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Deep sixed

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff June 17, 2009 09:14 AM

Wasn’t Brad Penny due for a charter out of town some time on Monday?

Yet, there he is, scheduled to go up against his former team, the Florida Marlins, tonight at Fenway Park, where the most common question these days isn’t “What’s wrong with Big Papi?” but instead, “Hey, what are we gonna do with all this pitching?”

For now, it actually appears that the Red Sox are going to go with the mythical six-man rotation. John Smoltz will make his Boston debut in Washington next Thursday, in what would be Daisuke Matsuzaka’s spot in the rotation. With just one off day (July 2) between now and the All-Star break, such a scenario allows a little bit of added rest for everyone involved.

As for being able to thumb your nose at the rest of the league for the silly ability to do this in the first place, well that’s just icing.

In retrospect, dealing Penny immediately on June 15, the first day the Sox could have traded the offseason free agent signing and, coincidentally, the same day Smoltz’s rehab stint was scheduled to end, would have been folly to the nth degree. After all, it was just three years ago on this date that the Red Sox possessed a 38-28 record, awfully similar to the 39-25 they currently employ, best in the American League, didn't you know.

The second half of that '06 season, Red Sox pitchers put up a 5.16 ERA -- better only than bottom feeders Baltimore and Kansas City in the American League -- in tossing anything out to the mound with the hopes something might stick. Josh Beckett, David Wells, Jon Lester, Kyle Snyder, Kason Gabbard, Tim Wakefield, Curt Schilling, Devern Hansack, and the immortal Jason Johnson each got starts in the second half of that season, one in which the Sox were 53-33 on July 10.

They went on to win just 33 more times and finished in third place in the AL East.

Of course, that was a year in which everything went terribly wrong, from Beckett not finding his AL groove yet, to Lester’s battle with cancer, to Jason Johnson being in the employment of a team with postseason aspirations. It all came to a crashing halt with the Yankees’ notable five-game sweep at Fenway later that summer. And if you don’t think you need a reminder about all that, then you probably do.

These days, Theo Epstein seems hell-bent on not making the same mistakes he did prior to that season, namely dealing away Bronson Arroyo for the human fan that was Wily Mo Pena. The Sox stockpiled arms this past offseason, inking Smoltz and Penny to affordable deals. For the most part, Penny has been a pleasant surprise to this point (5-2, 5.32 ERA). But, please, if you don’t think he’s a tradable commodity to this team you’re kidding yourself.

Obviously, the 31-year-old is looking for a long-term deal, the reason he signed for relatively short money after last season’s injury-plagued campaign with the Dodgers. With Beckett, Lester, Matsuazka, Wakefield, Clay Buchholz, Justin Masterson, and Michael Bowden here for the long-term (barring any major deal), any chance you think he’s going to find that security here?

But, again, to have dealt him right on June 15 in order to conveniently slide Smoltz in the rotation would have been foolhardy in that, despite his resume, the Red Sox have little idea how Smoltz is going to handle major league hitters. Really, they won’t find out in start No. 1 against the pathetic Nationals. (It’s illogical to have planned it this way, of course, but wouldn’t you just have loved to have seen Smoltz’s first start in Atlanta the very next day, bad blood and all?)

There’s also the very possibility Smoltz’s rehab might not have gone 100 percent, he’s sidelined for the next month, and now you’re looking at calling up Buchholz because you’ve already dealt Penny away.

Wait…what was the problem again?

Penny has been a nice feather in the cap, indeed, and has pitched well enough that teams salivating for a starter come trade deadline next month are going to probably give up a little more than they might right now. Plug Penny on teams like the Giants (and if San Francisco had any offense to speak of, how dangerous a postseason staff would Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Penny be?), Mets, or Cubs, and those teams have to significantly like their chances of making a run at the playoffs. What would it take to get him? Heck, what do the Sox even need?

That’s a scary thought, that the Sox could surrender a 5-2 starter without needing anything significant in return and would still be considered the best team, with the most pitching depth in the game.

Then again, it’s that sort of thinking that led to the demise of ’06.

For now, the Sox will feel mighty comfortable sending Penny to the hill every sixth day, until someone gets desperate enough to offer something significant for him. But they will not weaken a strength just to fill in the gaps as properly perceived once upon a time. Penny has earned the Sox that luxury. And while his next start in a Red Sox uniform could very well be his last, he remains for now just one component of the best problem any baseball team can ever have on its plate.

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