Red Sox

Red Sox

The Red Sox are apparently ready to make Nathan Eovaldi their closer when he returns from the injured list, a decision that reeks of desperation following the great British bludgeoning, serves as a repudiation of two core offseason plans, and calls into question Eovaldi's health.

What can go wrong?

NESN's Tom Caron reported on Monday night that Eovaldi will fill the traditional closer's role when he returns, which isn't expected until after the All-Star break. It's a shocking turn of events, to say the least, considering not only the $68 million the Red Sox committed to the right-hander this offseason, but the gaping hole that opened in their rotation like an alien maw when Eovaldi underwent elbow surgery in April.

The words "panic move" spring to mind, but let's break this down.

On the plus side, the Red Sox need bullpen stability after watching their relievers surrender 20 runs over two days in London vs. the Yankees. The current model of hurling Triple-A filler against the wall like cooked spaghetti has resulted in little more than an unappetizing pile of stale spaghetti. Next on the firing line: sidewinding Triple-A right-hander Trevor Kelley, whom they summoned on Monday. His velocity tops out in the 80s, he's better against lefties than righties, and he doesn't strike anyone out. Here's hoping the Providence native meets a better fate than the random Joshes and Ryans that have preceded him.

 

Based on Eovaldi's success in relief last postseason, when he allowed just one earned run in 9.1 innings, it's easy to see why the Red Sox believe he's the solution to their bullpen woes, especially since owner John Henry recently told WEEI.com he's not inclined to spend more on baseball's highest-paid team. Give Eovaldi the ninth, let Matt Barnes and Brandon Workman split the seventh and eighth, and now suddenly everyone slots into roles.

That kind of consistency is a necessity, because this closer by committee thing ain't working. The Red Sox have blown 17 saves, the most in the American League, and their bullpen is crumbling under the weight of overuse. In June alone, stalwarts Marcus Walden (6.75) and Matt Barnes (9.69) have watched their ERAs soar.

Those are the positives, such as they are. Now let's explore the many pitfalls.

For starters, what does this tell us about Eovaldi's health? Both manager Alex Cora and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski have insisted over the last month that Eovaldi wouldn't join the bullpen. Cora noted that Eovaldi signed here this winter partly over the promise that he'd start, while Dombrowski recently told the Boston Globe "you never say never" to Eovaldi closing, but that all signs pointed towards a return to the rotation.

So what changed? After undergoing surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow, Eovaldi suffered a setback while trying to meet an aggressive rehab timetable of 4 to 6 weeks. He was transferred to the 60-day IL to make room for Steven Wright last week, and as far as we know is still only playing catch.

Because Red Sox fifth starters have acted like so many oil-soaked rags in the presence of a flamethrower, the need for Eovaldi in the rotation is every bit as acute as the one in the bullpen. Remove the three-inning starts the Red Sox have averaged in his absence, and maybe the bullpen isn't so taxed.

Add the fact that both Chris Sale and David Price are constant injury candidates — particularly Sale as the season wears on — and the Red Sox are leaving themselves impossibly thin in the rotation. They already lack the depth to replace one missing starter, let alone two. And now they're putting Eovaldi in a role that will make it difficult to stretch him back out if they suddenly find themselves down another starter.

That's why it's fair to question Eovaldi's health. When the Braves shifted John Smoltz to closer in August of 2001, it's because his surgically repaired right elbow couldn't handle the rigors of starting. Same goes for the Red Sox and Curt Schilling in July of 2005, post bloody sock.

 

Asking Eovaldi to make this transition on the fly could simply be about need, but it also suggests a lack of confidence in his ability to remain healthy if he's asked to throw 100 pitches every five days.

And that brings us to the team's best-laid plans. When Dombrowski committed $17 million annually to Eovaldi, he did so on the assumption that Eovaldi would start. If they wanted to spend that money on the bullpen, forget about Craig Kimbrel — Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton could be pitching in Boston right now instead of New York. But they prioritized Eovaldi's ceiling as a starter.

They didn't feel the need to splurge on the bullpen because they believed they could build an effective relief corps internally, even without a true closer. They were counting on the likes of Tyler Thornburg and Wright to augment the core of Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier. Thornburg is officially a waste of a roster spot, while Wright got popped for PEDs and is ineligible for the postseason.

Meanwhile, Barnes is wilting after being used a staggering 15 times in June, necessitated in part by a lack of trust in Brasier. With the bloom coming off Walden, it's fair to ask how long Workman — who wasn't even on the World Series roster — can maintain his dominating production before attrition wears him down, too.

So what kind of closer might Eovaldi be? His stuff isn't exactly prototypical. Yes, he throws 100 mph, but he doesn't miss bats. Even if we grant him last year's career-high strikeout rate of 8.2 per nine (vs. 6.8 lifetime), he'd still only rank 24th out of 27 relievers with at least 10 saves this season. His career-best strikeout rate of 22.2 percent would rank 25th, ahead only of Minnesota's Blake Parker and Miami's Sergio Romo, a coupling of middling closers with ERAs over 4.00.

He is what he is, and that's someone who doesn't produce swings and misses at a rate we'd associate with his velocity. What's he going to do in one-inning bursts — throw harder?

It's also worth noting that most of his relief experience last October came in what effectively amounted to a start — his six-inning stint in Game 3 of the World Series. Would we be considering him a closer without that appearance?

It's a fair question, and just one of many, because the more you break it down, the more this decision seems headed for one conclusion:

Disaster.

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