For the last couple of months, pretty much ever since the Red Sox acquired Nathan Eovaldi from the Rays in the middle of July, the plans for Boston’s playoff rotation have seemed more or less straightforward. Perhaps there would be some shuffling in the order, but as long as everyone was healthy, it was always assumed that Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello and Eduardo Rodriguez would make up a theoretical four-man rotation, with Eovaldi transitioning into a relief role in October. In a way, dealing Jalen Beeks for the right-handed pitcher was killing two bird with one stone, acquiring a starter for the rest of the regular season and a reliever to help get them through a tough October run. We’ve been operating through August and September with the assumption that this was still the plan. Well, things may be changing and now it seems as if Eovaldi is the favorite to land in the playoff rotation with Rodriguez on the outside looking in.
The news comes from The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, who told FOX Sports that Rodriguez’ latest poor performance — in the game that clinched the division for the Red Sox, weirdly enough — was enough to knock him from the rotation. In the linked video, Rosenthal indicates that Eovaldi will indeed still start the ALDS in the bullpen, but will be available to start Game Four if necessary. Further whispers have indicated that Eovaldi making a playoff start will become even more likely if the Yankees and their right-handed-heavy lineup make it through the Wildcard Game and are the first-round opponent.
There are reasons this sudden change makes sense, particularly if the Yankees are the opponent in the ALDS. As mentioned above, the Yankees are loaded from the right side of the plate, and their best left-handed bat — Didi Gregorius — was injured this past weekend and could miss the rest of the year. Rodriguez has had some big-time starts against the Yankees over his career, but of the three times he’s faced them in 2018, two have been awful and one has been very good. Meanwhile, Eovaldi has made two starts against the Yankees since coming to Boston, and both have been spectacular. There’s certainly an argument to be made that this is making too much of a small sample of data, but given the makeup of the Yankees lineup and the results from both pitchers, the argument for this move certainly isn’t laughable.
We’ve covered the Yankees, and most of the discussion around this move is with the assumption that the Yankees win the Wildcard Game. Obviously, that’s not an assumption we should feel comfortable making. New York will likely be favored in the game (though that’s no guarantee either), but regardless Oakland is also an outstanding club and anything can happen in a one-game playoff. So, who would match up better against Oakland? Eovaldi was great against them in his first start of the season while Rodriguez simply fine. On the other hand, the A’s have been better against righties than lefties, though looking at their lineup there are threats on both sides of the plate. Ultimately, I think you worry less about matchups with Oakland and just go with who has your trust. It sure seems like that’s Eovaldi for the Red Sox right now.
Now, this isn’t to say this is a slam-dunk move, because there is certainly downside here as well. For the most part, Rodriguez has much more upside in this role. Earlier this month I called the lefty a potential X-Factor for this team in the postseason, and the reasons are clear. We’ve seen all sorts of performances from Rodriguez, and that includes dominance. When he has all of his stuff working and is confident in said stuff, he’s a legitimate top-of-the-rotation arm. Granted, those outings have been fewer and farther between, and usually are when he’s coming off an injury, but I think you have to give him one more chance to find that groove in the final week of the year. If he can get there, not only do you have a better chance at a dominant start from Rodriguez than Eovaldi, but you also have a big righty who would likely fit better in a late-inning role, where the Red Sox have shown they could use some help.
To be fair, while I would generally prefer Rodriguez as a starter to Eovaldi, the former could certainly see his stuff play up in the bullpen as well. His fastball could gain a tick or two, and more importantly he wouldn’t need to utilize his entire repertoire. He could go fastball/slider, which is a pattern he’s fallen into too much over his career, and not be hurt by it like he is as a starter. This could be particularly valuable for the Red Sox, who don’t have a left-handed weapon out of the bullpen unless you really love Bobby Poyner.
At the end of the day, I’m not sure this is a huge deal either way, and the difference between Rodriguez and Eovaldi in both roles probably isn’t big enough to get worked up over. Plus, both guys would/will have short leashes in October, so we’re not talking about a normal start where you’re looking for six-plus innings. That being said, the postseason can be swung by the smallest of issues, and you want to maximize your roster in every way possible. I see the argument for putting Eovaldi into this role, but to me the upside from Rodriguez (which we have seen plenty of this year; it’s not some mythical upside) is too much for me to put in the bullpen.