Machado, Harper ... Eovaldi? Red Sox righty could get big payday

There are bigger free-agent names this winter, but don't sleep on Boston starter Nathan Eovaldi, who has remade himself after a second Tommy John surgery. Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Sometime after Nathan Eovaldi was traded to the Boston Red Sox, the surgeon who performed the pitcher's second elbow reconstruction texted a picture to the right-hander. But what Dr. Chris Ahmad sent to Eovaldi was not an image related to his mechanics, or a ligament, or the tunnels carved out in his right elbow.

No, it was a fine shot of a bass, because the perpetually gregarious Eovaldi often asks his doctor about the fishing he does with his children, and Dr. Ahmad wanted to document the prize.

Eovaldi's elbow? All good. His pitching? Getting better and better.

There is great anticipation about all the big names and big money attached to this fall's free-agent class, about whether Manny Machado will set a new record with his forthcoming contract, about whether Bryce Harper's first-half slump will affect the bidding on him, about Clayton Kershaw's opt-out clause. But the 28-year-old Eovaldi could turn out to be a central figure in the market, because of his continued transformation as a pitcher and the circumstances of his second Tommy John surgery, which will almost certainly allay the inherent concerns about his medical history.

Eovaldi is scheduled to make his next start Tuesday against the Cleveland Indians, just a few days beyond the second anniversary of Eovaldi's second Tommy John; he had his first when he was in high school.

The general rule of thumb for baseball executives is that the risk increases with each successive elbow reconstruction. But as Dr. Ahmad explained the details of Eovaldi's second surgery in a phone conversation last week, he sounded like he was describing a simple change of mile-worn tires rather than an undercarriage overhaul.

In Tommy John surgery, tunnels are created in the elbow bone to serve as the anchors for the new attachment. When a second elbow reconstruction is required, the condition of those first tunnels is crucial -- the physical integrity of the tunnels, and whether their initial placement remains suitable. A need for new tunnels can be a significant complication.

In Eovaldi's case, Dr. Ahmad recalled, "The tunnels were in good condition, and in good position. He did not need tunnels that were different."

There was more good news for Eovaldi after he emerged from surgery. His original graft in that first Tommy John surgery was taken from his wrist, the Palmaris tendon, and in Eovaldi's second surgery, Dr. Ahmad had been able to use a bigger, more significant hamstring tendon.

In a sense, it was like restringing a solidly framed tennis racquet with better material -- a simpler matter of addressing wear and tear, Dr. Ahmad explained.

With Eovaldi expected to be out of action for 2017, the Tampa Bay Rays pursued Eovaldi in free agency in the fall of 2016 as a stock they could eventually flip, signing him to a two-year, $4 million deal. Team president Matt Silverman, leading the discussion for the Rays, also presented the pitcher with some ideas for how Tampa Bay thought Eovaldi could improve as he returned, through some changes in pitch selection and sequencing.

And Eovaldi wanted to build on a pitch he had tried for the first time in his final starts for the Yankees in 2016 -- a cut fastball.

Eovaldi has always been coveted for that power, for fastball velocity that has consistently ranked among the best in baseball in the seasons he has been healthy. But rival evaluators thought his fastball was also straight, generally, and his challenge had been in trying to develop more movement in his pitches. The cutter, breaking horizontally, does that for him, while providing another step in his ladder of pitching speeds. He throws his slider, a pitch that breaks down and in to lefties, at about 87 mph; a splitter that moves away from lefties at 88; his fastball at 97-98 mph; and now the slider, at about 91-92 mph.

Eovaldi made his first start for the Rays on May 30, throwing six no-hit innings at Oakland, the first on-field indication that Tampa Bay's investment in him would pay off. Tampa Bay traded him to the Red Sox for Jalen Beeks before the deadline.

On Aug. 4, Eovaldi dominated the Yankees over eight innings at Fenway Park, throwing a 91-92 mph cut fastball that seemed to swerve from one side of the plate to the other when he threw it to left-handed batters; the Yankees' Brett Gardner repeatedly swung at pitches he believed were over the plate, only to get jammed on the handle. After that start, Red Sox manager Alex Cora said flatly that Eovaldi is pitching with some of the best stuff in baseball. When Yankees manager Aaron Boone was asked about Eovaldi's cutter the next day, he smiled slightly and held up his hands about 15 inches apart, the way you might when describing the bass that got away.

But this was no fish tale; Boone was referring to the remarkable, newly found movement in the stuff of Eovaldi, who is seemingly refreshed for another 50,000 miles of pitching and is likely to be one of the most coveted free agents in the winter ahead.