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Multiple choices on Smoltz

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  June 15, 2009 10:48 AM

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Heavy rotation: Tony Massarotti sizes up five possible options for the Red Sox, who find themselves with too many starting pitchers

Too much pitching? No, no, no. You can never have too much. You can have an abundance, perhaps. Maybe even a stockpile. But you can never, ever have too much.

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Possessors of the best record in the American League, the Red Sox will encounter a most unusual problem this week when John Smoltz comes off the disabled list. The Sox will have 13 capable pitchers for 12 spots on the staff, a seemingly unthinkable problem in this age of expansion. And that excludes Clay Buchholz, who has a 1.74 ERA at Pawtucket and expressed his frustration with his situation to NECN's Mike Giardi over the weekend. While the rest of the baseball world doesn’t have two nickels to rub together, the Red Sox are showing up at flea market with a fistful of dollars.

So what are they supposed to do, give it away?

With Smoltz’s return on the horizon, here are five scenarios to solve the overstock problem, in order of preference:

Plan A: Reassign Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Bullpen, minor leagues or disabled list -- take your pick. Any way you slice it, Matsuzaka does not deserve to be in the starting rotation at the moment. All things considered, he does not deserve to be on the staff, either, but removing him from the active roster isn’t as simple as a demotion or a trip to the DL.

In both instances, the Red Sox would need Matsuzaka to sign off on the move because of specifics detailed in his contract or the bargaining agreement, something that does not seem likely to happen at this stage.

At the moment, Matsuzaka’s 7.55 ERA is fourth-highest in baseball among pitchers with at least 30 innings. Only Adam Eaton, Scott Kazmir, and Ricky Nolasco have been worse. If Matsuzaka is not willing to go to the minors or the DL to fix his problems -- opponents are batting .372 against him, righthanded batters an absurd .419 -- the best course of action for the Sox is to take their most ineffective starter, place him in the bullpen, and make him their mop-up man.

Should the Sox choose this route, they can create the roster spot by simply optioning Daniel Bard to Triple A. Despite his performance on Friday night, Bard generally was being used in a conservative role, anyway. Matsuzaka won’t like this, but the move allows the Sox to keep all of the pitchers in their roster while forcing Matsuzaka to work his way back to respectability. The bottom line here is that the other starters have been better than him.

Plan B: Make a trade, preferably involving Brad Penny.

Since May 1, Penny is 3-2 with a 4.10 ERA, not bad for a No. 5 starter. Last week, in throwing six shutout innings against the Yankees, he was as aggressive as he has been all year. Up until today, major league rules prohibited the Sox from trading Penny, a free agent who signed with the club over the winter.

Penny’s name obviously has been floated about in a number of trade scenarios in the last several weeks. The obvious question concerns the Red Sox’ needs, which still seem unclear. Until the Sox make a final determination on David Ortiz or Jed Lowrie -- assuming the Sox have not already -- they may need a designated hitter or a shortstop (or both). That could impact what they seek for Penny, be it in a straight 1-for-1 swap or a package deal.

At this stage, does it really make sense to trade Penny and keep Matsuzaka, at least based on effectiveness? Probably not. Again, the Sox could find an alternative route here and trade someone from their bullpen (Manny Delcarmen? Justin Masterson?) but that still would necessitate bumping Matsuzaka into a relief role. If the Sox are going to do that, they would be better off waiting and temporarily sending Bard to Triple A, allowing the trade market to further develop and thereby introducing competitive bidding as the July 31 trade deadline approaches.

Plan C: Move Tim Wakefield to the bullpen.

Years ago, wasn’t this always the solution for everything? Wakefield could start and he could relieve, and he could even do both at the same time. In Wakefield’s early years with the club, he could start on Monday and Saturday, and pitch out of the bullpen in between, making him one of the most versatile and valuable pitchers in baseball.

Here’s the problem: Wakefield is 42 now and he doesn’t bounce back the way he used to. The past two years, he has broken down late in the season. Jerking him around would be both disrespectful and imprudent, especially when the eight-game winner has pitched better than the majority of starters in the Boston rotation this season.

At the end of the day, if the Red Sox are going to send a starter to the bullpen, it needs to be their worst starter. That’s Matsuzaka. Replacing Wakefield with Smoltz makes no sense whatsoever, unless the Red Sox somehow think Wakefield could be a more effective reliever than Matsuzaka could be. That seems illogical given the depth of the bullpen and the likelihood that Matsuzaka or Wakefield would be relegated to mop-up status.

Plan D: Go to a six-man rotation.

For whatever reason, many fans and followers love this idea, but there are lots of things to consider. For beginners, the routines of every starter would be thrown off kilter. Factoring in off days, there would be situations when the entire rotation could be operating on six days of rest, which seems a little excessive, even for a team that goes to great lengths to protect its pitchers.

Here is another thing to consider: The Red Sox have 99 games left. Using a five-man rotation, that basically amounts to 20 starts per man. Using a six-man rotation, that number shrinks to 16 or 17 starts. Over the course of the next four months, a six-man rotation means that the Red Sox could be taking away as many as eight combined outings for Josh Beckett and Jon Lester by giving them to someone like Matsuzaka. If the Sox were to do that and miss the playoffs, by two or three games, there would be ample reason to question judgment.

Admittedly, there are occasions where a six-man rotation would make some sense. One would be on a staff with no clear separation between the best starter and the worst. Another would be in a stance where, say, a team had a big lead in the standings late in the year and wanted to soften the workload on their pitchers in anticipation of the playoffs. The Red Sox may very well find themselves in the latter scenario at some point -- but they’re not there yet.

Plan E: Put Smoltz in the bullpen (i.e., none of the above).

During his illustrious career, Smoltz has made 466 career starts and 244 career relief appearances, compiling 210 victories and 154 saves. Along with Dennis Eckersley, he is one of the truly unique pitchers in baseball history, a man who might be able to help every team in baseball in more than one role.

The problem? Like Wakefield, Smoltz is now 42. Compounding that issue is the fact that he is coming off surgery, which makes his health a greater concern. Even if the Red Sox were to employ Smoltz as a reliever, the best-case scenario might be one in which the Sox use him like they do Takashi Saito, refraining from appearances on back-to-back days and carefully picking their spots.

Even then, it is far easier for teams to manage the routine of a starter than a reliever, particularly with pitchers who have had arm surgery of any kind. Back in the late 1990s, for instance, the Red Sox were able to get something out of people like Bret Saberhagen and Pete Schourek because they could more effectively manager their routines as starters. The same is now true of Smoltz.

Over the weekend, Smoltz told the Globe’s Nick Cafardo that he offered to go to the bullpen but the club dismissed the possibility. Remember: One of the primary reasons the Sox signed Smoltz was to have him available to start games in September and, more specifically October, when they could fully benefit from Smoltz’s abilities and reputation as a big-game pitcher. How does a bullpen stint now accomplish that?

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The final chapter on Teixeira and How Red Sox pitchers work the strike zone Jan. 7, 2009 and July 17, 2009. Some actual reporting – an obsession with Mark Teixeira and the art of pitching.
For 2011 Red Sox, there was plenty of blame to go around Oct. 1, 2011. The disgraceful collapse of the Red Sox stoked the fire in all of us.
Behind Garnett and James, Celtics and Heat are digging in June 4, 2012. Improbably, the Celtics pushed the Heat to the limit.
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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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