The Red Sox are in Trouble

Sean KennedyCorrespondent IAugust 6, 2009

BOSTON - JULY 28:  Jonathan Papelbon #58 of the Boston Red Sox reacts after an error in the ninth inning against the Oakland Athletics at Fenway Park July 28, 2009 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Watching Brad Penny pitch last night was just the latest sign that the Red Sox are in trouble.

Once again, Penny couldn't pitch into the 7th inning. The big righty went six innings, giving up five runs on six hits, allowed two walks, and struck out five.

Penny, now 7-6, has not gone seven innings in any of his 21 starts this season, which is the most in the Majors. It's also the longest single-season streak by a Red Sox pitcher since 1954.

Due this latest weak outing, Penny's ERA rose again, to a lofty 5.20.

And there's little reason for optimism tonight. John Smoltz, he of the 2-4 record and 7.12 ERA, takes the mound in the Bronx against the Yankees. Feeling any better, Red Sox fans?

Smoltz spent 20 years building an impressive resume in Atlanta before the Braves bid farewell to him after reconstructive shoulder surgery. Apparently they were onto something.

There was little reason to believe that a 42-year-old pitcher could remain effective after having his labrum surgically repaired. Yet the Red Sox held out hope and took a shot on the former star.

Theo Epstein's signing of the aging veteran was widely described as "low risk, high reward." Perhaps Smoltz's guaranteed $5M salary is low risk by Red Sox standards, but it's a reward he hasn't yet earned. What's worse, there is plenty of risk to the team, and the bullpen in particular, every time he takes the mound.

And then there's Clay Buchholz, he of the supposedly limitless upside and potential. Other than a brilliant no-hitter in just his second big league start two years ago, we haven't seen anything to be inspired by since then. The alleged wunderkind has allowed 40 base runners in just 19.1 innings this season, resulting in a 2.02 WHIP. Opponents are batting a vibrant .337 against Buchholz, and his ERA stands at a hefty 6.05.

Buchholz will be 25 in 11 days. Having made starts in each of the last three seasons, he's past the point of being a prospect now. It's time for him to put up or risk becoming the latest "can't miss kid" who missed, unable to live up to the hype.

In their last starts, Penny, Smoltz, and Buchholz have combined for 16 innings, 23 hits, and 17 earned runs. Believe it or not, Penny and Smoltz had been even worse in their previous starts.

The Sox are so desperate that they signed 38-year-old Paul Byrd to a minor league contract this week. Byrd, who possesses a 108-93 career record and 4.38 ERA, hasn't pitched since last October. But right now, he's better than any other available options. That's how bad things are at the moment for the Sox.

If you think Tim Wakefield is the answer, think again. Though Wakefield is having a very good season (11-3, 4.31 ERA), he is 43 and has been derailed by shoulder issues in each of the last two seasons. However, that shoulder is secondary to his current ailment; sciatica.

The condition is so bad that Wakefield may need a second cortisone shot to treat it, and the sciatic nerve is now radiating all the way down to his left calf.

Said Wakefield, “I’m just depressed that this isn’t progressing the way I want it to progress. I’ve got zero strength in my left calf due to the nerve. I’m just waiting for it to get better.”

Earlier this week, the Sox veteran said the pain had been so bad that he could “barely walk.”

While the Sox are trying to remain optimistic, they don’t realistically expect Wakefield to return for a couple of weeks. Wakefield said trainers told him a person typically requires 6-8 weeks to recover from sciatica, yet he’s still hoping for a quicker return.

The Red Sox expect that Daisuke Matsuzaka will be ready to pitch again in September. But since he won't be stretched out, the best they can hope for is 4-5 innings per start. That would be pretty typical; this season, Matsuzaka has averaged just 4.4 innings per start, and last year just 5.8 innings per start. If 4-5 innings is all the Red Sox can reasonably expect from him, it will put excessive strain on an already overworked bullpen.

They will miss Justin Masterson.

Matsuzaka is just 1-5 this season, with a bloated 8.23 ERA. Opponents are batting .378 against him, his WHIP is 2.20, and he has zero quality starts in eight tries. For the Japanese righty, this season has been an outright bust.

Despite his success last year (18-3, 2.90 ERA) it's important to note that his 18 wins were achieved in the fewest amount of innings of any pitcher to have ever won at least 18 games.

And there was a lot of good luck and good defense at play as well; Matsuzaka loaded the bases an incredible 15 times last season without allowing a run. That kind of good fortune always runs put eventually.

Amazingly, the Red Sox may find themselves counting on minor league pitchers Michael Bowden (3-5, 3.40 ERA at Pawtucket) and/or Junichi Tazawa (0-2, 2.38 ERA at Pawtucket) before the year is through.

That's a frightening prospect when you're entering the stretch drive of a Pennant race with your season potentially on the line. Do you really want to see either of those inexperienced pitchers in meaningful games in September, with the season potentially hanging in the balance? How fair would that be to a pair of 23-year-olds?

But the Sox may have no other reasonable choice. Truthfully, this may be as good as it gets.

On Monday, teams began putting players on trade waivers, a process that will continue throughout August. Clubs with the worst records get first dibs, in ascending order of record.

While many teams will attempt to dump salary, some may be planning ahead and adding for next year, while others will simply try to block their closest competitors. That's how second place could potentially be an advantage to the Red Sox. However, the Rays could throw a wrench in the works just to thwart the Sox.

But let's face it; great pitchers aren't typically found in August. The Paul Byrd's of the world are what's usually available. That means the Red Sox aren't likely to pull a difference maker off the waiver wire, so don't hold your breath.

Theo Epstein publicly stated that he didn’t feel there would be any quality pitching available after the July 31 deadline. Take him at his word.

The Sox have 56 games remaining, or just over a third of the season. There is still time to get it right, but considering that three-fifths of the rotation is ineffective, it's hard to be optimistic.

After Josh Becket and Jon Lester, the Sox just roll the dice each time another starter takes the mound, and that probably won't get them into the post-season.

Copyright © 2009 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.


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