With Jonathan Papelbon likely headed back to the starting rotation, with Mike Timlin showing his age over the last half of the season, with the youngsters yet to prove themselves as viable late-inning relievers, a vintage Keith Foulke would fill a gaping hole in the Red Sox bullpen in 2007.
Not hard to imagine, right? Foulke, circa 2004, when he could easily have been World Series MVP, coming out of the pen in the late going next season.
Except it's been two years. Two long years. And now, poised to audition for a back-end role in 2007, here is Foulke, contemplating leaving millions of dollars, leaving Boston, leaving baseball behind.
``My contract status, right now, I could care less about it," said Foulke hours before throwing a scoreless eighth inning in the Red Sox' 4-3 victory over the Orioles last night. ``I might retire. I don't know. It's a big option. If I can't have fun playing this game, if I don't have the motivation to prepare, you know, as far as strength and training and all that. I'm not going to be a middle bullpen, 5 ERA guy. Either I can come back and be a dominant pitcher, or I'll take it to the house."
Though it's hard to believe a player who has spent a lot of time talking about the first and 15th of every month would leave $3.75 million on the table, Foulke has maintained throughout the season that retirement hasn't just crossed his mind, it has grown roots. Foulke's contract contains both player and team options for next season. Should the team pick up his option -- all but guaranteed not to happen -- Foulke would make $7.5 million in 2007. If the team does not pick it up, Foulke would receive a $1.5 million buyout, and could exercise his option and be paid an additional $3.75 million, far more than any other team would be willing to pay in free agency.
So, what is in question is that $3.75 million -- and another season with the Sox. But would Foulke really retire? Would he really get out now, less than a month before his 34th birthday, just when his pitching has started to improve?
``Retirement shouldn't even be an option yet," said catcher Jason Varitek. ``But that's just because he can always locate, he can always get people out. I think he's dead serious about it. If somebody says that, it's not like they're just saying it to get a reaction. There's probably thought behind it. He still has great ability to pitch. Some people never learn that."
Now that the knee, back, and elbow troubles seem to have cleared, Foulke has had an impressive last few weeks. Since Sept. 1, a string of 11 appearances covering 11 1/3 innings, Foulke has not allowed a run. And, despite the 10 hits he has given up in that time, Foulke has walked just one batter while striking out nine. Not bad.
``Quit worrying about velocity, just concentrate on trying to throw the ball over the plate, to the mitt," Foulke said of his current approach. ``I'm feeling pretty good right now, so health is probably part of it."
A huge part of it. Frustrated for much of the past two seasons by injuries, Foulke finally appears to feel good on the mound. Not that he feels strong. That part is not there yet, and won't be until he returns to the offseason program that he has all but forsaken in the recent past because of his limited ability to train.
Because of the lack of wear and tear on his body this season -- he's thrown just 49 2/3 innings -- Foulke said he could start workouts much sooner than in a normal offseason.
``I'll be able to work out," he said. ``Last year, my knees were killing me during the winter. I couldn't do anything. I'd do a lower-body workout and my legs would hurt for three or four days. Just having a consistent program where I can go out and I can work legs, and be able to work my core and get my core strong. The whole body, really. This will be the first time I've been healthy in the winter time in a long time."
Which should make a difference. Or, at least, that's the hope. Because the Sox may have a void -- depending on their offseason moves -- in the bullpen.
``I'd have no problem giving the ball to Foulke [at the end of the game], or to Timlin, or anybody like that," Varitek said. ``Foulkie's done it . . . we could match him up with Mariano [Rivera] and count on scoreless innings."
Foulke isn't that pitcher. Not anymore. And, yet, if he can come back and contribute it would be a huge boost to the team.
If, that is, he doesn't decide to give it up.
``I got a lot of work to do," Foulke said. ``There's no ifs, ands, or buts about it. It's been a nasty little cycle with my knees for a couple of years, then my elbow started bothering me. Then I changed some stuff there, then my back started bothering me. It's been a bad circle. I can't go on like that. I don't want to be on the DL. I want to be out there, and I want to pitch in 85 ballgames a year, 100 innings. If I can get myself in shape to do that, then I'll come back. If I'm sitting around my house drinking beer, I'll take it to the house. I'll stay there."