Don’t bother Keith Foulke. He’s on vacation.
One could argue the man has been on holiday for the better part of a year, at the very least since late last September, when the Red Sox shut him down for the remainder of the season due to his incompetence on the mound. It usually takes most of us that long just to pay off a vacation.
Foulke is among the early arrivals, however, in Fort Myers, where pitchers and catchers are due to report Saturday for the start of spring training. He wouldn’t talk with reporters yesterday, maintaining that his six-month siesta had yet to conclude. “No one has to know I’m here,” he said. “I’m on vacation until Sunday.”
There is perhaps no bigger key to Boston’s chances in 2006 than Foulke, who followed up an MVP-worthy postseason in 2004 with a catastrophic 2005 in which he aggravated Red Sox fans and front office personnel alike with his weekly aloof ramblings during his truck-sponsored radio session. Foulke said during his infamous “Johnny from Burger King” rant that he wouldn’t be inviting jeering Sox fans to his World Series celebration. As it turns out, the Red Sox failed to repeat in large part because of Foulke’s ineffectiveness.
Actually, ineffective is a nice way to sum up his 2005 season. My editors won’t let me print the most accurate description of it. His 5.92 ERA, as the Boston Globe’s Gordon Edes points out today, would have ranked as the second-worst in the American League to Tampa Bay’s Travis Harper (6.75) if he had pitched enough innings to qualify. As it was, he made just 43 appearances last season -- after back-to-back 72-game seasons with Boston and Oakland -- and allowed no runs to cross home in just 27 of those. His WHIP skyrocketed from .94 in 2004 to an ungodly 1.55 in 2005, when he allowed an average of 10.45 hits per nine innings pitched, up from the previous year’s 6.83.
Red Sox manager Terry Francona said he assumes Foulke is the full-time closer. Assumes. Not exactly the ultimate vote of confidence if you ask me. You assume Alex Gonzalez will be better in camp than Alex Cora. You shouldn’t have to assume Foulke will be good enough to win the closer’s job for which he’s being paid $7 million to succeed.
“That's why we signed him,” Francona said. “If he can't do it, that's one thing. But I think going into it you hope he can and you expect him to. That's the best way to approach it.”
That’s a fair statement from the skipper, making sure that he leaves the door open in case Foulke has any lingering effects from the knee injury that caused so much drama last year. But you would still hope for a somewhat definitive, “Keith Foulke is our closer. End of discussion.” Wouldn’t you? Obviously, there has to be enduring concern within the organization that Foulke might not again be what he was in 2004, a problematic scenario that opens the door for a replacement sooner than later this time, after getting burned in the bullpen time and time again in 2005.
When Foulke talks on Sunday (when he’s done with his vacation) and says that he’s completely healthy and ready to go, listen to his words with the salt shaker nearby.
There is already chatter that young stud Jonathan Papelbon and old man Mike Timlin are waiting in the shadows if Foulke struggles to find his rhythm again this spring. However, that might be the most difficult decision to make, especially considering the closer’s problems in spring training in the past. He posted a 15.00 ERA in 2004, and then went on to save 32 games. Last spring he was a bit better, allowing five earned runs over 9 1/3 innings pitched, but it all rolled downhill from there.
With that said, is Francona hinting that this won’t be a wait-and-see approach with Foulke? The Red Sox can ill afford to let the bullpen fall apart as it did in 2005, the 5.15 collective ERA the second-worst in the major leagues (thank you, Arizona).
The bullpen this season is a potentially much-improved aspect of the team, with additions David Riske, Julian Tavarez, and Rudy Seanez acquired in the offseason to change the direction of what has been Theo Epstein’s Achilles' heel in his four years as general manager. But there is no denying that Foulke is the key. And Boston will not and cannot wait until he’s able to find his groove in the season’s first few weeks to decide the job is his to keep.
Which is why Foulke is one of the first players to arrive in Florida this week. No other pitcher will be under the microscope as much as he will be in the coming weeks. The 33-year-old needs to have a spring training the likes of which he hasn’t had to have since he was a young pup fighting for a major league job.
That can wait though. Keith Foulke is on vacation. Pass the BBQ.