After eight starts and few glimpses of the repertoire that made him one of the dominant pitchers of his generation, John Smoltz’s Red Sox career has come to a crossroads, and possibly an end.
The Red Sox have designated the 42-year-old righthander for assignment this afternoon, meaning that if he is not claimed on waivers, the club has 10 days to release him or send him to the minors. Smoltz, who went 2-5 with an 8.32 earned-run average this season, could also retire.
Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein flew to New York this morning to deliver the news to Smoltz in person.
“I think [that] was an important thing to do,” said manager Terry Francona. “He met with Smoltzie face-to-face, told him what we were going to do, told him to go home and take a deep breath.”
“It’s never easy,” Epstein said. “I think we just felt like we had to try something different. It’s never easy to tell someone they’re designated for assignment, especially a Hall of Fame pitcher like that. It was certainly time to try something different. John understood. We asked him to go home for a few days, think about what he wants to do, think about if he can still help. The good thing about the designation is that it buys time to come up with the appropriate assignment.”
Smoltz, who allowed nine hits and eight earned runs in 3.1 innings of the Sox’ gruesome 13-6 loss to the Yankees last night, has left the club and returned to his home in Atlanta to consider his options. During his pregame press briefing, Francona did not seem to rule out any option with regard to Smoltz should he clear waivers. Rosters expand Sept. 1.
“It’s tough,” Jason Bay said. “I faced him a few years ago, back when he was dominant. It’s tough to say that it’s over him. He had a little rough patch. The guy I’ll always remember is the dominant guy that pitched for 15, 20 years and did it all for Atlanta. It was pleasure to play with him.
“Regardless right now if you’re a guy with no time or if you’re a guy with 20 years, we’re just looking for people to get the job done.”
The surefire future Hall of Famer is replaced on the roster by rookie Junichi Tazawa, who was pitching in the Japanese Industrial League last season and has skyrocketed through the Red Sox system.
Tazawa will be in the bullpen tonight. The club has not yet named a starter to replace Smoltz on Tuesday, but the 23-year-old righthander appears to be the leading candidate if he is not used in relief this weekend.
“It’s certainly been a rapid ascent,” Francona said. “It’s a great story, and I think there’s a lot of people in our organization that really think this kid can help us win some games — his poise, throwing all his pitches for strikes. He handles the game. Everything that’s been thrown at him, he’s handled. This will just be something else. I think we’re excited to watch him pitch.”
Two of the three pitchers the Red Sox used in their loss to the Yankees last night were designated for assignment today — lefthander Billy Traber, who relieved Smoltz and was no more effective, was let go to make room for veteran infielder Chris Woodward, who was claimed on waivers from Seattle.
If this is the end of Smoltz’s decorated career, during which he won 212 games — the first 210 during his 20 seasons with the Atlanta Braves — and saved 154, it was certainly an inauspicious final few weeks.
The Red Sox signed Smoltz, who was coming off major shoulder surgery that cost him most of the 2008 season with the Braves, to one-year contract for $5 million plus incentives in early January, hoping one of the great postseason pitchers of all-time — he is 15-4 with a 2.65 ERA in 40 postseason games and 27 starts — would offer a boost to the staff in October.
But he couldn’t make it through the summer. After several rehab starts in the minors, Smoltz made his Red Sox debut June 25, allowing five runs in five innings while suffering the loss in a 9-3 decision to the Washington Nationals. It didn’t get much better after that, as Smoltz struggled terribly during his eight starts with the Sox, allowing 59 hits and 37 earned runs in 40 innings, including eight home runs.
His two victories came against the Royals July 11 — allowing just one run in five innings while striking out seven — and the Orioles July 31, two of the weakest teams in the league. His losses came against the Orioles, Nationals, Rangers, A’s and Yankees.
Smoltz, who threw in the upper-90s with perhaps the best slider in baseball during his heyday, struggled with his command during his time with the Sox, and his pitches lacked their familiar bite. He especially struggled against lefthanded hitters, who batted .440 against him with six home runs and a 1.248 OPS in 91 at-bats.