Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Back of the Rotation Quandary

The Red Sox will look to sweep the Phillies Sunday afternoon, and given how taxed their bullpen has been these past two games, they'll also be looking towards Josh Beckett to continue his dominant ways. Beckett got off to a rough start in 2009, but he's allowed just one earned run in his past four starts and appears to be back to his 2007 form. Jon Lester has overcome an even rougher 2009 outset, with a ridiculous 34 strikeouts in his last three outings.

With quite possibly the best bullpen in franchise history and an offense gaining steam behind some David Ortiz consistency, the re-emergence of Beckett and Lester ought to cement the Red Sox as the team to beat in the AL through the rest of the year. Yet, it's the logjam at the back of the rotation that is creating headaches for the front office.

John Smoltz went to the hill Friday for what could be his final rehab start for Pawtucket. At this time, Smoltz is in a "holding pattern," and he'll pitch somewhere this Thursday. It's not known at this time where that start will take place. Tim Wakefield is scheduled to pitch Tuesday, with Brad Penny set to go Wednesday and Lester on Thursday.

Trade rumors have been swirling around Penny for weeks now. After Monday, they Red Sox will be able to trade Penny without his consent. He had perhaps his best 2009 start on Thursday, lasting six shutout innings against the Yankees and definitely upping his trade value in the process. Penny has about $4 million guaranteed remaining on his salary for the rest of this season. With so few teams able to take on payroll this year, the Red Sox will probably have to pay most of that salary to get anything of value in return. Penny could be the last piece for several NL clubs, including the Mets, Phillies or Cardinals. If they really want Penny, they should be giving up at least one solid prospect for his services.

The Red Sox clearly believe in Smoltz, and they want to give their $5.5 million investment a chance at the Big League level. They believe that a postseason rotation including Beckett, Lester and Smoltz would be relatively unbeatable and give them a significant advantage over every other club. But there's only five rotation spots, and the six-man rotation ideas being thrown out are totally bogus. Routines are essential to starting pitchers, and throwing off those routines could be disastrous.

The question is, who goes? We've already discussed Penny, the most attractive trade candidate. If this were based solely on performance, Daisuke Matsuzaka would be the odd man out. He looked particularly bad Saturday night in an abbreviated outing, getting smacked around like a rented mule. He's complained after his last two starts about some level of physical discomfort. Dice-K is clearly not all the way back, and another trip to the DL seems imminent. Smoltz could slide into the rotation in his place.

But that's only a temporary fix. Hopefully Dice-K would only spend a few weeks then be back to his nibbling self. A move will still have to be made. And we've haven't even mentioned the two aces in Pawtucket, Clay Buchholz (4-0, 1.75 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, 59 K in 67 IP) and Michael Bowden (3-3, 2.48 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 42 K in 65.1 IP), and both are proving they have nothing left to prove in Triple-A.

The guess here is Smoltz starts for Pawtucket on Thursday and they give Matsuzaka one more start to prove he's not completely worthless. If that outing goes poorly, the Red Sox will hold off on dealing Penny, put Dice-K on the DL and put Smoltz into the rotation. If Matsuzaka is fine, Penny probably gets shipped off to the NL before Smoltz has to come off the DL.

As for Bowden and Buchholz, it's possible the Red Sox have something big in the offing in terms of a trade for a big bat. However, it would only make sense for them to trade those pitchers if they could get a player back with commensurate MLB service time. At least that's the way the Red Sox rationalize it.

Too much pitching is always a good problem to have. But as we've seen in the past, pitching can dry up in a hurry. The Red Sox should only deal from their surplus if they feel it will benefit the club in both the long and short term.

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