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Red Sox spring training has not been very exciting in the traditional sense – few positional battles. Aside from Marco Scutaro and Jed Lowrie competing to be the everyday shortstop, which was uphill for Lowrie in any regard, and the search for a lefty reliever, the 25-man roster was essentially set at the beginning of camp. One issue that remains is the fifth starter. Should it be Tim Wakefield, the emotional choice, trying to finish his career on a high note or should Daisuke Matsuzaka, still trying to find his way in American baseball remain locked into a rotation spot?
It seems like a long time ago that the 2010 Red Sox rotation was touted as potentially one of the bet ever. Now that the Phillies have taken up that mantle with gusto, the Red Sox starters look somewhat poor by comparison. Josh Beckett and John Lackey, each signed to a large deal for the 2010 season, disappointed last year. Tim Wakefield, in a mix of starting and relieving, looked old and hittable and Daisuke Matsuzaka continued to throw pitches and appear lost or dominant, seemingly at random. On the bright side, Jon Lester established himself as the ace of the staff and Clay Buchholz brought back that magic he showed in his 2007 no-hitter.
Although Casey Kelly was traded to the San Diego Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez deal, the Red Sox do have some options when looking for a fifth starter this season. Wakefield, Matsuzaka, Felix Doubrant, Alfredo Aceves, and Andrew Miller could all appear in the rotation at some point this season. Like 2006, when the Red Sox traded Bronson Arroyo just before the season began, the front office may be pondering moving a starter sometime during 2011. If the Sox only keep one of Wakfield or Dice-K who should it be?
Since his arrival in Boston, Tim Wakefield has become and institution. Beloved by fans, dreaded by teams forced to face a knuckleball, Wake is part-player, part-living legend. He’s started, relieved and closed for the Red Sox. But at 44 years old, the end is near. Wakefield is in the last year of his two-year deal and almost certain to retire at the end of this season. Coming off a 4-10 season where he posted a 5.34 ERA over 32 appearances (19 starts). Wakefield isn’t a great target for other teams. The Red Sox haven’t discussed cutting their longest tenured player before the season, but if the bullpen becomes tight and the knuckleball doesn’t cooperate, this could be a difficult move to make.
With his age and health issues, Wakefield doesn’t have as much value to another team as he does to the Red Sox. No longer having a personal catcher does make it easier to bring in the knuckleballer from the bullpen, but with the added depth in Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler, Tim may find himself as the long reliever and mop-up man making the occasional spot start.
Should the Red Sox feel Wakefield and their other “break glass in case of emergency” starters have enough talent to guide the team through the 2011 season, the front office could look to move the $100 million man from Japan: Daisuke Matsuzaka. Coming to America with great expectation, Matsuzaka has struggled mightily at times, drawing ire from the fans and media. Four years into his deal, the Red Sox could try and move the unpredictable righty to another team. Making about $10 million per year for the next two seasons, Dice-K is actually relatively affordable; remember that half of the cost in signing him was the posting fee. Unlike John Lackey, due $18 million per season, Dice-K’s salary is an amount affordable to a large number of teams.
One solution, an aid to the career of many pitchers: a move to the National League. In 12 inter-league starts Matsuzaka is 6-4 with a 3.97 ERA over 65.2 innings. During those starts he has allowed 62 hits and nearly a strikeout per inning with NL batters hitting .246/.345/.385. However, formidable New York Yankees lineups have compiled a .245/.362/.391 line against the pitcher over 10 starts while the Tampa Bay Rays have hit Matsuzaka to the tune of .263/.364/.436 in 12 games. While 12 starts is a limited sample, it’s interesting to see that the composite results of Matsuzaka’s National League experience aren’t that far from two very good lineups that are much more familiar with the Red Sox and their pitching staff.
A much larger, and potentially more valuable insight into Dice-K’s career is a look at his home and away numbers. At the cozy confines of Fenway Park batters have compiled a .253/.343/.411 line against Dice-K as the pitcher averaged 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings and 1.84 walks per strikeout. When taking his show on the road Matsuzaka has limited his opponents to a much better .234/.326/.369 line with 8.8 strikeouts per nine and just over two Ks for each walk allowed.
Maybe you’re thinking his struggles are with the long ball and Fenway is helping batters tee off toward Pesky Pole. However, despite 51 fewer innings at Fenway, Dice-K served up only 27 home runs at home versus 33 on the road. What hurt Matsuzaka in Boston were doubles: 79 at home and just 50 on the road.
The Red Sox have two pitchers for one rotation spot. One is old and more or less predictable, the other, young and sometimes confounding to both opposing batters and fans. Is Matsuzaka’s fate as simple as not being a player who can handle pitching, literally, in Boston? Is Fenway Park itself not suited to his pitching style? A savvy team might decide that Dice-K is the perfect fit for their ballpark and low-pressure city and end up with a bargain on their hands.
Wakefield is a much more complex situation. Can the Red Sox give him a suitable sendoff for his years of service? If he can work through just one more season Wakefield will be able to retire in a Boston uniform. It would be a shame to see him released and probably difficult to find a trading partner willing to take a mid-40s knuckleballer. The Red Sox can probably get value for Dice-K despite his struggles, but of the two, he’s the one they should have penciled into the rotation at this point, not Wakefield.