Thursday, January 28, 2010

No spot reserved for Wakefield

"It seems every year, and I don't know why, my name gets brought up like this when I don't feel I need to prove myself every day. I don't know where the rumors are coming from, but I try not to pay attention. I know my role and I know what my approach is going to be when I get to spring training: be a starter and help us win the World Series. Hopefully they respect me enough to give me the ball when we get to spring training as a member of this rotation. I think I've earned the right to be a full-time starter and go from there."
-- Tim Wakefield

With all due respect to Wakefield, a man who can never get enough credit for his contribution to two World Series titles, here's a look at his second-half numbers over the past six seasons:

2004: 5.77 ERA (14 starts)
2005: 4.26 ERA (15 starts)
2006: 7.40 ERA (5 starts)
2007: 5.25 ERA (14 starts)
2008: 5.22 ERA (11 starts)
2009: 6.00 ERA (4 starts)

Not since he turned 40 years old -- and it's important to remember that he turned 40 years old 3 1/2 years ago -- has Wakefield been anything close to effective down the stretch for the Red Sox. He hasn't held up. He hasn't stayed healthy. He hasn't kept runs off the scoreboard.

He hasn't, to put it bluntly, earned the right to be a full-time starter and go from there.

Wakefield generally has pitched well in the first half in the Terry Francona era. His first half last season earned him his first career All-Star nod even though his ERA (4.31) was more than half a run higher than it had been the year before (3.60).

The gems he threw -- he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning in Oakland and threw seven one-hit innings in Cleveland two weeks later -- looked even better when contrasted with the ugly outings endured by Daisuke Matsuzaka and the assorted wreckage at the bottom of the starting rotation.

Wakefield, who underwent back surgery in the offseason, this week pronounced himself healthy and ready to go well ahead of spring training.

"We'll see when we get there, but I plan on being one of the five starters," Wakefield told reporters at an awards ceremony in New York. "I think I've earned that."

Of the five other starting pitchers in the conversation, three are Fort Knox locks to open the season as part of the rotation: Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Jon Lester. The order in which the three will pitch is still open for discussion. Even Wakefield, though, wouldn't argue that any of those three are occupying the spot he's earned.

Beyond that, Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka remain, and the Red Sox have a compelling reason to make sure each is part of the starting rotation:
1. Buchholz looked like one of the best starters in the American League last season during a 10-start stretch in which he compiled a 2.37 ERA and limited opposing hitters to a .572 OPS.
2. Matsuzaka won't turn 30 years old until September, and his body thus is far more likely than that of Wakefield to bounce back from the injuries that torpedoed his season a year ago. (That is, of course, as long as he discloses all of his injuries.) On top of that, he has three years and $28 million remaining on the contract he signed with the Red Sox before the 2007 season.

The most compelling reason for Wakefield?
1. He's earned it.

Well, OK, sure, Wakefield has put up some impressive first-half numbers over the last few seasons:

2004: 4.17 ERA (18 games, including 16 starts)
2005: 4.05 ERA (18 starts)
2006: 4.05 ERA (18 starts)
2007: 4.39 ERA (17 starts)
2008: 3.60 ERA (19 starts)
2009: 4.31 ERA (17 starts)

The Red Sox just have no reason to believe Wakefield can maintain that level of production -- or any level of production, really -- through August and September. If he starts the season with a spot in the rotation, he's inevitably going to have to be replaced.

Even worse, to shoehorn Wakefield into the rotation to start the season, the Red Sox probably would have to send Clay Buchholz back to Triple-A Pawtucket to tear the International League apart for a second straight spring. Buchholz might still bring question marks with him, but he gave every indication last August and September that he's ready to become an elite pitcher in the American League. Like Lester before him, he's in position to take a gigantic step foward in his development -- and the presence of Wakefield only would stunt that development.

Wakefield has earned the undying respect of every Red Sox fan. He hasn't earned, however, a spot in the rotation in perpetuity. Finding a role for him will take some creativity -- but that role shouldn't involve taking the ball every five days.

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