Red Sox Roster Review Part III: The Pitchers

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Red Sox Roster Review Part III: The Pitchers

In 2008, for the first time in several years, the Red Sox underwent little roster turnover to begin the season. Almost every face on Boston's opening-day roster was familiar, a stability born of the increasing numbers of Red Sox players under the team's long-term control.

Will this trend continue in the years to come?

This third installment of a series of articles (check out Part One and Part Two of this series, as well), which examines the Red Sox's roster, position by position, and predicts the team's composition in 2009 and beyond, focuses on the pitching staff.

 

Starting Pitchers

In 2007, Boston led the American League in ERA (3.87) and WHIP (1.27), trailing only San Diego for the major-league lead in ERA (while equaling the Padres in WHIP). This feat is especially remarkable when you consider that the Red Sox play half of their games at Fenway, one of the A.L.'s most hitter-friendly parks.

Much of the staff's overall success in 2007 can be attributed to the rotation. It was a veteran group: Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Curt Schilling, and Tim Wakefield. Beckett was the baby, with a mere seven seasons of major-league experience (Daisuke had pitched eight seasons in Japan before coming to Boston).

The Red Sox rode a Cy Young-caliber season from Beckett, a respectable final season from Schill, a decent rookie year from Daisuke, and inning-eating performances from Wakefield to their seventh World Series title (their second in the past four years).   

But as much as their veteran starters drove their success, the Sox were equally dependent on their depth to fill in holes left by injury (Schilling) and incompetence (Julian Tavarez).

Youngsters Jon Lester, Kason Gabbard, and Clay Buchholz combined for 21 starts over 126-2/3 innings and posted a 3.77 ERA. With that kind of talent on the ascent, and with the hope that Matsuzaka could improve his performance, expectations were high for the 2008 rotation.

Unfortunately, despite excellent years from Lester, Daisuke, and Wakefield, so far this season, Boston's starters have been middling (sixth in the AL in ERA and WHIP) due to injury, inconsistency, and a serious sophomore slump from Buchholz.

Still, despite the hiccups this year, the rotation looks to be stable and locked in as one of the A.L.'s best for the next five years or so.

Clay Buchholz began 2008 listed by many experts as one of the top prospects in all of baseball. With one no-hitter under his belt, continued dominance was not out of the question, and at the least a league-average performance seemed guaranteed.

But after a 6.75 ERA and a 1.76 WHIP, 2008 was finally declared a lost season for Clay, and he was sent down to the minors to work out his problems. Some have blamed Buchholz's problems on new mechanics prescribed by the coaching staff. 

Others note that many young pitchers struggle in their second season, as opposing batters start to figure them out, and that only those hurlers who can make adjustments find lasting success.

Whatever the case, Buchholz's problems have not drastically affected his minor-league starts this year—he has a 2.30 ERA with 61 Ks and 18 walks in 58-2/3  minor-league innings this season.

Moreover, he has been lights-out in his most recent starts since being demoted: three earned runs in 15 innings with 18 Ks and one walk. All signs point to Clay becoming a useful member of the rotation sometime in 2009 and not looking back thereafter. 

Perhaps he will only turn out to be No. 2 starter, but he has all the tools to be an ace if he can pull it all together. The best part for the Red Sox: He's under their control until at least 2013. 

Jon Lester has gone from inspirational story, to history maker, and to ace material, all over just about a year-and-a-half. Last season, he was just happy to be able to get back on the mound and pitch again after an unexpected battle with lymphoma (a type of cancer) that was discovered after the 2006 season.

So far in 2008, Lester hasn't been satisfied with anything less than dominance, as he has gone 13-5 with a 3.37 ERA (second in ERA among Boston starters to Daisuke Matsuzaka). 

e has more than justified Theo Epstein's faith in him (remember, he was so untouchable that he wasn't even on the table when the Red Sox were seeking Alex Rodriguez from Texas) and now looks like he could settle in as a very reliable No. 2 starter, and perhaps even an ace.

His biggest issue still remains control, though his walks per innings pitched are trending down, and his strikeouts per walks are moving up. Just 24-years old, he won't become a free agent until after 2012. 

Daisuke Matsuzaka doesn't seem like the kind of guy who should have ended up in Boston. Not when getting his services came down to a bidding war for the right just to negotiate with the most feared agent in the business.

Remember when the Yankees used to make the biggest hot-stove splashes? Over the past few years, Brian Cashman has stood on the sidelines while his fiercest rivals stole the winter headlines.

