July 8, 2009
John Smoltz came to Boston with very impressive credentials: 210 wins, 154 saves, a 3.26 ERA, and 3,011 strike outs. In fact, Smoltz is the only pitcher in history with a combination of 200 wins and 150 saves.
Red Sox Nation was ecstatic; a future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer would be taking the mound every fifth day from June through September, and hopefully in October as well.
That was the whole intention in the Sox' signing of Smoltz in the first place—October, the postseason.
But there were a few red flags from the outset. For starters, Smoltz is 42 and coming off major shoulder surgery. The veteran's right labrum, the one that secures his throwing arm, was repaired last June. His baseball future was immediately placed in jeopardy, so much that the Braves decided to end their 20-year association with him.
However, Smoltz had previously undergone four separate surgeries on his pitching elbow, and had come back strong after each. He missed the entire 2000 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but moved to the bullpen upon his return and recorded 154 saves over three-plus seasons as the Braves' closer.
The difference this time was that he was over the age of 40, when the body loses its ability to heal as quickly, or as fully.
The Red Sox and their fans were cautiously optimistic—in the case of many fans, perhaps overly optimistic.
Though it's a pretty small sample size, Smoltz's early results are not encouraging.
After three starts, Smoltz is 0-2 with a 6.60 ERA. It wasn't until his most recent start (Monday) that he finally made it to the sixth inning. In 15 innings so far this season, Smoltz has allowed 20 hits and 11 earned runs.
Yes, it's early—and, as noted, the sample size is still small. But the Red Sox have to prepare themselves for the possibility that this is as good as it gets. One way or the other, Smoltz's best years are behind him now. That's generally the case with 42-year-old pitchers, particularly those returning from reconstructive surgery.
Indeed, Jamie Moyer (46), Randy Johnson (45) and Tim Wakefield (42) are still pitching, but only Wakefield is doing so effectively. Johnson is now on the DL. Both he and Moyer look like they are best-suited for something other than playing baseball at this point.
The Sox still have high hopes for Smoltz, but it's probably best for the team and its fans to temper those hopes, if they haven't been already.
Smoltz hasn't forgotten how to pitch, and he may well have some successful, if not dominant, outings ahead of him. It's a good bet, though, that he'll continue to struggle and to feel his age.
It's important to remember that the Red Sox knew what they were getting from the beginning—Theo Epstein consistently referred to Smoltz as a "low cost, high reward" signing.
The Red Sox were fully aware of Smoltz's health history from day one, and were operating under the auspices of caveat emptor. Though they were aware, the reality may now be setting in.
Hopefully Smoltz is just getting warmed up and is poised for a strong second half.
Time will tell.
Copyright © 2009 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.