Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

TO BUEHRLE, OR NOT TO BUEHRLE?

The possibility of Mark Buehrle coming to the Red Sox to bolster an already potent rotation has some Sox fans salivating and must worry other A.L. contenders. With Curt Schilling's future status unclear, the Sox could use some insurance.

The following illustrates Schilling's inconsistency this season; he has made five starts in which he has allowed five earned runs or more, for an ERA of 8.89. In his other 10 starts, he has allowed just 18 earned runs in 68 innings, for an ERA of 2.38. So far this season, a Schilling start is like a box of chocolates -- you never know what your gonna get.

However, fifth starter Julian Tavarez has been a pleasant surprise. Though he was roughed up by the Mariners last night, giving up six runs (three earned) in 4 1/3 innings (his shortest outing since a four inning effort against the Rangers on April 7 in Texas), Tavarez has certainly pitched beyond all expectations.

Going into last night's contest, Tavarez was unbeaten in his last seven starts, and had a 4-0 record over that span. His previous outing had given the Red Sox their first back-to-back shutouts since July 2006, and seven through their first 71 games -- more than all of last season.

That said, Tavarez still sports a 5-5 record and a 4.60 ERA. It has been assumed from the beginning that Tavarez was simply keeping the fifth spot warm until Jon Lester returns from his rehab assignment. But Lester has struggled as of late, the low light coming last night in Louisville.

The young lefty lasted just 4 1/3 innings for Pawtucket, giving up eight earned runs on nine hits in a 12-7 loss. In that brief outing, Lester threw an inefficient 100 pitches, walking four and striking out four. The beating inflated his earned run average from 2.49 to 3.78.

Yet, Lester showed his true colors last year, and he's probably disappointed that he still hasn't been promoted, though the All Star break is fast approaching. But he’ll join the Sox soon enough. The Sox would love to move Tavarez back to the bullpen, and at 40, Schilling won't heal as quickly as he once did. That's why the Sox are interested in Buehrle.

But the Sox have two younger and much cheaper lefty alternatives in Lester and Kason Gabbard, who will make his second start of the season tonight. In his first outing against the Braves, Gabbard allowed two earned runs in five-plus innings, earning a win in the 6-3 victory.

It was a performance that led Sox shortstop Alex Cora to proclaim, "He looked like a crafty lefty, like a veteran.... At the end of the year, if he comes back, we know we can count on him."

It's got to inspire and encourage a rookie pitcher when a veteran teammate gives him a vote of confidence like that.

On the other hand, Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley doesn't have that same confidence in Buehrle.

"I'm not a big Buehrle guy at all. Talk about pitching to contact. Everybody hits him. The only thing good about him is that it doesn't take very long to pitch a game, one way or another. He throws a lot of strikes. I mean, not to get on him, lefthanders have always amazed me how they get by. He knows how to pitch, obviously. He threw a no-hitter. He's one of the best lefthanders around. I just... I'm afraid of him. I'm afraid of him because he throws too many strikes. I just, Fenway Park, I really don't know. You're only renting him for a couple of months, but beyond that, I'm just not a big fan of his because I think he's very hittable ... to me Gabbard's like Buehrle, but younger and throws harder."

Like Buehrle, both Gabbard and Lester are lefties. But not only are they both younger, they're a whole lot cheaper, and provide greater payroll flexibility, as well. Other needs will have to be addressed. Though he's just 28, Buehrle is rumored to be looking for a five-year deal in the neighborhood of $70 million. Five years from now, both Gabbard and Lester combined won't cost that much.

However, there should be some reasonable concern about Gabbard. Though impressive at Pawtuckett this year with a 7-2 record and a 3.24 ERA, the young pitcher has already had four elbow surgeries before the age of 25.

Yet, the Sox could have both of their young lefties in the rotation before too long, and that might be a good thing. Sending Tavarez back to bolster an already strong bullpen would be a great move. Beyond Jonathan Papelbon and Hideki Okajima, things get pretty sketchy. Does anyone really trust Joel Piniero, Manny Delcarmen, Kyle Snyder, or even the veteran Mike Timlin at this point?

If the Sox can shift Tavarez back to the bullpen, it would keep them from having to deal for another righthanded setup man. Timlin used to be that guy, but his best days are quite obviously behind him now. Last night in Seattle, Timlin gave up home runs on consecutive pitches to Kenji Johjima and Adrian Beltre.

So far this season, the once reliable Timlin has appeared in 16 games, covering 16 2/3 innings. In that span he has surrendered 23 hits and five walks, resulting in 13 runs and a 6.48 ERA. To make matters worse, a staggering 22% of those hits (5 of 23) have been home runs. And then there's the matter of his meager nine strikeouts this year.

Now 41, Timlin suddenly looks like he got old overnight. Over the past four years, Timlin was quite durable with the Red Sox, appearing in an average of 74 games a year. But that workload appears to have taken its toll.

Once known for a 92-95 mph sinking fastball and also a slider, Timlin kept the ball down in the zone and induced a lot of ground balls. His good control meant few walks and not too many homers. At least that used to be the scouting report on him.

Timlin has suffered through shoulder problems in each of the last two seasons, and while that's troublesome for a pitcher in his 20's, for a pitcher in his 40's it's devastating and even career threatening.

We're not even halfway through the season yet, and Timlin has already had two stints on the DL. The first came late in spring training and resulted from a strained muscle in his left side. The second stint was due to tendinitis in his right shoulder that resulted in him missing 34 games. Last year, a right shoulder injury led him to miss 16 games.

Over the years, Timlin has displayed a bulldog’s tenacity and has overcome whatever obstacles have come before him. A pitcher doesn't last 17 years in the majors without great confidence and competitive spirit. But considering his age, and the injury history to his throwing arm, I think we shouldn't expect much more from Timlin this year or in the future. If I were a betting man, I'd say that this season will likely be his last.

With the 23-year-old Lester and the 25-year-old Gabbard at their disposal, the Sox just might not need the services of the veteran Buehrle. But with a career stat line of 101-70, 3.80 ERA, 345 walks, 880 K's, and 200 innings for six straight years, he sure is enticing. And keeping him from the Yankees is surely part of this equation. Perhaps the Red Sox are simply trying to bid up the price on Buehrle to make him less desirable to others.

One way or another, the Sox are in a position of strength due to their great farm system depth. They have won 48 of their first 75 games for a .640 winning percentage, and are 21 games over .500 before the All Star break. Those are luxuries their competitors would love to have.

No Red Sox team has won as many as 100 games since the 1946 AL Champions went 104-50. But with Mark Buehrle or without him, a 100-win season is certainly within reach for this current team as it now stands.

Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

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