I will not hold you in unnecessary suspense.
The resolution of the Boston Red Sox starting pitcher logjam that has everyone speculating will be...nothing. Well, nothing much: yes, Brad Penny will be traded, but only for more spare pieces, probably some minor leaguers. Although the team has a few obvious problems---short, the travails of DH David Ortiz, the ineffectiveness of Dice-K Matsusaka---none of those can be solved with a trade of pitching depth, at least now. Later on...well, that’s a different story.
It could easily have worked out very differently. When the Red Sox began stockpiled starting pitching over the winter, the odds were that Theo Epstein’s mantra, “These things tend to work themselves out” would hold true. The team had at least eight pitchers who were fully rotation-worthy (Beckett, Lester, Matsuzaka, Wakefield, Penny, Masterson, Buchholtz and Smoltz, with a ninth, Michael Bowden, also an option), but there were plenty of chances for attrition. Wakefield was over 40, with a tear in his shoulder that had sidelined him in each of the last two seasons. Penny and Smoltz had both broken down last year, and might not return to form. Lester’s heavy pitching load in 2008 was a cause for wariness. Buchholtz might not be able to recover the poise and execution that had conspicuously deserted him as a member of the Sox rotation last season. Epstein learned his lesson from the disastrous trade of Bronson Arroyo before the 2006 campaign, when he thought he had a safely over-stuffed starting stable of Curt Schilling, David Wells, Jonathan Papelbon, Matt Clement, Beckett and Wakefield, with Lester in the wings. But Clement, Schilling and Wells went down with injuries and the unsteadiness of Keith Foulke made Papelbon the closer, and the Sox ended up with the likes of Abe Alvarez, Julian Taveras, Lenny DiNardo, and Jason Johnson as fourth and fifth starters. (It didn't help that the return on Arroyo, Wily Mo Pena, couldn't hit a curve with a tennis racket or catch a fly ball with a basket.)
Theo reasonably assumed a starting pitcher would go down in 2009, but it hasn’t happened. Meanwhile, almost every other team has a pitching deficit, which would seem to indicate that the Sox could make a killing in a seller’s market. Though that still may come to pass, the timing is wrong for a substantial trade for a number of reasons:
- The team is not close to giving up on David Ortiz. If he had not staged a mini-comeback in recent games, a change at DH might have been a possibility, but not now. Ortiz is too big a presence and symbol on the Red Sox, and they have too much invested in him financially and spiritually, to give his job away now.
- If the team traded for the much-discussed bat, it would have to be an impact slugger who would expect to be in the line-up every day. That can’t happen as long as Ortiz is still viable. The Sox aren’t about to bench or dump Bay, Ellsbury or Drew. Sure, Adam Dunn would look great in the line-up (and to say the Nationals could use the pitching is an understatement), but until he has a place to play every day, it would pointless and disruptive.
- Jed Lowrie is close to a return. The Sox brass think he is a better hitter than he has shown so far and an adequate shortstop defensively. They aren’t going to waste their golden pitching surplus on an established but flawed shortstop like Jack Wilson (and certainly not Miguel Tejada) when a home-grown solution at short is on the way.
- The Red Sox need to find a young starting catcher, but they can’t use one now. With Varitek hitting productively (if not frequently), the eventual package of players it will take to nab a Taylor Teagarden or equivalent won’t be assembled until the off-season, if then.
- Most important of all, the Red Sox are in first place, flirting with .600 and the best record in the league. This is true despite struggles from their 1-3 starters, too many blown plays at short and an offensive void at the heart of the offense. These problems figure to go away or at least recede, and none of the strengths of the team so far seem likely to prove illusory: for example, the bullpen is probably just as spectacular as it looks. Teams that are on top and getting better don’t make major moves.
All of this could change by July. If Lowrie shows lingering effects of his injury; if Dice-K continues to struggle; if Varitek is injured or stops hitting; if Ortiz can’t get his home runs into double figures or average above .220; if Lowell or Drew breaks down; if the Yankees or Rays get hot or the Sox fall seriously behind them, any of these developments, all of which are very possible, would force a major trade.
In the meantime, here are the top moves the Red Sox will not make in the next couple days, all of which have been advocated or predicted ad nauseum on various sports pages and websites, including this one;
1. Sending Matsuzaka to the minors, the DL or the bullpen. Never. Dice-K has not had enough healthy starts to lose his job. His last one wasn’t even a fair test, being interrupted by a long rain delay. Dice-K is a career ace, he is relatively young, and he won 33 games in his first two seasons with the Sox. This is by far the solution that Red Sox fans prefer because they have never warmed up to Dice-K, but the fact that his pitching style irritates the stat-obsessed is irrelevant. He’s not going anywhere, except out to pitch every fifth day.
2. Going to a six-man rotation. To paraphrase Bill James, this means taking four starts from the team’s best starting pitcher, four starts from the team’s second-best starting pitcher, four starts from the team’s third-best starting pitcher, four starts from the team’s fourth-best starting pitcher, and four starts from the team’s fifth-best starting pitcher, and giving them to the sixth best. It is, in short, a stupid and lazy thing to do. And Theo is neither stupid nor lazy.
3. Sending Tim Wakefield to the bullpen. Sure, send the starter with the best record to the bullpen, especially when your starting catcher can’t catch him if he’s brought in to relieve. This theory is a favorite of the anti-Wake knuckleball bigots, and it is pure fantasy.
4. Sending Brad Penny to the bullpen. Brad Penny is only on the team to show future employers that he can be a premier starting pitcher again. He would be a team disruption if sent to the bullpen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was promised last winter that he would not be. The team would trade him or release him first. Bet on trade.
5. Sending Dan Bard to Pawtucket to allow Wakefield, Dice-K or Penny to go to the bullpen. This makes no sense, because it weakens the team. Bard has shown that he can overpower Major League hitters. He had a bad outing, due to control, last time out, but if any team has sent a pitcher who had held batters to a .070 batting average to the minors after one bad inning, I’d be surprised. The Red Sox bullpen is perfect right now. Theo will not risk defacing his masterpiece and the strength of the team.
Thus the verdict: John Smoltz will take Brad Penny’s place in the rotation, as Penny is bundled off to the Mets, the Cards, the Braves, the Rockies, or some other hopeful contender, in exchange for some minor league talent. Buchholtz, Bowden and even Kason Gabbard will still be lurking on the depth chart, and that big trade could still be coming.
But not yet.