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Brave replacement

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff June 22, 2009 09:54 AM

We have no idea how John Smoltz will look Thursday in Washington. It doesn’t matter.

Now that Daisuke Matsuzaka is gone, the Red Sox could probably insert Zane Smith into the rotation with better results.

There’s a lot of good to be said about the World Baseball Classic. What that is, you’ll have to refer to Bud Selig’s press releases on the matter, because I sure can’t tell you.

Still, held at gunpoint for one positive item to come out of the WBC, I suppose it’s that we’ve got a reprieve every fifth day now from watching the most maddening pitcher in recent Red Sox history. There’s Daisuke and then…who, Matt Young maybe?

If enduring a start by Matsuzaka in his first two seasons in the major leagues was a test of will, even as he was busy winning 33 games -- a comparatively small number to the amount of blood vessels he popped across New England -- then this season was akin to the sacrificial lamb. Matsuzaka was 1-5 with an 8.23 ERA for the 2009 season. And I say, “was” because there’s not much chance you’ll see him anywhere near Fenway until April, 2010.

“This is not going to be a two-week DL,” Sox manager Terry Francona said yesterday. “We’re going to have to figure this out. We have a lot of work ahead of us trying to make this [better] again, get him back to being Daisuke, in a nutshell.’’

The name Craig Grebeck comes to mind, no?

Unlike Grebeck, who drifted off into the great unknown back during the 2001 season never to be heard from again, this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Daisuke. The Red Sox have far too much time, money, and effort invested in the Japanese legend, one season removed from winning 18 games for the wild card champs.

And he can certainly rebound. After all, there is no WBC next spring.

In case you forgot, here’s what Matsuzaka managed to do in blowing out his arm for the Red Sox, er, sorry, leading his country to victory in Bud Selig’s Classic: 3-0, 1.38 ERA, 0.85 WHIP.

Matsuzaka’s totals for the Red Sox this season: He had one-third the number of wins over five more starts, an ERA almost exactly six times higher, and a WHIP almost triple-fold.

There’s money well-spent.

Matsuzaka’s dedication to his country is certainly understandable. But where is the honor of being unable to perform for your employer because you sacrificed yourself for your homeland?

"I know the MLB wants to have players play it if they're able, but, right now, we're down a pitcher," said Francona. "The fact is, we had a guy who won 36 games in two years and now we don't have him. That's hard."

Of course, we can use the WBC as a crutch for excusing Matsuzaka’s historically awful performance this season, something Francona seems more than willing to do. Now, granted, that’s likely part of it. But more concerning for the Sox are numbers first brought to light by Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci the first time Matsuzaka landed on the DL this season. In short, Year 3 has been a relative disaster for Japanese pitchers in the major leagues.

Here’s the data:

verducci2.jpg

Matsuzaka’s third season was even worse than any of those. In fact, the Red Sox might have been happy with a record comparable to either Nomo’s or Ishii’s third-year resume for Matsuzaka in 2009.

The Red Sox and Matsuzaka are married until 2012, with a no-trade clause and multiple perks to boot. After 2009, there is $28 million remaining on his contract, which, in the grand scheme isn’t relatively all that bad until you consider what you posted in the first place. To get all of 34 regular season wins for all that trouble is another matter entirely.

But why focus on the negative? Daisuke is no longer in the starting five, which makes the Red Sox, an AL-best 42-27, with a four-game lead on the Yankees, five on the Blue Jays, and six on the Rays in the AL East, with the best bullpen in the game, a resurgent David Ortiz, and a shortstop that doesn’t require the necessity of an expletive to say his name, even more dangerous.

Smoltz and Brad Penny could have Clay Buchholz breathing down their necks should they falter at some point, but they won’t have Daisuke to worry about. And while it certainly pains Matsuzaka’s dedicated followers from his homeland, his removal from the roster has resulted in a collective sigh of relief from Red Sox fans.

Penny, Jon Lester, and Smoltz this week in DC. Matsuzaka in 2010.

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