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The Dice-K dilemma

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  June 19, 2009 10:27 AM

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When you get right down to it, the only question that matters is this: What do the Red Sox do with Daisuke Matsuzaka? How do they solve the problem caused exclusively by a man in whom they have invested more than $100 million?

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John Smoltz, Brad Penny, six-man rotations … it is all a smokescreen, really. At the end of the day, this is all about Matsuzaka. He's not hurt. He won't go to the minors. The Red Sox won't put him in the bullpen. And so tonight, again, the Red Sox send Matsuzaka out to start another game, this one against the Atlanta Braves, while crossing their fingers and holding their breath.

"My first thought was that if we tell him that we're putting him in long relief, that's probably not going to build his confidence a whole lot," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said during his weekly interview on WEEI. "You know, there's a lot of things to think about. When you put a guy in the bullpen, who comes out of the bullpen? When you send a guy to the bullpen, how does he react to the bullpen?

"Also, Daisuke is typically our guy who takes the longest to warm up. …He goes out there a good 45-50 minutes before the game and throws a lot, so is that going to work? If you put a guy in the bullpen and he hasn't pitched a lot in three weeks, and you need a starter, is he capable of throwing a lot of pitches? I think there's a lot of things to look at. We can't just get caught up in what the fans and [media] are caught up in because we'll make some poor decisions."

Ain't that the truth.

At the moment, Matsuzaka is the anti-ace. So far this season, the Red Sox are 2-5 when Matsuzaka pitches, 38-21 when he does not. When Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez were in their prime years as Red Sox pitchers, much was made of the fact that the Sox were a playoff-caliber team on the day they sent their ace to the mound -- the 1999 Sox were 26-5 when Martinez pitched, 68-63 when he did not -- and an astonishingly mediocre one on the remaining four. If the Sox could send Matsuzaka to Toronto right now, he might completely neutralize Roy Halladay and drag the Blue Jays out of contention.

Even more amazing is this: Among all American League pitchers with at least 30 innings, Matsuzaka ranks 13th in average run support. On the Boston staff, only nine-game-winner Tim Wakefield has benefited from a higher number. Matsuzaka has been losing despite the fact that the Red Sox have been scoring runs for him, which speaks to just how poor his performance has been.

In many ways, Francona is right about the bullpen. If the Red Sox were to send Matsuzaka there now -- or when Smoltz returns to active status next week -- they might be burying him for the balance of 2009. While some of us are willing to take that chance, the Red Sox know they may need Matsuzaka later in the season, be it the result of an injury to another one of their starters or the need to trade someone in order to address a deficiency.

So it seems the Sox are prepared to ride this out with Matsuzaka, on whom they have spent $103.11 million in a posting fee ($51.11 million) and six-year contract ($52 million). Matsuzaka's annual average salary of $8.67 million makes him quite affordable given his age and upside. At the same time, if the Red Sox dealt him now, he will have cost them the equivalent of $29.9 million a year for fewer than three years of service.

Has he been worth it? Yes and no. On the one hand, Matsuzaka won more games in 2007-2008 than any major league pitcher but Halladay, CC Sabathia, and Brandon Webb. On the other, of the 12 major league pitchers to win at least 30 games during those seasons, Matsuzaka ranks last in innings pitched. Last year, in what must be viewed as a statistical aberration, Matsuzaka pitched the fewest innings in history of any starter to win at least 18 games. (No small feat there.)

As always, the truth rests somewhere in between. Matsuzaka isn't as good as he pitched last season and he's not as bad as he is pitching now.

"I mean, we're talking about a pitcher who over the last two years has won, what, 33 regular-season games, three postseason games," Francona said. "That's 36 games. I don't care how you do it, that's a lot of games. We can't just put guys on a shelf when they run through tough times. I think a better way to go is to help fix 'em. We've got this guy signed for a long time. We want him to help us win games."

Of course, that is what everybody wants. Matsuzaka wants to pitch well, the Red Sox want him to pitch well. Fans want him to pitch well. The problem to this point is that Matsuzaka has pitched poorly -- far more poorly than anyone else on the staff -- and that the Red Sox have a starter ready to join the rotation next Thursday (on Matsuzaka's regularly scheduled day) in Smoltz. Clay Buchholz is waiting anxiously in the minors. The Sox currently have the highly unusual problem of having more capable pitchers than job openings -- don't you dare suggest they have "too much pitching" -- and Matsuzaka is not keeping up with the Joneses.

Last night, Sox pitching John Farrell told the Globe's Amalie Benjamin that the Red Sox were focused only on Matsuzaka's outing tonight. Farrell said nothing of next week, which certainly raises the question as to whether Matsuzaka is pitching for his place in the rotation. Regardless, the Red Sox need to see more from their $103.11 million man.

And they need to see it soon.

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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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