John Smoltz Nearing Return: Should Red Sox Pitchers Worry?

E ASenior Analyst IJune 7, 2009

WASHINGTON - APRIL 12:  John Smoltz #29 of the Atlanta Braves pitches against the Washington Nationals April 12, 2008 at Nationals Park in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Last night, John Smoltz made more progress to advance himself on the long road of recovery from last year's season-ending shoulder surgery.

With Pawtucket hosting the visiting Durham Bulls, Smoltzy fired six innings for the PawSox, limiting Durham to one run and one hit with two walks and three strikeouts. 51 of his 74 pitches found the strike zone, as Smoltz retired the last ten batters he faced.

After the game Smoltz said his shoulder felt fine. During the game, he topped out at 91 MPH on the radar gun.

Smoltz said he is gaining more confidence in his stuff, also saying how he intends to pound the strike zone with fastballs, accompanying it with a splitter, slider, curveball, and, eventually, a changeup that he says is coming along.

Smoltz will make his fifth rehab start this Thursday at Syracuse. After that, Smoltz says "the Major League team has decisions to make, and I'll leave it up to them."

Coming into this season, the Red Sox had—on paper—the best looking starting rotation in all the leagues, with Josh Beckett heading the staff as the resident ace, Jon Lester as the up-and-comer with ace potential, and Daisuke Matsuzaka, who carried the rotation with Lester last year, winning 18 games with an ERA among the league's best.

Through the first two months, Beckett and Lester pitched terribly, and Daisuke found himself landed on the disabled list. The triumvirate was out of commission, with Lester and Beckett in possession of ERA's near 10.00 and Dice K on the shelf.

Tim Wakefield was the guy who stepped up to carry the workload for the Red Sox rotation through April and part of May, nearly no-hitting the Oakland Athletics and stringing together quality start after quality start.

Now, with Wakefield pitching more like himself (4.50 ERA, 31 BB, 41 K), and Dice-K continuing to struggle on the mound, should either of them worry about their jobs in the rotation?

Before the season there was already speculation that Wakefield would be moved to the bullpen to accommodate some of the abundant stock of arms the Red Sox have at their disposal. With his hot April well behind him, and Smoltz very close to his Boston debut, now may be the time for that shift.

Free agent addition Brad Penny has been up and down, and recent trade rumors have connected him to the Phildelphia Phillies. For Penny, the Red Sox have asked Philly for top infield prospect Jason Donald.

According to his page at The Baseball Cube, Donald is Philadelphia's fourth best prospect. On a scale of one-to-100, his power is graded at 79, his speed 52, his contact 33, and his patience 58.

In the Minor Leagues, Donald is a career .285 hitter with 28 home runs.

Trading Penny would do the Red Sox some good, as would moving Wakefield to a long relief role in the bullpen. One of those rotation spots would be filled by Smoltz, who will be back in the Show in one to three weeks.

Finally, it is time for the Red Sox to call up top prospect Clay Buchholz. He was rocked last year due to a lack of confidence in his stuff, but with the way he has been dominating AAA this year (4-0, 1.74 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 57 K, 12 BB) the 24-year old has shown that he is ready for the next level.

Josh Beckett has turned it around, marching to the tune of his 2007 campaign.

In his six previous starts, all of them quality starts, Beckett is 4-0 with a 1.94 ERA, 37 strikeouts, 14 walks, and a .197 opposing batting average, including a near no-hitter of the Detroit Tigers in his last start. The Red Sox went 5-1 under Beckett's last six outings.

Jon Lester is starting to look more like himself as well, as he has strung together two quality starts in a row and three in his last four outings. His last start, a near perfect game against the Texas Rangers, turned out to be an 11 strikeout, one run, two hit shutout.

With Lester and Beckett coming around, something needs to be done to spark the back end of the rotation. Smoltz will come with every intention to pitch well and keep the Red Sox in games. The addition of Buchholz will give the Red Sox another power pitcher who can rack up the strikeouts.

With Penny and his inflated ERA gone, and with Beckett, Lester, Smoltz, and Buchholz all pitching well, it will keep the pressure on Dice K low as he looks to revert back to his 2008 form.

Either way, with the imminent return of Smoltz, something is going to be done soon. Look for Penny to be the first to go.