We haven’t really seen much of anything in the way of additions to the Red Sox roster this offseason, at least not from outside the organization. They did sign reliever Kevin McCarthy to a minor-league deal in November, but beyond that it’s been a whole lot of silence. The most we’ve had to work with is a couple of rumors indicating interest in specific free agents. One of those rumors was involving Corey Kluber, a guy we’ve covered in a similar post to this one examining his merits as a potential free agent target.
The rationale behind considering Kluber for the Red Sox is fairly straight forward. They are in desperate need of starting pitching. Kluber will be relatively cheap since he is coming off a couple of injury-shortened campaigns but also has relatively recent Cy Young pedigree. The upside is huge, and while there is pretty clear risk Boston is in a position where they kind of need upside plays to work out if they’re going to compete. Kluber is arguably the biggest and best upside play on the free agent market among starting pitchers.
All of that may be true, but it doesn’t mean he’s not the only one. As much sense as he makes for Boston, that is also true for other teams. And the fact that Kluber makes his offseason home in Boston — a bizarre decision, by the way, even if that’s where you’re wife is from. You’re rich, dude. Go somewhere warm. — only goes so far. So if you’re looking for a backup plan to Kluber who fits into a similar mold, I would suggest looking at the oft-injured righty Garrett Richards.
Richards has seemingly been in this sort of role forever as a guy who teams can target to hope to catch lightning in a bottle and get a healthy season. The righty first broke out with the Angels back in 2013, and in 2014 and 2015 he emerged as one of the up-and-coming pitchers in the American League. It looked like he’d be anchoring the Angels rotation for years to come. Except, well, he never again was able to stay on the mound long enough to make that kind of impact again for the Angels. From 2016 through 2019, the latter of which being spent with the Padres, his innings totals were: 34 2⁄3, 27 2⁄3, 76 1⁄3, 8 2⁄3. For all you math enthusiasts out there, that totals up to 147 1⁄3 innings. That’s a mildly disappointing total for one season from a relatively durable starter. It’s also Richard’s total work load for a four-year stretch. Not great!
If that’s enough to take you off the bandwagon for the veteran righty as a target, it’s understandable. Given the low innings totals, you won’t be surprised that these were major injuries. In 2016, he tore a ligament in his elbow. He opted for a new treatment rather than Tommy John, but when he came back in 2017 he hurt the elbow again. He would try to come back without surgery again in 2018 before once again being shut down with an arm injury. This time he opted for Tommy John and signed with the Padres to rehab.
Since then, though, he’s been healthy. He came back at the very end of that 2019 season and made a couple of appearances for the Padres. He remained in San Diego this past summer and was able to stay healthy, albeit in a shortened season. Still, the righty made 10 starts along with four relief appearances, pitching to a 4.03 ERA and a 4.28 FIP. Those numbers aren’t great, but adjusting for park effects they are both still better than league-average, and that’s in a bizarre season that also happened to be his first healthy one in a half-decade.
The argument for the Red Sox here would be pretty simple, as outlined above. Contending for a wildcard spot isn’t totally out of the question for this club with a couple of smart additions and good breaks in 2021. That said, it’s also likely not going to be the general expectation. When you’re in that position, it’s easy to argue for high-ceiling/low-floor signings rather than a steady option like, say, José Quintana. There is an argument for someone like Quintana as well, to be fair, and it’s outlined in that linked post. But generally speaking, in a position like Boston’s you are more in search of creating a ceiling rather than ensuring you don’t hit a floor.
Consider for a moment what a rotation with someone like Richards would look like. To start the year you have him, Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi, some other addition and either Tanner Houck or Nick Pivetta. You also have Chris Sale coming back at some point in the summer. That rotation has a ton of downside in terms of both performance and health. However, it also has the kind of upside that can push a team into October.
The chances of everything going right for everyone there at the same time, or even most of them, is certainly not high, but again, this roster requires a tornado of luck to be a true contender. And part of getting that luck is putting yourself in a position to get it. You can have all the luck in the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re hoping that luck translates into a best-case scenario for, say, Chris Mazza or someone like that.
And to be clear, Richards still does have that upside. While it’s been five years since we’ve seen him do it in a full season, we’ve still seen the qualities that made him so good in his sporadic appearances over the last few injury-plagued seasons. His biggest strength is his ability to miss bats, and he struck out about eight per nine innings this past season. In 2018, which saw his highest inning total since 2015, he struck out over 10 per nine. And even better, his fastball velocity was still up at 95 mph on average this past summer, and his slider was still nasty, inducing whiffs on a full third of swings. Richards will be in his age-33 season in 2021 and declining stuff will always be a concern at that point. As of now, though, we haven’t seen that happen with him.
All in all, Richards is not a slam dunk target, and the projected cost of two-years and $16 million — which was the prediction by both FanGraphs readers and MLB Trade Rumors — could be a little expensive. Personally, I’m less worries about the money than the years. But if you can turn that second year into a vesting option based on an innings threshold, things get more intriguing. Kluber would still be my top target among injury-prone starters with big upside, but you always need a plan B. It’s hard to find a better plan B in this case than Richards.