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Sound the trumpets. Beat the drums. Bang the gongs. Do something with some other instrument. Clay Buchholz will soon be back with the Red Sox. The man with the 6-3 record and 3.48 ERA will finally stabilize a pitching rotation that has been ravaged by stomach illnesses and spot starts. The 1-2-3 punch necessary for playoff success will finally be re-established.
Although Boston Globe Red Sox writer Peter Abraham thinks the Red Sox will go six-man rotation until the All-Star Break, Buchholz’s return will ultimately mean a change for Boston’s back three of John Lackey, Tim Wakefield and Andrew Miller. So who goes?
The Red Sox painted themselves into a corner with Lackey. Theo Epstein signed him not because of his actual ability, but as a show of strength. Epstein was still smarting a year after the New Yankees stole Mark Teixeira at the last minute (not unlike what happened five years prior with Alex Rodriguez), and he needed to show the Red Sox could go out and get the best player on the market. Lackey was the highest-profile free agent available, and Epstein paid him way too much.
Since joining the Red Sox, Lackey is 19-17 with an ERA approaching 5.40. He lacks both the talent and the personality to succeed in Boston. The Red Sox cut their losses after the 2005 season when they realized Edgar Renteria wouldn’t work out, and in all likelihood they’d like to do it again with Lackey. Problem is, Renteria had $32 million left on his deal, and Lackey has over $46 million. Much tougher sell.
Lackey stinks as a starter, but he’s too pricey to make a bullpen player. That’s not even really an option, because Lackey has pitched in exactly one game as a reliever, pitching a scoreless inning in 2004 in which he struck out one, gave up a hit and then got out of it with a double play.
There’s nothing the Red Sox can do with Lackey short of trading him. That’s risky, because if Miler doesn’t work out, suddenly you need a new starter, and you have no idea what a waiver-wire pitcher will give you. Moving Lackey, bad as he is, is just not an option.
If Lackey’s price tag assures him a spot in the rotation, then Buchholz’s return means either Wakefield goes back to the bullpen or Miller goes back to Pawtucket. Wakefield is the far more proven commodity. In nine starts this year, Wakefield has given Boston four quality starts, and been an out away from a fifth (in a game the Red Sox but not Wakefield won).
Putting aside whether or not the Red Sox ought to keep Wakefield in the rotation to pay him back for jerking him around the last few seasons, Wakefield is a workhorse who when healthy can eat up innings and save the bullpen. When he’s on – which you can usually tell in the first inning – he gives the Red Sox an excellent chance to win. When he’s off, he gives up a lot of runs, but the team usually pulls him fast enough to make a comeback at least possible.
In two starts, Miller has shown some definite potential. But that’s all he’s shown: potential. Two quality starts against the last-place Padres and third-place Pirates does not a Hall-of-Fame career make. Miller’s change-up looks good against righties and he can pound the strike zone, but 12 innings is not enough on which to judge a kid’s readiness.
Miller hasn’t been tested against the big hitting teams yet. He hasn’t faced the Tigers. He hasn’t faced the Rangers. He hasn’t faced the Yankees. Wakefield has faced just about every hitter in the American League and knows how to use his skills to win those battles.
Miller won’t truly be able to show his value to the Red Sox without more major league innings, but the Red Sox can’t afford a second inconsistent pitcher on top of Lackey. The AL East is going to be a dog-fight between the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays, and whether the Indians or the Tigers win the AL Central, the other team will contend for the Wild Card all the way through September. The Red Sox will need consistent production from their fifth starter to stay in both races, and unfortunately Miller hasn’t done enough to show that just yet.
When Buchholz returns, Miller will eventually move back to Pawtucket. But he’ll probably be back in September.