which the bullpen is one high-leverage arm short, particularly with Heath Hembree on the IL and Matt Barnes showing signs of wear. And that need remains.

 

But another, more serious hole, has contributed as much as anything else to the team's lackluster start, and it's the hole that Dombrowski acted aggressively to fix last year when everyone thought he needed a reliever — the starting rotation.

Last year's acquisition of Eovaldi proved pivotal, but the narrative at the time was how the Red Sox were short a reliever. Dombrowski, however, looked at potential playoff foes like the Yankees and Astros with their heavily right-handed lineups, and decided another right-handed starter was in order.

One World Series and $68 million contract later, it's fair to say that Eovaldi delivered.

A year later, however, Eovaldi is the problem. He underwent elbow surgery in April to remove loose bodies, and simply accepting that he'd return in a month and a half qualified as blindly optimistic, since it was the third elbow surgery of his career and second bout in a year with "loose bodies."

By the original timetable, Eovaldi should be back by now. But he suffered a predictable setback.

Eovaldi was shut down on June 9 with biceps tendinitis, and he hasn't thrown since. Manager Alex Cora recently told reporters that Eovaldi feels much better, but the odds of him returning before the All-Star break feel remote.

The impact on the pitching staff has been sneakily devastating. Left-hander Brian Johnson returned on Sunday and went three innings in an 8-6 victory over the Orioles. That continued a trend of short starts by Red Sox fifth starters in place of Eovaldi.

The group of Hector Velazquez, Ryan Weber, Josh Smith, Darwinzon Hernandez, and Johnson has combined to go 2-7 with a 7.31 ERA in 14 starts covering just 44.1 innings. In addition to getting hammered, they've only averaged a shade over three innings a start, which has killed the bullpen.

A year ago, by comparison, the trio of Johnson, Velazquez, and knuckleballer Steven Wright went 7-6 with a 4.14 ERA in 25 starts while averaging over five innings an outing.

"Those guys, we can talk about the horses, obviously, we would like to line them up and just roll, but the other guys, they've been missed," Cora said recently. "Brian and Hector, because they did an outstanding job last year, not only starting games but coming and going three innings with the game on the line and relying on them, that's been tough. It puts us in a tough situation using the bullpen, because you overuse guys on those days, and you're kind of chasing your tail the whole time. It seems like we're never at full strength bullpen-wise, and we have to manage it in a better way."

Acquiring another starter, in the mold of Eovaldi, would provide coverage in the short term, but flexibility and competition in the long term. Starters Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez and Eovaldi have performed no better than league average thus far this season, and moving one of them to the bullpen shouldn't be off the table if the Red Sox can acquire someone better.

 

The biggest name out there is Giants left-hander Madison Bumgarner, a four-time All-Star and former World Series MVP. While rumors have connected him to the surprising Twins — whom the Red Sox visit for the start of a three-game series on Monday — there's sure to be extensive interest in a pitcher with his pedigree, even if he isn't the player he was five years ago.

The Red Sox are one of eight teams on Bumgarner's no-trade list, but as Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic explained, he'd likely be willing to waive the no-trade if he's compensated for it. He's earning only $12 million in the final season of an eight-year extension and would be a true rental before hitting free agency. He's 3-6 with a 3.87 ERA in 15 starts. He has never posted an ERA over 3.37 in his previous 10 seasons.

Other well-known pitchers who could be on the move include Toronto's Marcus Stroman, Detroit's Matthew Boyd (whom Dombrowski acquired from the Jays for David Price in 2015), the Mets' Zack Wheeler, and maybe even Arizona's Zack Greinke, though he'd come with considerable luxury tax implications through 2021, and the Red Sox are already $5 million past the most onerous $246 million threshold, per rosterresource.com.

In any event, Dombrowski's lack of concern about filling a hole in the bullpen could be telling. Maybe it's the rotation he's really worried about.

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