Omar Minaya of the Mets grabbed Pedro Martinez (the best pitcher of his generation), Carlos Beltran (the best center fielder in the game), and most recently completed a trade for Johan Santana (only the best pitcher in baseball) this past offseason.

Theo traded for Josh Beckett (who shut down the Yankees in their own house as a 23-year old in the 2003 World Series) in 2006, getting 2007 World Series MVP Mike Lowell at the same time, and outbid Cashman for the biggest Japanese free agent to hit the market in years. Unbelievable. Who could have seen this coming?

Matsuzaka began pitching in the Japanese Pacific League for the Seibu Lions at age 18.  The information that initially surfaced about him in the U.S. took on almost a mystical quality.

He became known for his incredible pitch counts (250 in 17-straight innings once), for striking out Ichiro Suzuki three times in one game, and for the legendary gyroball, which he may or may not actually throw. 

Of course, all the Red Sox cared about was whether he could be an effective starter, and all they needed to know to be sure of effectiveness was that he had not finished with an ERA above three for Seibu since the 2002 season. Outbidding the Rangers, Mets, and, you guessed it, the Yankees, for the right negotiate with Daisuke, and uber-agent Scott Boras, they signed Matsuzaka to an incentive-laden, six-year, $52 million contract. 

Year one of the Dice-K era was short on gyroballs, and even shorter on sub-three ERAs. A recurring theme, it was suggested that the Red Sox messed with a good thing by tinkering with Matsuzaka's mechanics and limiting his repertoire. Still, with a 4.40 ERA, a 1.32 WHIP, and 15 wins, it was a more than adequate rookie season.

Year two has gone even better, as Daisuke is currently sporting a 2.82 ERA, a 1.33 WHIP, and 16-2 record. While control has been a bit of an issue at times, the fact that batters have trouble making solid contact with Matsuzaka's offerings helps limit the damage done by his free passes.

His strikeout rate has been improving and his walk rate dropping as of late, which portends well for the future. Signed through 2012, he will easily justify what the Red Sox spent on his contract, posting fee and all, if he keeps this act up.

Tim Wakefield must be a good guy. There's no other explanation for his decision to sign a contract that basically allows the Boston front office to have complete control over how long he plays. He must actually feel loyalty to the team he plays for, and for that reason, he signed a contract that gives the Red Sox a recurring team option for his services at a fixed rate of $4 million.

Look, I know that making that kind of money to play a sport you love is a pretty sweet deal. I don't for a moment feel bad for anyone in that position. But, in the context of athlete behavior, Wakefield looks downright selfless. 

It is for that reason, and also because I don't want the art of the knuckleball (which adds special character to the games he pitches) to be lost, that I hope that Wakefield's contract will be renewed for many years.

And as long as he puts up a 3.76 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP, chances are he'll remain with the team. That kind of performance is worth many times Wakefield's going rate, and the value of his steady contribution and ability to absorb innings in a variety of circumstances (see his bullpen-saving act in Game Three of the 2004 ALCS) should not be underestimated.

Still, there are signs of him slowing down. He hit the shelf due to shoulder woes late in the season and again this year, like in 2007 (though he already came back against the Yankees last week, helping the Sox win a crucial series in their last trip to the original Yankee Stadium), and he hasn't cleared the 200-inning mark in a season since 2005. 

More to the point, there's a lot of pitching talent in Boston. At some point, guys like Masterson and Bowden are going to need a rotation spot, and Wakefield's consistency may no longer be there.

He may be kept on as a bullpen arm and spot starter even (after all, that's about what $4 million buys these days). But when the time comes to say goodbye, I'll miss his familiar face and the flutter of his knuckler.

Josh Beckett is a hard guy to figure out. Throughout his career, he has shown unquestionable talent. And he has certainly picked the right moments to shine. But there always seems to be something holding him back from being the ace you think he is. 

In Florida it was the blisters that kept him from ever topping 180-innings pitched in a season. In 2006, his first season with the Red Sox, he was healthy, but his crashing strikeout rate and an ERA that ballooned above five still held him back.

Then, in 2007, he seemed to finally put it all together, winning 20 games with stellar peripherals (3.27 ERA, 1.14 WHIP) and finishing runner-up in the Cy Young race. Now the maddening question is, at 11-9 with a 4.34 ERA, why he isn't the same pitcher he was last year. 

