John Smoltz is getting closer to returning from shoulder surgery, most recently pitching five strong innings for Class A Greenville in a rehab start Sunday. He will make the jump to AAA Pawtucket for a couple more starts before finally joining the Red Sox.
His arrival will add fuel to the burning question of the Red Sox’s 2009 season: What to do with this surplus of quality starting pitching?
Clearly, something needs to be done. The Red Sox have a great problem on their hands, perhaps the best problem they could possibly have. They have five rotation spots, and seven quality pitchers who could fill those roles.
Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Tim Wakefield decidedly have their spots locked up. The final spot has been occupied by Brad Penny thus far, but he may not hold down that spot with Smoltz and Clay Buchholz waiting their turns.
Buchholz has been outstanding in the minors this season as he battles to earn a spot in the Boston rotation. He went 2-0 with a 1.12 ERA in May, including coming within three outs of a perfect game. He would certainly face a much greater challenge in major league hitters, but Buchholz is nonetheless doing what he needs to do to pitch his way to the big leagues.
On just about any other team, Buchholz would easily lock down a rotation spot. But he happens to be on one of the deepest teams in baseball.
In his way is Brad Penny, who has pitched well as the No. 5 starter. He allowed eight runs in three-plus innings in his second start against Baltimore, which inflated his current ERA (5.63) by over a run.
Overall, seven of Penny’s 10 appearances have been quality starts. Opponents are still hitting .310 against him, but he has walked only two in his last 24.1 innings.
Matsuzaka has struggled mightily this season, posting an 0-3 record and spending time on the disabled list. Dice-K is frequently frustrating to watch with his refusal to give in to hitters and throw the ball over the plate.
Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald expounds upon the magic act Matsuzaka put on in 2008, in which he held opponents to a batting average under .200 with men in scoring position and hitless with the bases loaded.
But Matsuzaka has certainly earned himself a spot in the rotation. Despite his tendency to get into trouble, he has been able to get out of it, earning a 33-15 record in his first two big league seasons.
However, this season has been painful to watch for Matsuzaka, as the base runners he has always allowed are scoring at an alarming rate. His groundball-to-fly ball ratio is about 0.58:1, another very disturbing trend for a pitcher like Matsuzaka, who has had trouble keeping the ball in the park in the past.
A big positive is that the one-two punch of Beckett and Lester has shown signs of turning it around.
After a laborious stretch of two starts each against the Rays and Yankees, Beckett has settled down in his last three starts, allowing just three earned runs in his last 22 innings. He has also thrown over 110 pitches in each of his last three starts but has only shown signs of getting stronger.
Lester pitched brilliantly on Sunday against the Blue Jays in arguably his strongest start of the season. Despite only making it through six innings on 111 pitches, Lester struck out a career-high 12 and allowed three infield singles. The lone run he allowed came on a Vernon Wells sacrifice fly in the first inning.
After an excellent start to the season, Tim Wakefield has come back down to Earth, just like he always seems to do. He mixed eight brilliant innings against Toronto in with three rough outings, most recently unraveling against those same Blue Jays late in the fifth inning.
Wakefield has been around long enough where Red Sox Nation knows what it’s going to get from him. All I would ask of him is to finish the season over .500.
With four spots in the rotation locked down (barring injury), it comes down to asking what the Red Sox should do to consolidate this deep pitching staff. Before making any drastic moves, the Sox should give Smoltz and Buchholz chances to pitch. Penny is no lock to stay healthy, as is Matsuzaka, so things still have a chance to work themselves out.
But what’s certain is that Buchholz has earned his chance. After pitching extremely poorly in 2008, he has come out blazing this season. He had an outstanding spring in hopes he would earn the fifth rotation spot and has continued to pitch extremely well overall.
Smoltz is still a few rehab outings away from joining the Red Sox, but the veteran hurler clearly deserves a chance to see what he can still do in the big leagues. It’s unlikely his stuff has gone anywhere, so it becomes a matter of Smoltz making sure he’s 100 percent before joining the Red Sox, and remaining healthy once he is.
It likely won’t be until July when the Red Sox even think about making a move. But once that time comes, it’s also likely they’ll still have the same glaring holes: shortstop and designated hitter.
It’s too bad to have to deem David Ortiz a “hole” in the Red Sox lineup, but it’s gotten to that point. Through 178 at-bats, Ortiz has 15 extra-base hits and a .570 OPS. He has gone 2-for-21 in five games batting sixth. Clearly, the lack of protection is only making it worse for Big Papi. His only promising at-bat in the last week came against Toronto when he hit a double to the center field wall, but that’s about it.
Despite Ortiz’s struggles, the Red Sox still have enough patience to wait him out another month or so before deciding to do something drastic with him.
The shortstop issue is a little more glaring, and a little more urgent at this point.
Julio Lugo has been up to the usual shenanigans on defense, and Nick Green is simply not a major leaguer, let alone a starter for a team like the Red Sox. These two have played poor defense, costing the Red Sox some games (Remember Green’s throw 10 rows into the stands at Seattle?), while not compensating with offense.
The Red Sox will need to assess their options at both of these spots. The offense could certainly use a big boost, either by way of a Matt Holliday trade or perhaps moving Buchholz, among others, for a prized young hitter like Matt LaPorta.
But in my opinion, the infield defense is the biggest issue that needs to be solved. Shortstop is about as important a position as any on the field in terms of defense, and Lugo has shown no signs of progress or improvement upon his below-average fielding in over two seasons in Boston. Green can’t last too long in any kind of regular role.
There are few good, economical options for the Red Sox at shortstop, but Jack Wilson of the Pittsburgh Pirates is a possibility. Wilson has been pedestrian at the plate this season, as he usually is, but he couldn’t do much worse than Green or Lugo in that regard. The big upgrade Wilson brings is on defense. The slick-fielding shortstop would probably have a Gold Glove or two by now if he was a more prominent hitter.
But at this point, all the Red Sox need at shortstop is someone who can field. Wilson can not only make the standard plays, he can flat-out dazzle. The offense could survive having his bat in the lineup if he is preventing runs at a high rate. He also makes $7.4 million, about $2 million less than Lugo.
As for trade options for Wilson, that’s where it gets tricky. He certainly isn’t worth one of the Red Sox’s top prospects like Buchholz, Michael Bowden, Daniel Bard, or Lars Anderson.
But if Theo Epstein feels it’s important enough to shore up the defense (and he may think so—remember 2004?), he may move someone like outfielder Josh Reddick or 22-year-old Junichi Tazawa, who is 5-3 with a 2.82 ERA at AA Portland this season, to get Wilson.
For a team like the Pirates, who all things considered will not need a rental like Penny or Smoltz, acquiring a middle-tier prospect for Wilson seems to make the most sense for them and the Red Sox. A big-time trade would make at least one, probably two out of Penny, Smoltz, and Buchholz the top candidates to move.
The Red Sox have their problems, that’s for sure—some good ones and some bad ones. The positive thing is that they can use the good problems (pitching surplus) to solve the bad ones (shortstop defense, mid-lineup power).
With the way the Yankees have been playing, and how competitive the AL East and the entire league looks this season, it looks more and more like a necessary action.