In its current configuration, Boston’s five-man rotation consists of just two pitchers that can be counted on: possible Cy Young candidate Josh Beckett and southpaw Jon Lester. After that, it’s the wildly inconsistent Brad Penny and two rookies, Clay Buchholz and Junichi Tazawa (who will be taking the jettisoned John Smoltz’s spot).
At 7-6 with a 5.20 ERA, and a disconcerting 1.48 WHIP, Penny is much more of a No. 5 starter at best, rather than someone who is being counted on to be the third starter until Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka regain their health. Always taxing on the bullpen, Penny has not pitched more than 6.2 innings in any one start this season, and averages just a shade less than 5.2 innings per start. He has proven to be merely a shell of his former All-Star self.
Unfortunately, this puts most of the pressure on rookies Clay Buchholz and Junichi Tazawa, who have five major league starts between them this year (all by Buchholz).
Yes, Buchholz can have electric stuff at times, as evidenced by his no-hitter, but his career numbers are frightening, with a 6-12 career record and 5.52 career ERA. More troubling are this season’s statistics, despite the small sample size. Buchholz is walking as many as he is striking out (16 walks to 17 strikeouts) and is no longer generating strikeouts as frequently as in the past (17 K in 25.1 innings pitched).
While he was phenomenal at Triple-A Pawtucket this season, going 7-2 with a 2.36 ERA, great numbers in the minors don’t always translate to major league success. Coupled with Red Sox Nation’s status currently in panic mode, every start Buchholz makes will be even more heavily scrutinized as the Yankees continue to win and the pressure on Boston continues to mount.
For Tazawa, hopefully being much more of an unknown will work in his favor, as big league hitters for the most part haven’t seen him ever before. Signed in the offseason for $3.3M, Tazawa breezed through AA Portland and AAA Pawtucket to the tune of a 9-7, 2.55 ERA, and a WHIP of just 1.04 across the two levels.
If his debut against the Yankees in extra innings Friday night is any indication, Tazawa is a pitcher who relies on deception and control of his low-90s fastball and high-70s curveball to succeed. The pitch Alex Rodriguez deposited for a walk-off home run was a hanging curve over the heart of the plate.
In Tazawa’s defense, being thrust into a 0-0 extra innings contest between rivals Boston and New York is not exactly the most comfortable way to make your major league debut, but he’s got to be thrown into the fire at some point, especially since the decision to insert him into the starting rotation has been made.
Not pushing hard enough to acquire Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee at the trading deadline is really looking like a mistake for the Red Sox, not even two weeks later. Even Doug Davis or Bronson Arroyo would have been worth the mid-level prospect price to acquire them, but the Red Sox not only did not add a pitcher, but relinquished one in Justin Masterson to acquire Victor Martinez.
As far as the injured are concerned, Wakefield’s achy back seems to have healed, but a setback involving his left calf has kept him from making a timely comeback. It remains to be seen when exactly he will be able to resume pitching and activated from the disabled list.
Matsuzaka, on the other hand, played catch at distances up to 120 feet during the past week, and has been rehabbing at Boston’s Spring Training Complex in Fort Myers, Florida. Dice-K, who never really seemed healthy since pitching for Japan in the World Baseball Classic back in the beginning of the spring, stumbled to a 1-5 start with a 8.23 ERA this season before landing on the DL. Most likely, Matsuzaka will not be available to come off of the DL until September at the earliest.
In the meantime, Boston will try to survive in the playoff race with Penny, Buchholz, and Tazawa manning three of the five spots in what is now a makeshift rotation full of question marks. If any of those five get hurt—or if Penny, Buchholz, or Tazawa are ineffective—there are not many other internal options that Boston can turn to.
Michael Bowden would appear to be the most logical minor league replacement, but he’s only gone 3-5 in 20 starts for Pawtucket, albeit with a respectable 3.40 ERA. However, during his most recent start, on August 5, Bowden did not fare well, allowing six earned runs in just three innings.
Perhaps Davis or Arroyo can slip through waivers, but with other teams scrambling for starting pitchers it seems unlikely that either of those two would not be claimed by teams with higher waiver priority than Boston. Vicente Padilla, the former Ranger, could be worth a look, but would not be an upgrade over anyone the Red Sox currently have. Until a move is made, or Buchholz and Tazawa grow up in a hurry, Boston will have to hope it can stay afloat in what is now a precarious playoff picture for the Red Sox.