A closer look at the numbers suggests that he is basically the same pitcher he was last year.

First, let's disregard the most recent start he made before going on the disabled list. He was clearly pitching hurt, and giving up right earned runs in two innings can really skew the numbers.

Before that dreadful showing against the Blue Jays, Beckett had an ERA of 3.92, a WHIP of 1.18, and was striking out more or less a batter per inning. His mediocre record was due in part to lack of run support, as Beckett took losses or no-decisions in six games in which he allowed one or two runs in six-plus innings of work.

In essence, he was the unlucky version of the same guy, right down to the peripherals. 

That being said, he was atrocious in his last start, due to injury, and any ailment that requires a consult with Dr. James Andrews can't be good. According to the team, he got a clean bill of health and will be ready to start this Friday. Color me skeptical.

At the very least, Beckett should be a solid bet to be the staff ace in 2009 and 2010 (assuming the Sox pick up his relatively cheap option for $10 million), at which point his current deal expires.

His health in 2009 will likely determine how aggressive Theo and company will be in working out a contract extension. Despite all of the issues, is there another guy you'd want to have starting Game Seven of the World Series for you? 

Should Beckett not return after 2010, both Justin Masterson and  Michael Bowden are quality arms that could step into the rotation. Masterson was called up to patch up the injured rotation several times, and he put up very good numbers as a rookie starter (3.67 ERA, 1.26 WHIP).

He has one of the best sinkers in the majors, and he throws a very good slider, but his future in the rotation depends on the development of his third pitch, the change-up. The Sox shunted him to the bullpen, both to help form a late-innings bridge to Papelbon, and to keep his innings totals in check as he builds up his stamina.

If he never develops an adequate third pitch, he would still be an asset as a dominant reliever. 

Michael Bowden made his first major-league start this week, as Boston continues to reel from a very injury-prone 2008 rotation (Beckett, Schilling, Matsuzaka, and Wakefield have all spent time on the DL this year).

Though no one will complain when a rookie gets a win in his first start, Bowden was pretty lucky to only give up a pair of runs in five innings while allowing opposing hitters to bat .333 against him. To his credit, Bowden gave up no homers, walked only one batter, and induced two twin-killings, all helping him limit the number of runs he surrendered.

But on another day he might have easily given up a couple more runs and gotten knocked out of the game earlier with the way he was getting hit. To be fair, Bowden is still 21, and there's nothing to suggest he won't be able to be a middle-of-the-rotation starter, and perhaps even more dominating than that, as he hones his craft.

He has had excellent numbers at every level of the minors, including in Lancaster's offense-happy environment, and holds a career minor league ERA of 3.14 and WHIP of 1.15. He needs to develop a bit more in AAA Pawtucket, but he could be ready to contribute regularly by mid-2009.

 

Future Relief

The bullpen is a fluid place, born of necessity, supply and demand, and hope. Few prospects start out pegged as relievers, and those that do start out that way have little in the way of a back-up plan (see Hansen, Craig). 

Thus, it is hard to predict who could be filling out the Red Sox's bullpen in coming years. But just for kicks, let's take a look at some of the contenders.

As mentioned above, Masterson should make a formidable reliever if he doesn't work out in the rotation (a 1.76 ERA since joining the 'pen this year supports that notion). He has already contributed this year, patching up a somewhat troubled 'pen, and finally being used in higher-leverage situations lately.

He picked up the win yesterday, keeping Boston close in the game long enough for the team to come from behind. On Aug. 26, he was brought in to face Alex Rodriguez with the bases loaded in a critical game against Boston's biggest rival (unbelievably, that rivalry could actually get surpassed on the occasion of another Red Sox-Rays brawl in combination with a photo-finish for the AL East championship between Tampa and Boston).

Down on the farm, Daniel Bard has already played out the familiar scenario of a failed starter becoming a crack bullpen arm, putting up an ERA of 10.75 as a starter in High-A Lancaster before being converted to a reliever in the Arizona Fall League.

He finished this season with a 1.99 ERA in roughly 50 innings at AA Portland, after posting a 0.64 ERA in 28 innings at Low-A Greenville (striking out 1.5 batters per inning there). With the ability to consistently hit 98 on the radar gun with his fastball (topping out at 101), and three different secondary offerings, he has the stuff to succeed in the 'pen.

He needs to master AAA before we know for sure what he'll become, but if all goes well, he could be ready to contribute by 2010.

