Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A LACK OF DEPTH CAN LEAD TO A CERTAIN DEATH

A Rotation Once Thought Of As Rock Solid Now Has Nagging Questions

The Red Sox will begin the defense of their World Series Championship on March 24, in Japan, against Oakland.

Due to his recent back injury, Josh Beckett is not likely to be the Opening Day starter. And Daisuke Matsuzaka may pre-occupied with the birth of his child. So as a result, Jon Lester, of all people, is vying for that honor.

That says a lot about the fragility Red Sox starting rotation this year. It is made up of aging veterans like Curt Schilling – who may never pitch again – and Tim Wakefield, plus youngsters like Lester and Clay Buchholz who have never pitched an entire Big League season before.

And so, with Schilling out indefinitely, Dice-K tied up, and Beckett unlikely to be ready on Opening Day, the Sox are considering the 24-year-old Lester for the roll.

Sure, he won the deciding game of the World Series last season and is a sparkling 11-2 in his brief career. But that career amounts to just 26 starts and 144 innings over two partial seasons. He’s never started more than 15 games in either of those seasons, a total he could reach by the All Star break this year. You could say he’s still a bit green.

The Sox believe in Lester so much that they didn’t feel compelled to complete the proposed Johan Santana trade. They think Lester could develop into their version of Andy Pettitte. Another Bruce Hurst would be just fine. After the ALCS, the Cleveland front office, coaches, and player-personnel people had a meeting and it was unanimously agreed that after Josh Beckett, the best starting pitcher on the Red Sox was Lester.

However, Lester has had control issues, which have led to far too many base runners and high pitch counts. That, in turn, has ultimately led to short starts, resulting in additional stress on the Sox bullpen. Lester had a WHIP of 1.46 in 2007. And in his 144 career innings, he has allowed a staggering 226 base runners. You could say he is a victim of his own making. The high pitch counts have often led him to tire early, and he’s averaged just 5.8 innings per start.

But the Sox are in the position of considering Lester for the Opening Day spot – at least in part – because they intended to go into the season with two 40-plus starters in the rotation. So, it’s certainly advisable for them to blend the young players into their roster of veterans. According to ESPN.com, their average age of 29.7 on the 40-man roster makes them the oldest team in the majors. However, young and inexperienced pitchers can present their own unique set of issues; they often hit the wall in the second half.

Whether it’s the veterans or the young guys, injuries to pitchers have to be expected. Last season, the Sox used nine starting pitchers. They used 14 in 2006, and 10 in 2005. The older the rotation, the greater the risk becomes.

For my money, Schilling has thrown his last effective pitch. Having studied anatomy and being pretty familiar with the shoulder structure, I’d say Schilling's injury is disastrous – especially given his age. He has two, perhaps even three, separate injuries to that throwing shoulder – a torn biceps tendon, a partially torn rotator cuff, and possibly a torn labrum as well.

My educated guess is that Schilling is done. I'd be amazed if he pitches again. The human body simply doesn't heal very well after the age of 40. A young kid would have a tough enough time returning to pitch after these injuries. And surgery could put him on the shelf for the better part of a year. That's why the Sox balked at that option. They're hoping he can contribute in some meaningful way this year. But don't count on it.

All that talk about a six-man rotation has long since been forgotten. Now the question is who the fifth starter will be, and who makes the rotation out of Spring Training.

Don’t be the least bit surprised if wunderkind Clay Buccholz starts the season at Pawtucket and Bartolo Colon gets the fifth spot in the rotation. This would make sense for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, Buccholz isn’t ready for 200 innings or 30-plus starts this season. The Sox would rather have him strong and still capable at the end of the season, with the playoffs approaching, than the opposite. They can monitor and control his innings and pitch counts much more effectively at the Triple A level than in the Majors. That sort of organizational oversight could make him a helpful second half call-up.

Secondly, the Sox aren’t sure what’s left in Colon’s tank, if he can still pitch effectively, or how long he’ll last this season either. The bloated former Cy Young winner looks to be allergic to any kind of exercise or conditioning program, and doesn’t appear to ever say no to food. Coming off successive elbow and shoulder injuries, he is surely vulnerable to breaking down. He could start well enough but then quickly fade due to either poor conditioning or another injury. In short, he is an insurance policy against Schilling, and he buys the Sox and Buchholz more time in the minors at the beginning of the year.

Lastly, Colon has an out clause in his contract and could exercise it if he doesn't make the team out of Spring Training, or some other point early in the season. Buchholz doesn't possess that option.

Colon was perhaps the best option in a field of bad options. At least he was low-cost and therefore low-risk.

Carlos Silva, a second-tier starting pitcher who spent the past four seasons with the Twins, must have held a gun to the head of the Mariners to get his $44 million, four-year contract. How did Silva earn this massive pact? By averaging 12 wins, 193 innings and a 4.42 ERA with the Twins. He was 13-14 with a 4.19 ERA last season. It’s fair to say that $44 million doesn't buy what it used to.

So, the Sox took a flyer on Colon and will hope that the organizational depth of Devern Hansack, David Pauley, Kyle Snyder, and Julian Tavarez will get them through any further injuries or rough patches. That may be wishful thinking since none of them seem to inspire confidence. But Major League fifth starters are pretty weak lot in general and most teams are lucky to have one or two good pitchers.

The Sox will ride Beckett, Matsuzaka, Lester and Tim Wakefield and hope for the best from the fifth spot – like everyone else. That may be enough to win the division once again and earn yet another playoff birth.

And if things get iffy with the rotation at any point this season, Coco Crisp could serve as a valuable trade chip.

Copyright © 2008 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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