Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Sunday, June 14, 2009

To Make Room, Matsuzaka as Bait?

With John Smoltz set to begin the 2009 season after coming off his current 30-day rehab assignment, the Red Sox have a roster decision to make. With five healthy starters already, and a potential Hall of Famer raring to go, something's gotta give.

So far this season, the weakest link in the Red Sox rotation has clearly been Daisuke Matsuzaka. At 1-4, with 7.55 ERA, Matsuzaka has been more than just a disappointment; he's been a disaster. Matsuzaka has yet to give the Sox a single quality start this year, and it's mid-June. In addition, just like last season, Matsuzaka has already been on the DL.

Since returning from his shoulder injury on May 22, Matsuzaka is 1-3 with a 6.20 ERA. And each time he pitches, the Japanese righty is a drain on the Red Sox stellar bullpen, lasting fewer than five innings per start.

Since joining the Red Sox three years ago, Matsuzaka has been plagued by high pitch counts and excessive walks. Matsuzaka's innings per start have declined consistently each year:

2007: 6.4 innings per start.
2008: 5.8 innings per start
2009: 4.4 innings per start

And the high walk totals have contributed to the high pitch counts and early exits. Last year, Matsuzaka's 94 BB were the fourth most in the Majors. In 2007, his 80 walks were the 12th highest in baseball. In all, Matsuzaka has already issued 188 walks in his brief career.

At this point, the Sox expectations of him are so low that other members of the starting rotation volunteered - in advance - to relieve him last night, anticipating a short start. Brad Penny and Tim Wakefield both offered to take the pressure off an already overworked bullpen that had played a key role in the Sox 13 inning victory the previous evening.

If there is one starter whose performance and statistics absolutely scream for replacement, it's obviously Matsuzaka. The Sox could claim that Matsuzaka is not fully recovered from the right shoulder strain that landed him in the DL in April; and perhaps that's just the case. After last night's game, Matsuzaka cryptically mentioned that he's having problems, declining to elaborate. Putting him back on the DL would allow the Sox to create the roster spot for Smoltz, and give time for Matsuzaka and the pitching coaches to work out his issues.

Without question, Matsuzaka is not the pitcher the Red Sox thought they were getting when they paid $51.11 million to the Seibu Lions for the right to negotiate a $52 million, six-year contract. Not quite half way into that pact, Matsuzaka looks grossly overpaid, and the Sox looked suckered.

Matsuzaka is maddeningly frustrating. At times he blows hitters away with a powerful fastball and looks dominant. Other times he can't seem to find the plate or trust his stuff, instead choosing to nibble at the corners. But if a pitcher isn't consistently throwing strikes, hitters won't get fooled into swinging out of the strike zone and help him out. That's Matsuzaka's problem.

Matsuzaka was famously advertised for throwing the "gyroball", and for having a six or seven-pitch repertoire. False advertising. At best, the righty appears to possess a trio of fastballs (two-seam, four-seam, and cutter), to go along with a slider and a good curveball. He occasionally throws an ineffective change-up and splitter, pitches he therefore doesn't trust; and for good reason — they're usually not in the strike zone (42% and 35% of the time, respectively).

That's the overall problem; Matsuzaka doesn't trust himself or the defense behind him. He tries to paint the corners, fearful of giving batters anything decent to hit. In the process doesn't throw strikes. Matsuzaka frequently finds himself in deep counts, resulting in high pitch totals early in games and too many walks.

While there has been plenty of talk of the Sox dealing Penny to make room for Smoltz, a good case could be made for offering Matsuzaka instead. Perhaps he could be packaged with Julio Lugo. It's hard to tell if other clubs would see Lugo as the requisite dead weight to obtain a starting pitcher who won 33 games over his first two seasons, or view Matsuzaka as the necessary sweetener for taking Lugo.

With his weighty contract (roughly $32 million remaining over the next 3 1/2 years) inconsistency, injury history and the number of pitches his arm and shoulder have famously endured since high school, it's hard to determine just what exactly Matsuzaka's trade value would be. He's a proven starter in the tough AL East, yet he can't make it out of the fifth inning and may be poised for further injury and a brief career.

Any trade talk regarding Matsuzaka is nothing more than speculation and conjecture, simply making for good conversation. The reality is that Matsuzaka has a full no-trade clause in his contract. And despite his struggles this season, and how frustrating it has always been to watch him pitch since Day One, he is still just 28-years-old and went 18-3 last season with a 2.90 ERA. Many of those wins were despite himself, and the result of playing on an excellent team with a solid offense. But the Sox may not be ready to give up on him just yet.

Yet, they need to make room for Smoltz, and they have Clay Buchholz waiting in the wings while he mows down AAA hitters. The Sox may quietly inquire with Dice-K about a move to the more pitcher-friendly NL, and to a West Coast team that would place him a bit closer to his home in Japan.

If Matsuzaka agreed, I'm betting that Theo Epstein would gladly listen to any and all serious inquiries and/or offers.

Copyright © 2009 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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