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Knuckled out of a role

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff  January 27, 2010 10:21 AM

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It's easy to label Tim Wakefield somewhat delusional for believing he should have a spot in the Red Sox' crowded starting rotation. Then again, Paul Byrd pitched meaningful games down the stretch last season.

Still, the only way the 43-old knuckleballer is going to make the rotation is by default. One of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey, or Daisuke Matsuzaka is likely going to go down with an injury at some point this season, unless you think every season is like 2004. Clay Buchholz is destined to do something to put himself back in Terry Francona's doghouse. As long as Theo Epstein finally deleted Byrd's agent's number from his Blackberry, enter Wakefield.

Or, you know…Boof Bonser. Tickets on sale Saturday.

On paper, it's possibly the best starting staff in the American League, a statement many made around this time last year. I mean, the Red Sox had John Smoltz in their back pocket for midseason. John Smoltz. Remember all that talk about Boston employing a six-man rotation last summer because they were just that darned good? And Smoltz was on the way. Smoltz.

Yet every January and February we tend to make the same assumptions, namely that all five guys will have no problem tossing 200 innings and winning somewhere in the vicinity of 20-24 games a piece (19 for Daisuke). Yet only 36 major league pitchers hurled 200 innings or more last season. Two of them (Beckett, 212 1/3 and Jon Lester, 203 1/3) were in Boston.

Buchholz has yet to pitch 100 innings in the majors and since throwing 204 2/3 innings in 2007, Matsuzaka has yet to come close to that number, partly because Red Sox want to be careful with him, partly because of last season's injury, and partly because even Francona can only stand watching him so much.

Most expect Buchholz to take a major leap this season, and hope that Matsuzaka might finally be on the same page as the Red Sox in his preparation for this season. That ought to be a lot easier without throwing his arm out in Bud's World Classic this time around. So, sure, let's join the party line: The Red Sox rotation is stacked. Run prevention, hurrah.

But last season the Red Sox used a total of 11 starters en route to winning the wild card, not 5 as many would have had you believe is all it would take during spring training.

The clear option for the Red Sox with Wakefield is to have him work his way back slowly from offseason back surgery. Wakefield insists he's ready to go, but someone in the organization has to convince him that coming back later in the year is probably best for all parties. Wakefield's second-half splits since 2004 ('05 stands out as the exception) are eye-opening to say the least. Yet if the man comes back fresh in June or July, ready to confound the opposition once again, maybe there's less of a chance that his age will pound through the door again and he'll be an effective starting option down the stretch, when Francona and Co. could use the extra help. He's not likely to amass the number of wins he'll need to chase the franchise all-time win record (he still needs 18), but he would be a stabilizing innings-eater at a pivotal point of the season.

In his entertaining predictions for 2010, Chad Finn puts Wakefield down for 10-15 starts, which seems a good range to expect. But if Wakefield is headed to Fort Myers with the intention of being awarded an immediate spot, well then he's delusional.

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About the Author

Eric Wilbur is a Boston.com sports columnist who is still in awe of what Dana Kiecker pulled off that one time in Toronto. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and three children. Comments and suggestions for the best Buffalo wing spots are encouraged.

Contact Eric Wilbur by e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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