<
>

Is Rodriguez's return the Rx for Red Sox rotation? Boston is betting on it

Eduardo Rodriguez returns to the mound Monday night for the first time since injuring his right knee on June 1. Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

BOSTON -- Two days before the All-Star break began and again the day after it ended, Boston Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski killed the buzz of armchair general managers throughout New England by announcing the team isn't in the market for another starting pitcher at the trade deadline.

On Monday night at Fenway Park, Eduardo Rodriguez can help explain that logic.

Rodriguez will be reinstated from the disabled list to face the Toronto Blue Jays in his first start since he fell off the bullpen mound and injured his right knee on June 1 in Baltimore. And like last season, when the young lefty rejoined the rotation after the All-Star break following a brief stint in Triple-A, the Red Sox view his return as the equivalent of a midseason trade ... only without the prospect-heavy cost of acquisition.

The way Dombrowski sees it, getting Rodriguez back allows him to focus on other areas. And after a weekend in which the Red Sox went 24 consecutive innings without scoring a run against the New York Yankees and lost setup man Joe Kelly to a left hamstring strain, take your pick of which need is more urgent: a power hitter or the bullpen. (A call to the Chicago White Sox might satisfy both positions, with third baseman Todd Frazier and relievers David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle and Anthony Swarzak available.)

But starting pitching? Even if the Red Sox were looking for help behind Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello and Drew Pomeranz, they probably couldn't do much better than Rodriguez.

Well, assuming he can stay healthy.

"We lost a guy at the time who was throwing the ball extremely well," manager John Farrell said of Rodriguez. "He was powerful. He was gaining confidence. He was working deeper into games. Hopefully we can regain that form that he was pitching with prior to the injury. He would be a huge boost to this rotation."

Rodriguez and Sale were Boston's best starters through the first two months of the season, a time when Price was still recovering from a spring-training elbow injury. Rodriguez, 24, posted a 3.54 ERA through 10 starts and one relief appearance, allowed three runs or less in eight starts and was on his way to having a better season than most pitchers who have been the focus during trade-deadline season.

Fellow lefty Jose Quintana, for instance, got off to a rough start for the White Sox, lugging a 5.60 ERA into June before finally putting together a strong seven-start stretch. But that didn't stop the Cubs from shipping four minor leaguers, including top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease, across town in a blockbuster trade for Quintana last week.

It's little wonder, then, that the Red Sox are perfectly content to plug Rodriguez back into the rotation and let pitching-needy contenders -- we're looking at you, Astros and Yankees -- wince over the asking price for Gerrit Cole, Sonny Gray and Justin Verlander.

But Rodriguez is hardly a sure thing either; not after partially dislocating his right knee at least three times in a span of 15 months.

It happened during spring training in 2016 when Rodriguez was shagging a fly ball, and again in December when he slipped on the mound during a winter-ball start in Venezuela. Then came the incident while he was warming up in Baltimore. He made that start anyway and gave up seven runs in 5⅔ innings, his worst outing of the season.

Farrell has described Rodriguez's knee issue as "anatomical" and said the pitcher is "predisposed to that type of subluxation or movement of the kneecap." According to Farrell, Rodriguez has dealt with the problem since he was coming up in the Orioles' organization, and the Red Sox have tried to address it through a series of strengthening exercises.

"It's something that happens naturally," Rodriguez said recently. "I don't know how that works, I just have to get my muscles ready to go and make it stronger and that's it."

After reinjuring his knee in Baltimore, Rodriguez was examined by prominent orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews. It seems possible, perhaps even likely, Rodriguez will eventually need to undergo a procedure to keep the problem from recurring. But Rodriguez insisted that he's "not even thinking about surgery, because if you're thinking about surgery, you're getting your mind out of where it needs to be."

Rodriguez's mind wasn't quite right last season when he first returned from a similar injury. He changed his mechanics to take pressure off his knee, posted an 8.59 ERA through six starts and got sent back to Triple-A to get on track. It wasn't until he rejoined the Red Sox after the All-Star break that he got on a 14-start roll in which he pitched to a 3.24 ERA with 79 strikeouts in 77⅔ innings.

This time around, the Red Sox took a conservative approach to bringing him back. Rodriguez made three minor league rehab starts, saving the best for last. In the final game before the All-Star break, he gave up one earned run and struck out seven in 6⅓ walk-free innings for Triple-A Pawtucket.

"Any time a player is injured, you're always prioritizing the physical side of it and he's gotten through that," Farrell said. "Everything points to [velocity] being consistent. The energy in his delivery was good, even to the point at times he might have been a little quick. That's a good thing. That indicates he's not favoring anything or subconsciously holding back."

If that's the case, a starting rotation that already represents the Red Sox's biggest strength will get even stronger. And with two weeks until the trade deadline, Dombrowski can keep the White Sox on speed dial and not worry about anything else.