Tonight's start for Red Sox prospect Charlie Zink could prove to be be an audition for something bigger.
In 25 games with Pawtucket this season, the knuckleballer is 13-4 with a 2.89 ERA, third in the International League. Though he'll be 29 later this month, he's young for a knuckleballer and finally looks Major League ready. With his experience and success this season, he'll be a candidate for someone's rotation next year. Tonight's start could well be a showcase for other clubs.
Tim Wakefield is suffering the same injury that sidelined him last year, and you have to wonder if, at age 42, this puts his career in jeopardy. The Sox don't want two knuckleballers in their rotation but, one way or another, Wake will retire sooner than later. Depending on the veteran's health, that could make Zink a candidate for the rotation in '09.
There aren't many guys throwing the knuckleball in the modern game; Wakefield was the only knuckleballer on any Opening Day Major League roster. And Zink was one of just three knuckleballers pitching at the Triple A level to begin the season.
It's been a long and winding road for the California native. Though undrafted (he had to try out for a low minors spot), Zink has been with the organization since 2002. As a middle reliever, he lead the staff with a 1.68 ERA in his first season, and by 2003 he was the only Sox prospect ranked in the top-50 by Baseball Prospectus. That was after he learned to throw the knuckleball.
But then Zink tumbled in 2004, going an abysmal 1-10, and dealt with a demotion from Portland to Single A Sarasota. That year and the next, he struggled with far too many walks and home runs allowed. His development had gone backwards and his train to the Bigs had gone off the tracks.
Yet Zink bounced back to lead Pawtucket in wins in 2006. However, he was still demoted to Portland in 2007, where he made the Eastern League All-Star team.
Aided and encouraged by Wakefield, who gave Zink advice on his motion, stride and delivery, Zink put in the hard work that, matched with an indomitable spirit, has finally paid off.
He's improved on his 11-6, 4.63 numbers from last year (split between Portland and Pawtucket), and has been one of the PawSox top pitchers this season, leading the team in wins and ERA.
This is Zink's seventh season, the last year under Boston's control. If he does not remain on the team's 40-man roster, he will become a minor league free agent at year's end, meaning he will be free to sign with anyone.
Surely he has value at this point. Surely the Sox would like to get some compensation for him rather than just letting him walk and sign with another team.
It's a good bet that Charlie Zink will be on some Big League club's Opening Day roster next season, be it the Red Sox or another team.