Tomase: Did Red Sox choose the wrong guy in Richards over Kluber?


The marriage made perfect sense. The Red Sox needed pitching, and Corey Kluber needed to prove he had recovered from a muscle tear in his shoulder.

The Red Sox didn't want to blow out their budget, and Kluber was willing to sign a short-term deal for reasonable money.

The Red Sox wouldn't mind energizing their fan base, and here was a Winchester, Mass., resident and two-time Cy Young Award winner just waiting to fall into their lap.

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The Red Sox had other ideas. They signed Garrett Richards.

And now, like it or not, the two right-handers will be compared all season, especially since Kluber inked a one-year deal with the New York Yankees, ensuring the Red Sox won't have far to look to determine whether they made the right choice.

All usual caveats apply at this point in spring training (it's early, working out the kinks, etc. …) but the initial returns aren't encouraging. While Kluber earned rave reviews for Wednesday's debut vs. the Blue Jays (two innings, three strikeouts), Richards has been a hot mess.

Only the mercy rule saved him from a pounding in his spring debut, and then in Sunday's follow-up, he couldn't put his fastball within three feet of the strike zone, allowing four runs on three walks in two innings of a 5-4 loss to the Braves.


The good and the ugly

Kluber's spring training ERA (2 IP)
Richards' spring training ERA (4 IP)

"It's all mechanical stuff right now," Richards said, and that's fair. That's what spring training is for. But he's not preparing in a vacuum.

He's so obviously one half of an either-or decision that he should expect his results to be compared to Kluber's all season, starting now. Richards signed a one-year, $10 million deal with a $10 million team option for 2022. Kluber signed a straight one-year, $11 million with the Yankees, making the money effectively a wash.

The option year was important to the Red Sox, who wanted the chance to retain their reclamation project. The fact that Kluber preferred to re-establish his value before hitting free agency again next fall didn't fit Boston's slightly longer-term plans.

Of course, that will seem like a rather pointless distinction, if Richards can't throw strikes and Kluber rediscovers his All-Star form. While the Red Sox searched gamely for silver linings after Sunday's slog, the Yankees are gushing over Kluber.

Let's compare and contrast, for instance, what Red Sox manager Alex Cora had to say Sunday about Richards with former All-Star David Cone's assessment of Kluber.

Here's Cora on Richards:

Out of his delivery, obviously, we don't like the walks. But like I told him after the outing, 'Are you healthy?' and he said, 'Yup,' and that's what matters right now. Obviously we have to make adjustments, but we're getting to know the individual.

Translation: this guy has had two elbow surgeries, including Tommy John, so at least his arm is still attached.

Now listen to what Cone had to say to about Kluber:

"It looked to me like he was turning it loose. He's not babying it. He's not being tentative. It's like he's got confidence in his stuff because it's snapping again. That slider ... when he was at the top of the game, he had one of the world's best sliders. It had its own name, 'The Kluber Slider.' People wanted that pitch and it looked like it was snapping."

The Red Sox took a big swing with Richards, who they believe possesses the underlying attributes to front a rotation. His curveball spin rate is the best in baseball, and the rotations on his 95 mph fastball aren't far behind. Those are solid building blocks in a lab, but the real-world results have been less impressive, mainly because he's never healthy.

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Kluber, meanwhile, was a picture of durability until a line drive broke his arm in 2019 and the shoulder injury limited him to just one inning in 2020 with the Rangers. His pedigree also far outstrips that of Richards, with two Cy Young awards, three All-Star appearances, a 20-win season, and an ERA title.

The Red Sox bet on Richards staying healthy and putting it all together. It didn't hurt that at 32, he's two years younger than Kluber.

But history, skills, measurables, attributes, and projections won't mean anything once April 1 arrives. Then the game will be simple: which one of them pitches better?

So yes, it's early, but if you were the Red Sox, how good would you be feeling right now?