As we’ve been looking at various free agent targets for the Red Sox over the last week or two, we’ve been expanding the scope a bit to look at various positions including second base, outfield and the bullpen. And those are all, of course, legitimate areas of need for this Red Sox club. That said, we know as well as you that the number one concern is still starting pitching, and while the other holes need to be filled nothing will matter for this team if they don’t get more starters.
Along those lines, we have looked at a couple of targets so far this winter in Corey Kluber and José Quintana, both of whom are part of a similar tier in free agency that isn’t quite at the top of the class but is either the second or third, depending on how finely you want to divide things. Today, I want to look at another pitcher from that tier of free agents, and one who should have some familiarity to both Red Sox fans and their Chief of Baseball Operations. That would be former Ray Jake Odorizzi.
Odorizzi has been in the hearts and minds of baseball fans for a long time now, entering the league way back in 2008 as a late first round pick by the Brewers. As a minor leaguer he was a four-time Baseball America top 100 prospect and was also part of two of the more well-remembered trades in recent memory. First, he was sent from Milwaukee to Kansas City in the deal that sent Zack Greinke to the Brewers. Then, a few years later, he was shipped to Tampa Bay in the deal that sent James Shields to the Royals.
It was with those Rays, who of course used to employ Chaim Bloom in their front office, that Odorizzi first broke into the majors for a regular role. (He did make a couple of appearances for the Royals in 2012 before the trade.) Although he never quite reached star status in Tampa, the righty was a very solid member of their rotation for a four-year stretch, averaging 30 starts per season from 2014 through 2017 while pitching to a slightly above-average 104 ERA+. He was then traded to the Twins, where he has spent the past three seasons.
While Odorizzi has been durable for the most part over his career — from 2014 through 2019 he never made fewer than 28 starts — injuries caught up with him in a major way in this shortened 2020 season. In total, the 30-year-old (he’ll turn 31 right around the start of the 2021 regular season) only made four starts due to a variety of injuries. He missed the beginning of year with a back issue, then missed more time after being hit in the chest with a line drive, before missing even more time at the end of the year due to a blister. And when he was able to pitch, he was ineffective, pitching to a 6.59 ERA.
So based on the most recent performance from Odorizzi, it wouldn’t seem he is an attractive free agent target. We know, however, that this season was extremely weird, and that’s even before considering his injury issues that forced him off the field multiple times. With that in mind, consider where he was a year ago. Odorizzi had the best season of his career in 2019, pitching to a 3.51 ERA with even better peripherals. He was a free agent at that point, too, though he opted to take the qualifying offer from the Twins and hit free agency again this winter.
Putting aside that this was likely the wrong career move for the righty, largely for reasons that could not have been foreseen last winter, there were legitimate changes made for that 2019 season that allowed him to reach another level on the mound. The most important jump in production was with his strikeouts, as he got his K-rate up to 27 percent. Odorizzi’s previous career-high had been 24 percent, and he’d generally been sitting right around 20 percent. This wasn’t just a blip on the radar either, as tangible changes to his repertoire led to the bump. Even better, while the results in 2020 were poor, a lot of the changes carried over.
For one thing, he saw his velocity on the fastball jump up in 2019, going from around 91 mph previously up to 93 in 2019. That velocity held steady in his four starts in 2020. Furthermore, Odorizzi also completely ditched his slider in 2019, going instead for a sharper cutter. That latter pitch was a big part of his success in that season, and he continued to throw it this past year. It should be mentioned, however, that Baseball Savant also had him throwing sliders in 2020, though there can be some confusion between the classification of the two pitches as they have similar trajectories. Either way, we’ve seen that the best combination of pitches for Odorizzi has been his fastball, cutter and splitter, particularly when he can get his fastball up into the mid 90s at times. He was indeed able to do that in 2020.
The question is how much of the results from this past summer you’re willing to throw away as weird and fluky, because the ability to throw these pitches effectively and miss bats is the key for Odorizzi moving forward. While his control isn’t a disaster, it’s also not a major strength in his game. As a fly ball pitcher, he used to be able to more easily get away with missing bats at an average rate, but as batters have adapted to a more launch angle-heavy approach, fly balls combined with a lack of strikeouts can lead to big damage even with his typically low batting averages on balls in paly. So the determination largely comes down to whether you believe the 27 percent strikeout rate from 2019 was real, or if you are more of a believer in the roughly 20 percent rate he’s carried most of his career, including in 2020.
Bloom does have some familiarity with Odorizzi, which certainly helps that evaluation process, though the fact that the righty’s breakout came in Minnesota and not Tampa puts a bit of a damper on that knowledge. That said, speaking for myself I’m leaning much more towards scrapping 2020 just in general, and that applies to this specific case as well. Odorizzi not only was able to make just four starts, but they weren’t even consecutive. He never got to get in a rhythm.
There is clear risk here, but if he can get back to that 2019 version of himself, or anything close, the Red Sox would have a good mid-rotation arm. I certainly wouldn’t be expecting ace status, but that isn’t really available this winter depending on your thoughts about Trevor Bauer, and his signing seems to be a longshot at this point. Of course, contract comes into play and this is where I become a little more wary, as both MLB Trade Rumors and FanGraphs readers predict a three-year deal worth $39 million. The money isn’t really a big concern to me, but I’m not sure I’d want to commit to three years as any signing would be based largely on 2019 performance.
So, at the end of the day, Odorizzi probably wouldn’t be my top target, but if the price came down even slightly from those predictions — and coming off an injury-plagued year a one-year pillow contract isn’t out of the question — the intrigue would increase. There would still be a lot of uncertainty with the group, but the upside of a top three including Eduardo Rodriguez, Odorizzi and Eovaldi would be enough to bridge the team to Chris Sale’s return, and given the good-not-great market at starting pitching that would appear to be the best strategy to aim for.