By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
It’s official: Nathan Eovaldi will be back with the Red Sox next year, and apparently for a few years after that. The 28-year-old had a workhorse postseason that would make even Keith Foulke nod with respect, establishing himself as an all-time franchise folk hero.
But questions accompany the signing, the same ones that hound every title team trying to come back and do it again. It’s not about whether or not Eovaldi deserves a payday, but whether it’s a good move for the Red Sox. While a healthy Eovaldi had one of the finer seasons of his career, that health is no guarantee going forward, nor is it assured he will maintain a career high 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. While the postseason proved to be the perfect platform for his talents, it’s reasonable to question how he’ll fare over another 162-game season.
The same can be asked of Steve Pearce – while he mashed lefties all year and won the World Series MVP, can he make a similar impact on the 2019 squad?
Luckily, the incredible success of the franchise over the last decade-plus means Boston has a ream of case studies of guys who helped win a World Series, then immediately hit free agency. In some cases, the Sox have taken care of “their guys.” In others, they’ve let them walk. In almost all cases, in Boston or with another team, the impending free agents experienced a downturn in productivity. Therefore, the team and fanbase need to be prepared for their confidence in onetime fan favorites to erode.
And even when the team has exercised fiscal restraint, the contingency plan has been just as important.
By bringing back Eovaldi, the Sox shored up a rotation that has few reliable in-house alternatives when injuries inevitably hit. Eovaldi’s versatility should prove useful to that effect. They also played keep away with a highly sought-after commodity in a thin free-agent pitching market. That might be the key factor to the deal.
Even though he’s safe from the pitching-starved Yankees, history proves it’s almost certain some shine will come off the righty before his four years are up.
For the most recent examples, let’s take the Wayback (Wasdin) Machine on a short journey to 2013. The construction of that championship roster was vastly different from the current model, as Ben Cherington (to the likely delight of ownership) jettisoned big money contracts in favor of veterans with upside, spending just north of $50 million of the 2013 payroll on Ryan Dempster, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, Koji Uehara, David Ross and Mike Carp. Remarkably, all of those tickets cashed in.
In the wake of yet another duck boat parade, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia stood out as the key free agents. A former MVP runner-up who had just topped the AL in steals for the third time, Ellsbury was the prize. But like Carl Crawford three years earlier, much of his value was tied up in his legs. Cherington was right to let the 30-year old take seven years and $153 million from the Yankees. He’s slashed .264/.330/.386 since and has been eclipsed by pretty much everyone else in New York’s outfield.
Similarly, Saltalamacchia’s best days were behind him. Though 2013 hadn’t been his biggest power outburst, he’d hit a career-high .273 with 40 doubles. The Marlins lavished three years and $21 million on the catcher, and he was released a year and a half into that deal, slashing a measly .206/.306/.375 over the next three seasons. Again, Cherington was right.
But his failure in finding adequate replacements doomed Boston’s follow-up effort. Grady Sizemore, who hadn’t logged 500 at-bats in a season in six years and hadn’t even seen action since 2011, would’ve been a great comeback story. But after an inspiring Opening Day performance, he hit .216 and was dumped in June. A not-ready-for-prime-time Jackie Bradley Jr. spent the season below the Mendoza Line. Behind the plate, 37-year-old A.J. Pierzynski underwhelmed before he was released in July.
Cherington brought back Napoli on a two-year, $32 million deal. The 33-year-old fell off in 2014, slugging a mediocre .419. He, too, was out of Boston in the midst of a repeat last place finish in 2015.
And oh, yeah, they played hardball with Drew, resulting in the shortstop sitting out until mid-summer. When he came back, he wasn’t the same player, and further, his return stunted the development of phenom Xander Bogaerts. Drew was shipped to the Yankees after just 131 mostly terrible at-bats.
Basically, the Red Sox overachieved in 2013 and so did their impending free agents. Cherington rightly used caution on some of them, but wasn’t aggressive enough in his adjustments. In bringing back the fan favorite, he found that Napoli’s career probably peaked running down Boylston St. with his shirt off.
The 2004 Red Sox were loaded with fan favorites, and with good reason. Imagine young Theo Epstein’s predicament when it came to the contracts of now-Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez and postseason savior Derek Lowe. The two accepted a combined $89 million from the Mets and Dodgers, respectively. While Pedro posted just one standout season in Queens before injuries sapped what was left of his brilliance, Lowe pitched well into the next decade as a solid mid-rotation hand in the National League.
Epstein tried to minimize the damage in the short term by recruiting Matt Clement and David Wells. The two combined to go 28-13 with a four and a half ERA in 2005 – quite similar to Pedro and Lowe’s combined totals the previous season. But Clement got bonked on the head by that line drive, then unraveled in Game 1 of the ALDS against the eventual world champion White Sox, and his fate in Boston was unfortunately sealed. Wells was in the twilight of his career and was shipped to San Diego by the following summer.
Epstein did make two long-term investments that winter than made perfect sense at the time. First, he signed Jason Varitek to a four-year deal. Though the captain’s play would gradually decline amidst injuries over the next half-decade, he did rack up two All-Star selections and backstopped another title team three years later.
Also, after letting Orlando Cabrera walk, the Sox imported All-Star shortstop Edgar Renteria, who, in one of the franchise’s greatest mysteries, spent one uninspiring campaign with the club, then was flipped back to the National League to return to his former dynamic self.
Other Sizemore-like gambles, like Wade Miller, didn’t pan out. But Epstein kept a veteran roster afloat, and the Sox still won 95 games.
That’s one way that team parallels the 2019 Red Sox. There’s too much talent for them to slip significantly, and it doesn’t hurt that the rest of the American League is a junkyard. Even a down season should produce a run at October, regardless of whether the Yankees’ acquisition of porcelain-armed James Paxton (and whatever else lies ahead) takes them to the top of the division.
The team that closely resembles the most recent one is the 2007 Red Sox, a mix of productive veterans and up-and-comers built to contend for multiple years. In 2008, they did, getting to Game 7 of the ALCS before finally running out of gas. A power-sapping injury to David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez flipping out of a team employee couldn’t possibly have been in the forecast at the outset of the free agent season, when Epstein bestowed a reasonable three-year deal on World Series MVP Mike Lowell. Though the third baseman wasn’t the same player for the balance of his Red Sox tenure, he did crack a combined 34 home runs the next two seasons.
Epstein also brought back 42-year-old Mike Timlin, who was finally cooked in 2008 (5.66 ERA) and re-signed Curt Schilling, who nobody seemed to know had an arm injury and had thrown his final major league pitch. Bartolo Colon was brought in to fill a rotation gap but only totaled seven starts.
The 2008 Sox were talented enough to weather those storms. They even withstood the swap of a generational talent in Ramirez for a very good one in Jason Bay. But Epstein was also headed in an interesting direction with his roster, trying to keep the foundation intact while being prodded to chase big name talent. The approach would eventually lead to implosion a few years later.
It’s possible that Nathan Eovaldi and Steve Pearce contribute to another Red Sox World Series win. Maybe Joe Kelly will, too. But it’s more likely we’re presently basking in a 2018 highlight reel glow that represents the absolute apex of their careers.
While it’s acceptable to say “if not Eovaldi, then who?” and avoid the great, wide open of dealing with other teams’ free agents, history indicates he’s unlikely to live up to the pay day.
Though the usual suspects will likely return to the AL pennant mix next year, 2019 is a brave, new world. Nathan Eovaldi will be back and looking to anchor the back end of the Boston rotation. But your best memories of him may have already happened.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.