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No hurry to flip him, but Penny has value

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By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / May 26, 2009
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MINNEAPOLIS - An American League general manager recently made a great point: "The Red Sox are so stacked, so good, they can be patient with Ortiz, patient with their shortstop situation, and they can trade Brad Penny if they want to."

"If they want to" is the key phrase. The Sox are an imperfect first-place team, but they are in a perfect situation. They have resources, a deep farm system, chips to trade, and a lineup that's good enough, even without David Ortiz hitting.

They are in first place even with no reliable shortstop. They have so much starting pitching that other teams are actually awaiting a decision on Penny, knowing that sometime after mid-June John Smoltz will be ready.

While some expect a trade, don't be so sure. With yesterday's win, Penny is 5-1, and while his ERA is a lofty 5.96, his performances have been steady of late.

Yesterday Penny was vomiting between innings, as a sinus condition was upsetting his stomach. He went as long as he could, 5 1/3 innings, until the Twins caught up to him with two runs in the sixth.

If he hadn't been so sick, he might have gone seven innings or surely gotten out of the sixth. How many teams would want someone like that? They are too numerous to mention.

Penny has become one of the most valuable chips in the game.

Other than Jake Peavy and perhaps Cliff Lee, you won't see many good starting pitchers available between the time the Red Sox are eligible to deal Penny (June 15) and the July 31 trading deadline.

They're not going to trade him for a backup shortstop because the value of a starter is much higher than that. Yet they probably can't get a premier hitter for him, either.

A number of things could happen.

One of their other starters could get hurt. Maybe one will feel a little achy and have to be pushed back, so why not a full-fledged stint on the 15-day disabled list?

Very good organizations have "problems" like this. While 90 percent of the league is scrambling to find a fourth starter, let alone a fifth starter, the Sox are trying to fulfill their promise to Smoltz that he would be up in June. They also do not want to frustrate Clay Buchholz by keeping him in Triple A, but the longer he is down there, the more likely he'll be ready to stay when he does come up.

Also down the road, they have to think about settling on a role for Justin Masterson. Again, he's a young pitcher, and like Derek Lowe, the pitcher he's most compared to, he has gone back and forth between starting and relieving. Masterson seems to have the mentality to be able to wait it out.

At some point, the Red Sox will have to get production out of Ortiz and they will run out of patience with shortstops who can't do the job. But here in late May, in first place, they are not in a bad place.

Penny was considered somewhat of a risk when the Sox signed him as a free agent in the offseason. He was coming off an injury-filled season with the Dodgers after winning 16 games two years running.

He had developed a less-than-stellar reputation with some members of the Dodgers' brass and some teammates for what was perceived as a poor work ethic; but Penny wanted out of Los Angeles. He was unable to capitalize on his better seasons there and had to settle for a one-year contract with Boston for a $5 million base salary. At 31, he is hoping to use this season to get a multiyear deal.

Early on, it didn't appear that Penny would survive in the rotation for long. In his second start, he allowed eight runs in three innings; in his fourth, he allowed seven runs, four earned, in 2 2/3 innings.

But since then, his game has smoothed out. Yesterday was the first time in five starts Penny didn't go at least six innings. He still can throw 94-95, and while he tends to produce a lot of fly balls, he still doesn't consider himself a fly-ball pitcher.

Penny tried to downplay his sickness, saying, "I don't think it really affected my pitching. I was a little lethargic, maybe. I was just [upset] my breaking ball wasn't there."

The Sox gave him five runs in four innings, and Penny was appreciative of the support, which he said was hard to come by with the Dodgers and Marlins.

"It's nice," he said. "With this team, anything can happen, and they helped me out a lot. They allowed me to go out there and throw strikes and be more aggressive.

"Any time you gave up three runs in the National League, you'd lose. These guys are great players and they're a lot of fun."

His manager was impressed.

"He'd come out, throw up, laugh, go get 'em," said Terry Francona. "He handled it really well. And I actually thought he threw well even if he wasn't sick.

"Technically, it wasn't a quality start, but it was for me. He's done his job and he's getting better. We knew what he was going through between innings, and that was impressive.

"He said every time he threw up, he felt better. I didn't really want to witness that."

But he witnessed a gutsy performance.

He has been good enough for other teams to take notice and wonder whether he will be an option. For the Sox, there is comfort in knowing they don't have to do a thing.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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