Nathan Eovaldi Joins the Rangers’ Deep (But Risky) Rotation

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

When I was assigned to write about Nathan Eovaldi’s eventual free agent signing — this prior to the Winter Meetings — my best guess was that he’d be returning to his baseball home for each of the last four-plus seasons. Boston had been a good fit for the 32-year-old right-hander, and the Chaim Bloom-run club needed him more than he needed them. Given the uncertainty of their rotation — not to mention increasing pressure to spend like a contender, not a small-market pretender — the Red Sox bringing back Eovaldi would have made all the sense in the world.

That didn’t happen. Last week, the Texas Rangers, a team that actually has been spending like a contender, inked the no. 15 player on our Top 50 free agent rankings to a two-year, $34 million contract. It was their third ambitious signing of the winter. Earlier in the offseason, Chris Young and Co. jumpstarted the starting rotation by signing Jacob deGrom to a five-year, $185 million deal and Andrew Heaney to a two-year, $25 million pact. The cumulative $244 million expenditure was based on need. Lacking front-of-the-rotation quality, Texas finished fourth from the bottom among American League clubs in starting pitcher WAR last year.

The trio of newcomers join a rotation that includes Jon Gray and Martín Pérez (back with the club after accepting Texas’ qualifying offer), with Dane Dunning, Jake Odorizzi (acquired in trade from the Braves in November), and Glenn Otto serving as solid backup options. Thanks to the additions, this is one of the deepest — and potentially among the most productive — starting staffs in either league.

It is also one of the riskiest. Pérez and Heaney will be looking to replicate career-best seasons, while Gray has incurred multiple injured list stints in each of the past two years. Heaney likewise missed time in 2022, while deGrom’s health history is well-documented. Arguably the best pitcher on the planet when he’s able to take the mound, he did so just 15 times in 2021, and 11 times in ’22.

Eovaldi hasn’t exactly been a pillar of reliability himself. After making 32 starts in 2021, his most since the ’14 season, he took the ball just 20 times this past year. He landed on the injured list twice, first with a lower back issue from mid-June to mid-July, and again from mid-August to late September with right shoulder inflammation.

That Eovaldi returned to make two appearances in the final week was a positive sign — ditto that he looked solid in both — but at the same time, nine-and-two-thirds innings is nine-and-two-thirds innings. Moreover, as my colleague Jon Tayler pointed out when profiling Eovaldi for our Top 50 rankings, those frames came with lower-than-normal velocity. Eovaldi is a hard thrower, and in order to perform at an optimal level he needs to pump gas. That said, his high-octane heater — the centerpiece of a repertoire that also comprises a splitter, curveball, slider, and cutter — did still rank in the 70th percentile for velocity. While 95.9 mph wasn’t his usual 97-plus, it’s not as though he lacked power.

Circling back to the Red Sox not re-signing the right-hander, it bears noting that it takes two to tango. While money talks, how many potential acquisitions would have preferred Boston over where they ultimately landed? The Red Sox reportedly thought they had a deal in place to sign Zach Eflin earlier in the offseason, only to have him change course and agree to a three-year, $40 million contract with the close-to-home Tampa Bay Rays. This time it was Eovaldi, who hails from Alvin, Texas (Nolan Ryan’s hometown!, reportedly turning down a three-year offer (the specific terms are unknown) and signing elsewhere. Corey Kluber, whom the Red Sox subsequently inked to a modest $10 million deal, essentially as an Eovaldi replacement, resides in the Boston area.

Boston having extended a $19.65 million qualifying offer to Eovaldi in November likely limited serious suitors, and led many to speculate that he would re-up with the Red Sox. But while other teams demurred, the Rangers were willing to relinquish their 2023 third-round pick — they’d earlier ceded their second-round selection to sign deGrom — in order to bring Eovaldi on board. Because they didn’t finish below the luxury tax threshold, Boston’s draft pick compensation won’t come until after the fourth round.

Recent first-round picks make the Rangers’ pitching depth even more enviable. Cole Ragans (2016) debuted this past season, while Cole Winn (2018) spent the year in Triple-A. Moreover, their most recent top selections have been Jack Leiter (second overall in 2021) and Kumar Rocker (third overall in 2022), each of whom came from a high-profile college program and could be knocking on the door soon. Not only does Texas’ rotation look robust in the present, its future could be even brighter.

But again — and this is why depth matters — a lot depends on health. Rocker is a Ranger rather than a Met due to medicals, while Winn’s resume includes an ankle injury that has impeded his progress. Just like their older and more experienced contemporaries, they will need to be hale and hearty more often than not in order to contribute to a big-league rotation. (Indeed, our own Eric Longenhagen has Rocker ticketed to the bullpen based on the right-hander’s history and 2022 Arizona Fall League look.)

A thought exercise: Over the past two seasons, Eovaldi has had a 3.80 ERA over 291-and-two-thirds innings, and deGrom a 1.90 ERA over 156-and-a-third innings. Theoretically speaking, which of those two performances would the Rangers prefer going forward? In terms of bang for the buck, it would presumably be the heavier workload for roughly half the cost. Conversely, if money isn’t a huge factor and the lesser innings load is supported by adequate depth, might they opt for less-is-more?

The Rangers are obviously hoping that all of their pitchers stay healthy, and that includes the one who chose Texas over a return engagement in New England. More than anything, it will be the key to him living up to his contract. As Tayler wrote in his preview, Eovaldi “has the stuff and track record to make him a viable mid-rotation starter for a contending team, assuming he can stay off the injured list.”

Is Texas a contender? Given the bold moves they’ve made to upgrade their pitching staff, they’re at least moving in the right direction. Again, a lot depends on the soundness of the arms, particularly the incoming arms.

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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1 year ago

He and DeGrom could combine for 180IP and 5 WAR. Texas can think of them as 1 ace pitcher