Brad Penny was a disaster again on Tuesday night, lasting just 2 2/3 innings and allowing seven runs (four earned) on seven hits and three walks. He's now had two quality starts and two disastrous starts; he allowed eight runs in three innings against Baltimore on April 17. His ERA stands at 8.66 on the season; he's walked 11 and struck out five in 17 2/3 innings.
The Red Sox, as they demonstrated during their 11-game winning streak, are a World Series-caliber team. The Red Sox also, however, play in the most competitive division in baseball -- and missing the playoffs by one game gets you just as far as missing the playoffs by 10 games. Penny can only pitch so poorly before the Red Sox will have no choice but to yank him from the rotation.
He's not going anywhere in the immediate future. There isn't really anyone to take his place. But there are threats on the immediate horizon -- and there are approximate dates on which the Red Sox will have to make decisions:
Daisuke Matsuzaka threw a bullpen start today and will throw another bullpen session on Saturday with an eye on a trip to the minor leagues for a couple of rehab starts after that. If he goes to Triple-A Pawtucket and starts on May 6 (a week from today) and May 11, he ought to be ready to be activated from the disabled list sometime around May 15.
In theory, when Matsuzaka returns to the starting rotation, the Red Sox will send Justin Masterson back to the bullpen.
But Masterson has a 1.69 ERA to go along with seven strikeouts and three walks in his two starts. He hasn't gotten out of the sixth inning in either start -- but Penny hasn't exactly pitched deep into games, either. He's failed to get out of the fourth inning twice and hasn't thrown a pitch in the seventh inning yet this season.
There's no guarantee he's going to have to give up his spot when Matsuzaka returns.
The target date for John Smoltz to return has been Memorial Day all along; he threw batting practice in Fort Myers last weekend and will do so again on Thursday or Friday.
At a certain point, he's going to start pitching in games and working his way toward the Red Sox rotation -- and he's got a track record Penny could only dream about.
Penny has had an ERA of 4.00 or higher five times in his career; he had a 4.33 ERA with the Dodgers three years ago. A year ago, when he pitched through injuries, he had a 6.27 ERA in 94 2/3 innings.
Smoltz, on the other hand, has had an ERA of 4.00 or higher, too -- in 1994. Since then, though, his ERA has been below 4.00 -- below 3.50, even -- every season. He did stumble upon his return from Tommy John surgery in May of 2001, compiling a 5.76 ERA in his first five starts before being turned into a closer. That's a red flag. But he had double-digit wins and a sub-3.50 ERA in three seasons as a starter from 2005-07. If it all possible, the Red Sox want to give him a shot.
Clay Buchholz has a 2.45 ERA in his first three starts at Triple-A Pawtucket. That comes on the heels of a spring training in which he had a 2.52 ERA and 19 strikeouts in his six starts; he allowed just one earned run in his first 19 2/3 innings before a rough final start of the spring.
Had he pitched well a year ago, he'd be the Red Sox's fifth starter right now. Still, though, the Red Sox aren't going let him pitch in Triple-A for too long. If he keeps showing that he's too good for Triple-A, he's going to have to come up eventually -- either to contribute to the big-league team or to be showcased for potential suitors.
If the Red Sox have any intention of trading Buchholz this summer -- say, for Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers -- they're probably going to have to get him a couple of big-league starts in July so other teams can see what he can do.