Hunter Jones is a lefty, but you wouldn't know it. He has an unconventional reverse split, mowing down righties while being taken behind the shed by his same-handed brethren.

This is not an entirely bad thing (since there are more righty batters than southpaws), as long as his manager remembers the fact and does not try to employ him as a specialist.

In fact, one of Jones's pluses is that he is well-suited for multiple-inning work. He is not a hard thrower, but his great command and deceptive delivery make up for the lack of blazing velocity.

Fans could be seeing him in Fenway as early as early 2009, as he has little to prove in AAA after striking out a batter per inning for Pawtucket.

 

Bullpen Stars

In a word, unhittable. That's how you would describe the performance Boston's trio of high-leverage relievers in 2007. Manny Delcarmen (2.05 ERA, 1.02 WHIP), Hideki Okajima (2.22, 0.97), and Jonathan Papelbon (1.85, 0.77) combined for over 180 dominant innings, and made Red Sox fans comfortable about getting a win anytime the team was leading after the seventh inning.

While Papelbon has been dishing out more of the same in 2008 (1.68, 0.85), Delcarmen and Okajima have taken steps backward, and no one else has stepped up to claim the role of dominant set-up man.

On the surface, Hideki Okajima's numbers don't look all that different from the ones he posted during his 2007 All-Star campaign. A reliever with an ERA of 2.83 is usually considered a success, and Okajima's 3-2 record doesn't suggest a guy who's coughed up a lot of leads.

But Okajima has a problem his stats don't reveal: He has had trouble keeping inherited runners from scoring, allowing 13 of 22 inherited runners to come across the plate, including 10 during a brutal stretch from Apr. 24 to May 14.

These struggles have led to a combination of eight blown saves and leads, and have kept manager Terry Francona from feeling comfortable about bringing Okajima in with runners on, forcing him to rely on lesser talents in such situations.

Considering Okajima's brutal June numbers (9.64 ERA, 2.57 WHIP), his 2008 season has been a disappointment for the Red Sox. On the positive side, Okajima has had a WHIP below 1.07 in every month besides June and an ERA of 2.87 and WHIP of 0.83 since the All Star break.

He has stranded six out of seven runners in July and August, and he seems to have returned to his dominant 2007 form in the past couple of months. The Red Sox hope so, as he has eclipsed the 115 appearances mark for 2007 and 2008 combined, thereby kicking in a 2009 option on his contract at $1.75 million.

If he continues to pitch at his post-Independence-Day level, it will be a bargain. Only time will tell whether he'll pitch well enough to be in a Red Sox uniform beyond next year.

Hometown favorite Manny Delcarmen seemed on his way to establishing himself as a bullpen ace after his breakout 2007 campaign (2.05 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, whiling striking out nearly a batter per inning). 

Batters have found him to be much more hittable in 2008 though (.222 batting average against, versus .183 in 2007), and consequently his ERA has risen (currently at 3.90), despite maintaining his strikeout and walk rates and cutting his home-run rate.

Much of the issues can be chalked up to poor April and May appearances, as his numbers have greatly improved over the course of the season (2.66 ERA, 1.08 WHIP since the All Star break). 

The Red Sox would be happy enough to see him settle in as a dependable set-up man, even if he never approaches his dominant 2007 line again. But, armed with a high-90s fastball and a top-notch curve, and under Boston's control until 2012, Delcarmen could be the eighth-inning bridge to Papelbon for years to come.

It is fitting that this article, and indeed the whole series of articles, should end with Jonathan Papelbon? But what can be written about him that hasn't been already said? 

He went from a solid front-of-the-rotation prospect to a nearly invincible shut-down closer in what seemed like the blink of an eye, and he hasn't looked back since.

Not one of his first three full seasons has been less than dominant. His highest ERA? 1.85 (2007). His highest WHIP? 0.85 (2008). In all likelihood, he'll set career highs for saves and innings pitched this year, and he's cut his walk rate in half (he's walked a mere seven batters so far). 

But the most telling thing is how he makes Red Sox fans feel: secure. An almost unheard-of feeling in Boston's ninth-inning history. When Papelbon purses his lips into an "O", staring intently at the batter, you believe he's going to shut the door.

And he usually does.

Red Sox fans hope that he'll continue to give them that security though 2011, when he hits free agency. If there's one guy Theo Epstein would like to extend before he can test the market, it might be Paps.

 

Check out Part One and Part Two of this series, devoted to Boston's infielders and outfielders respectively.

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