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Tim Wakefield, having finished his penultimate season with the Red Sox in disappointing fashion may have just about outlived his usefulness in Boston. This day has been slowly approaching over the last few seasons as the old knuckleball pitcher with a bad back has seen his best days. If the Red Sox face a roster crunch coming out of spring training, Wakefield may find himself out of the major leagues for the first time since 1994.
Without a clear role entering the 2010 season thanks to a crowded starting rotation and bullpen, Wakefield recorded a combined record of 4-10 over 19 starts and 13 relief appearances. While his ERA came in at 5.34, the knuckleballer issued just 2.3 BB/9 – the lowest rate of his career – and struck out 5.4 batters per nine innings. Wakefield’s ERA+ was just 82 versus the league average mark of 100, his lowest mark since posting a 72 ERA+ in 1993. Having pitched at an average level or better between 2001 and 2009 Wakefield may still have a few more days of baseball in him. With any luck, he can end his career on a high note.
The younger mainstays of the starting rotation – Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka – are all under contract for 2011 and presumably will all retain their starting jobs. While injuries could shelve one or more of the starters during the year, a 43-year-old swingman is not anyone’s idea of a great backup plan. With the exception of Dice-K, who has struggled at times but remains affordable compared to free agent starters, it is not likely the front office will trade any of their rotation depth. Combine this with Casey Kelly and Felix Doubront waiting in the wings, the opportunities for Wakefield could again remain slim in 2011.
Because Wakefield needs 14 wins to surpass Roger Clemens and Cy Young on the all-time Red Sox wins list, bullpen time just won’t cut it – he’ll need starts. Part of this is the fact that the Red Sox are a competitive, big market team. With a strong focus on pitching, the Sox usually do not carry the traditional long reliever who makes a few spot starts every once in a while, the role that Wakefield would be best suited to at this point.
Tim Wakefield will likely begin 2011 in the bullpen in an awkward role of “last guy out” and swingman. Unless a blockbuster trade sends a starting pitcher away from Boston or a serious injury limits a rotation member in spring training, Wakefield will have to get his starts when he’s able to and hope to vulture a few wins out of the bullpen. Over the last few years it looked like tying or breaking Young and Roger’s record was a long shot and then within reach, but injuries have taken their toll. As the longest tenured member of the Red Sox, 2012 without Wakefield will be different, but every time you count out the knuckler he tends to put together a vintage run of unhittablilty.