The Boston Red Sox, for all intents and purposes, need the second coming of Nathan Eovaldi.
Zack Wheeler might not be an exact replica — for one, the cost of acquisition probably will be higher — but he’s been linked to Boston in trade rumors this week, and the Red Sox absolutely should pursue the New York Mets starter as they look to bolster their rotation before the July 31 deadline.
The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported Monday, citing sources, that Boston was pushing to land a starting pitcher. He added the Red Sox were casting a wide net and would prefer to act sooner rather than later — a sensible approach given how quickly the market can materialize, how badly the team needs a No. 5 starter and how difficult Boston’s schedule becomes immediately after the Major League Baseball All-Star break.
Which brings us to Wheeler, a name floated in trade rumors with increased frequency in recent weeks as the Mets stumbled to a 40-50 record in the first half. Both the New York Post’s Joel Sherman and SNY’s Andy Martino have reported the Red Sox as being interested in the right-hander, who can become a free agent after this season, and it makes all the sense in the world for several reasons.
First, Wheeler is earning just under $6 million for 2019, a reasonable amount for a pitcher of his ilk and a price tag that won’t preclude the Red Sox from making the trade should they fulfill their apparent desire to remain under the $246 million luxury tax threshold.
(Madison Bumgarner — arguably the best-known pitcher available on the trade market — is earning $12 million, for comparison, and one could make a case for choosing Wheeler over the longtime San Francisco Giants ace based on recent performance.)
Second, Wheeler is a rental. While Tony La Russa, a special assistant to Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, said Thursday it “probably doesn’t make a lot of sense” for Boston to acquire players set to become free agents this winter given the short-term nature of the return and the organization’s desire to replenish its farm system after trading away several notable minor leaguers in recent years, one could argue this route actually is preferable.
Rentals tend to cost less in terms of prospect capital, and the Red Sox aren’t in dire need of a starter with more than a few months of team control, as Chris Sale, David Price, Eduardo Rodriguez and Eovaldi (assuming he returns to the rotation in 2020) all are under contract through next season. Rick Porcello is the only Red Sox starter set to become a free agent, and it’s fair to wonder whether Boston could re-sign him at a reduced rate given his 2019 struggles.
Finally, Wheeler comes with about as much upside as any starter available on the trade market, at least relative to the expected cost. Bumgarner, Marcus Stroman and Trevor Bauer are among the impact arms who could be moved before July 31, but acquiring Bumgarner would send Boston soaring past the $246 million luxury tax threshold absent of additional maneuvering — a significant pitfall to consider given the harsh sanctions the franchise would face for passing the threshold in consecutive years — and the Red Sox probably don’t have the prospects necessary to win a bidding war for either Stroman or Bauer, both of whom are under club control through 2020 and therefore come with inflated price tags.
Wheeler is 6-6 with a 4.69 ERA in 19 starts this season, but his 3.65 FIP suggests he’s been better than the raw numbers indicate. He has struck out 9.8 batters per nine innings while walking just 2.6 batters per nine innings — both career-bests — and, most importantly, he’d add some much-needed stability to the No. 5 spot in Boston’s rotation, which has been occupied by a cast of randoms since Eovaldi hit the injured list following his April 17 start with an elbow issue.
Wheeler has pitched into the sixth inning in 16 of his 19 starts and into the seventh inning on 10 occasions. His 119 innings pitched ranks seventh in the majors and would be the highest total on the Red Sox, 12 more than Chris Sale’s team-leading 107 frames.
The knock on Wheeler, a first-round pick (sixth overall) in 2009, is his injury history, but this isn’t necessarily a long-term investment for the Red Sox, who still are very much in contention for a playoff spot despite an up-and-down first half. They should prioritize Wheeler’s potential over any health concerns — which should be minimal anyway given that he started 29 games in 2018 — and be aggressive in their pursuit.
The Red Sox caught lightning in a bottle last season by acquiring Eovaldi — a rental on a reasonable salary — from the Tampa Bay Rays on July 25, as the hard-throwing righty was a huge contributor in Boston’s World Series triumph. In fact, the Red Sox were so enamored with his work they signed Eovaldi to a four-year, $68 million contract over the offseason, hoping he’d be a key cog in their rotation moving forward.
Things haven’t gone according to plan this season and Eovaldi will become the Red Sox’s closer upon returning from the IL, in large part because Boston’s bullpen has been a mess in light of Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly leaving in free agency. But the Red Sox can’t afford to waste time pondering what could’ve been had Eovaldi stayed healthy and the rotation performed up to expectations.
The Red Sox need a starter, and Wheeler should be their top target in the trade market, with the only hesitance being if the Mets make completely irrational demands. He could be a difference-maker down the stretch and into October.