Saturday, April 11, 2009

What to do with Wakefield?

Terry Francona and Theo Epstein always profess patience, but you have to believe the two have a contingency plan in place in the event Tim Wakefield looks as bad all season as he looked on Friday night.

(Make no mistake: Wakefield looked bad on Friday night. It went down as a quality start -- six innings pitched and three earned runs -- even though he walked five and would have been in big trouble had Jeff Mathis' line drive gone anywhere but straight at Jason Bay.)

No one in the Red Sox clubhouse is going to acknowledge any type of contingency plan. That would undermine Wakefield, a pitcher who's still as capable of going seven strong innings as anyone in the Red Sox rotation. But the knuckleball is so unpredi

Option A: Stay patient. Do nothing.
It's one start. Wakefield could easily string together a couple of strong starts over the next few weeks -- something no one knows better than Francona.

Option B: Panic right now. Cut Wakefield. Bring up Buchholz.
The top prospect bombed when he opened last season as starter; he had a 2-3 record and a 5.53 ERA in mid-May and an 0-6 record and an 8.23 ERA when he got a second chance in July and August. He looked great -- spectacular, really -- this spring. But there's no doubt that last year's disaster has to be in the back of the minds of everyone involved.

The problem is that there's no fallback should Buchholz falter again. To clear a spot, the Red Sox would have to cut Wakefield; it's hard to imagine the knuckleballer being willing to come back should the Red Sox not get what they expect from Buchholz. And if John Smoltz isn't ready, all of a sudden, there's a gigantic hole in their rotation.

(In case you're wondering: Buchholz is set to start for Triple-A Pawtucket on Sunday -- against old friend Casey Fossum.)

Option C: Stay patient -- for now. Be ready to pull the trigger on a move once John Smoltz is ready.
Does anyone else feel like Memorial Day is something of a deadline for Wakefield to justify his spot in the Red Sox rotation? No one wants to rush Buchholz -- even OneIf poll voters said they'd rather see the prospect in the major leagues in July than in April or May.

But when John Smoltz is ready to pitch, the Red Sox are going to want to make space for him. He's a future Hall of Famer with an impeccable track record; even before his surgery a year ago, he had a 2.oo ERA through five starts. He hasn't had an ERA over 4.00 since 1994.

The Red Sox have said the rotation will work itself out. That might mean someone getting hurt; that might mean someone pitching ineffectively. But ineffectiveness in April and May isn't necessarily an indicator of things to come. A year ago, Wakefield had a 4.70 ERA on Memorial Day and proceeded to toss seven strong innings in each of his next six starts, compiling a 2.14 ERA in the process.

Still, though, if Wakefield pitches for the next two months the way he pitched on Friday night, there's no way a World Series contender can justify leaving him in the rotation. His contract might be reasonable, but he still has to pitch better than Red Sox management imagines Smoltz or Buchholz would pitch.

Wakefield isn't going anywhere -- for now. If he's not pitching well when Memorial Day comes around, though, his rotation spot (and his roster spot) might be in serious jeopardy.

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