As Matt Sussman put it when the idea for this column came to his inbox recently, “It’s about time!” He and others who know me well are fully aware I am a born and raised Bostonian who closely follows all the city’s major sports teams. Over the last year-and-a-half or so, I’ve had my say on all things sports on Sussman and Tuffy’s “Treehouse Fort” Internet radio show on BlogTalkRadio.com on a weekly basis, usually reporting from the “Boston Bureau” and rounding up and discussing the idiotic moves in professional/college sports with my “What Were They Thinking” segment.
Now, I’m ready to add to this a weekly analysis, commentary and foresight on all things Red Sox, the good, bad and ugly. This week I’ll be focusing on Red Sox pitching. So let’s get this thing started already.
Red Sox record for the week of June 8: 5-1
The Red Sox started this past week a half game behind first place Yankees. But after sweeping them at Fenway Park and taking two of three games in Philly over the weekend, they now have a two-game edge over New York.
Red Sox starters as a group were not very effective for a long stretch to start this season, with only Tim Wakefield standing out among them with his surprisingly high and team-leading 8 wins. But over the past couple of weeks, outstanding outings from Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Brad Penny have vaulted the Sox back into first place, not to mention relieved arguably baseball’s strongest bullpen from carrying the team.
Beckett and Lester have been especially dominant of late: Beckett went 3-0 with one no-decision against mostly first place teams in his previous four starts before yesterday’s sub-par 11-hit, six-earned run performance in Philadelphia – another first place club. Even with that frustrating start, Beckett has lowered his ERA dramatically over the last five weeks or so from 6.75 on May 5 to 3.77 going into Philly Sunday – it moved up to 4.15 after he and the Sox lost to the Phillies 11-6.
Lester went 3-0 with a startling 34 K’s in his last three starts as well. The young lefty is so pleased with his pitching lately that he recently declared the “stuff” he had in the 2-hit, 1-run CG outing versus Texas June 6 was better than what he threw in his no-hitter against Kansas City in May of last year.
Brad Penny (5-2), coming off an injury-plagued and sub-par 2008 season with the LA Dodgers, has slowly but surely proven to be a reliable 5th starter in his brief tenure with the Sox, with only three bad outings to his name thus far. Penny’s only glaring flaw now is that he doesn’t go deep into games, and the fact that his ERA is still over 5 is in large part due to his two shortest outings of the season, one of which saw him give up 8 runs in only 3 innings in early April. Still, the crafty veteran usually gives up no more than 2-4 runs per start. Penny’s most impressive and gutsy outing of the year was his most recent one in which he held the Bronx Bombers scoreless over 6 innings with 117 pitches thrown on June 11 at Fenway.
Unfortunately, with John Smoltz getting ready to make his Red Sox debut either this Thursday or next week, Brad Penny’s days in Boston may be numbered depending on how GM Theo Epstein makes room for the future hall of famer on the roster. The way Penny has pitched lately helps his trade value for sure, but it is going to be very hard for Epstein to trade away this quality veteran anytime soon, especially when no one knows yet how much Smoltz has left in the tank.
To make room for Smoltz, instead of trading Penny, I think the Sox will consider dropping the only struggling Sox starter from the rotation, Dice-K, and assigning him to be the long man in the bullpen while sending down either Justin Masterson or rookie fireballer Daniel Bard to the minors. What probably won’t happen is Dice-K (ERA 7.55) landing on the DL again anytime soon, since he’s clearly healthy now, nor will Smoltz head to the bullpen to begin his Sox career. A six-man rotation isn’t likely to happen either.
If the Sox won’t move Dice-K out of his starter’s job, another possibility is Bard getting sent down to Pawtucket while Penny moves to the bullpen, with Smoltz taking his place in the starting rotation. This theory is not too far-fetched, as Penny is well aware that in addition to the $5 million he is guaranteed to make in 2009, he could receive $3 million more in incentives, including $500,000 for appearing in 55 games or $1 million for 50 games finished – and you certainly don’t accomplish those feats as a starter.
Regardless of who gets the boot out of the rotation or the bullpen, there’s going to be a lot of pressure now for Smoltz, who’s set to make $5.5 million in ’09 (and possibly $5 million more in incentives), to pitch well and be at least as solid as Penny has been for most of the year. But the 41-year-old is coming off shoulder surgery and will soon be pitching in the offensive beast that is the AL East. He is surely ready for any challenge however, and also ready to prove to the front office in Atlanta, his home of 20+ years before 2009 that it was a mistake to let him go.
Conveniently, Smoltz’s first outings for Boston will be against familiar NL East foes, either Florida or Washington, and as fate could have it, possibly Atlanta as well, who will face the Sox six times in the next two weeks.
For Red Sox fans, watching a Cooperstown-bound pitcher like John Smoltz come in almost mid-season and join an already star-studded starting rotation is a rare sight. Will he be successful here? This is the week we could begin to find out, at long last.