Is the rotation an unaddressed fatal flaw?

When the 2009 season began, there was very little doubt in anyone's mind that the Red Sox had both the depth and talent in the starting rotation for it to be considered, not only the teams' primary strength, but what made them favorites to advance to the World Series from the American League.

With dueling aces at the top in Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, depth in the middle with Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, and Brad Penny, and a plethora of options at the end ranging from top prospect Clay Buchholz to perennial All-Star and future Hall of Fame pitcher, John Smoltz, the front office had covered the rotation in spades. And that doesn't even look more deeply into the farm system or bullpen where the likes of Justin Masterson (since dealt away), Michael Bowden, and Junichi Tazawa lurked.

When the 2009 season began, there was very little doubt in anyone’s mind that the Red Sox had both the depth and talent in the starting rotation for it to be considered, not only the teams’ primary strength, but what made them favorites to advance to the World Series from the American League.
With dueling aces at the top in Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, depth in the middle with Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, and Brad Penny, and a plethora of options at the end ranging from top prospect Clay Buchholz to perennial All-Star and future Hall of Fame pitcher, John Smoltz, the front office had covered the rotation in spades. And that doesn’t even look more deeply into the farm system or bullpen where the likes of Justin Masterson (since dealt away), Michael Bowden, and Junichi Tazawa lurked.
Even with slow starts from the top of the rotation, conventional wisdom viewed the rotation as one of the best in baseball. While Beckett and Lester found themselves struggling out of the gate, 3-4 with a 6.33 ERA between them in April, a shut down bullpen and an out of this world Tim Wakefield kept the Red Sox heads above water even with Brad Penny and Daisuke Matsuzaka posting a near double digit collective ERA. There was a sense at the time, that the staff wouldn’t continue to struggle so mightily and that the team had stayed around .500 despite, was a sign of good things to come.
And come around they did. Tim Wakefield continued to post win after win leading to his first All-Star selection and the two headed monster of Beckett and Lester hit their strides in June where they were more dominant than they were poor in May (7-2, 1.69 ERA). The Red Sox top three pitchers posted an incredible 11-2 June record as the team rolled to first place with an 18-8 month. Even Brad Penny, despite a 1-2 record was caught up in the act posting a respectable 3.18 ERA.
As June turned to July, we all wondered if the Red Sox rotation had hit a rhythm that would dance all the way to October. Then the record started skipping.
While Jon Lester’s been as good as any pitcher in baseball since June 1, going 6-2 with a 2.12 ERA over 80 innings in his last 12 starts. In those 80 innings, he’s struck out 96 and walked only 25. Opposing batters have only mustered an OPS against of .545. Dominant.
Beckett’s been nothing to scoff at either. Over the same period, he’s gone 9-2 with a 2.24 ERA with 73 Ks and 11 walks in 80 innings with an only slightly higher OPS against of .549.
With two aces, clearly dealing, why then would Theo Epstein make such aggressive moves around the trade deadline to acquire the likes of Felix Hernandez or Roy Halladay?
Not to disparage the impact move that Theo did make at the deadline in bringing along Victor Martinez without parting with one of the “untouchables” in the organization, but the moves Theo tried to make at the deadline are more telling about his perspective on the 2009 Red Sox than the moves that he did make.
Imagine if you will, a press conference on 8/1 with Felix Hernandez or Roy Halladay wearing a Red Sox cap and Theo at the podium in front of him.
“I thought there was a flaw on the club that we couldn’t allow to become a fatal flaw, that the rotation on this team is not championship caliber,” Epstein might have said. “In my mind, we were not going to win a World Series with the depth in the top of the rotation the was it was.”
If it sounds like Theo, just harken back to 2004 and replace the notion of “rotation” with “defense” as Theo described his justification for the trade of Nomar Garciaparra.
The Red Sox still have depth in their rotation after Beckett and Lester, but it is suddenly laden with much more uncertainty than we all expected at the season’s onset.
Tim Wakefield has spent nearly a month on the DL with a strained back and even with his first half of the season, could he be counted on to be this team’s #3 horse down the stretch and to pitch Game Three of a playoff series?
Brad Penny, while not terrible, gives you what you would expect out of a number five starter on this team, not a playoff caliber pitcher.
John Smoltz could take that mantle. I think he’s thrown the ball better than his numbers would indicate, and remember that he’s just now getting out of what could best be described as “extended rehab” after a year off. But that’s a big gamble to take when the fate of the season may hang in the balance of that position.
Clay Buchholz has proven anything but capable of handling Major League Baseball. As dominant as he was in AAA and as he could be in Boston, he’s not more than an end of the rotation piece right now. Sure there’s potential there, and he could catch fire at any time, but if there was a chance to move him for another #1 to complete the trifecta at the top of the rotation, 2009 would have been better served.
Daisuke Matsuzaka, the forgotten one. He was, coming into the season, the #3 starter on this team. 15-10 with a 4.25 ERA from a pitcher who while inconsistent in many ways, you could count on to step on the mound in the third game of a playoff series was the expectation of “the enigma”. Could Daisuke find his way back to the Fenway mound in time to help this team out? If he does, will he be more than the shell of himself we saw early in the year?
The questions were many in front of Theo Epstein at the deadline, but I think he proved by his attempted actions, that the rotation is still an unaddressed flaw that has the potential to be fatal to the Red Sox 2009 championship goals.
image source via Keith Allison: http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/3779208415/

Categories: Brad Penny Clay Buchholz Daisuke Matsuzaka John Smoltz Jon Lester Josh Beckett Tim Wakefield

13 Responses to “Is the rotation an unaddressed fatal flaw?” Subscribe

  1. bottomlinesox August 6, 2009 at 7:56 AM #

    Tim – I have been beating this dead horse for weeks at The Bottom Line. This will be a huge problem down the stretch… Penny, Smoltz and Buchhy are all going to strain the bullpen with 5-6 innings max per start.
    I think Penny is what he is and Smoltz is not going to pan out… but Buchholz could emerge as a secret weapon. His last outing was not pretty, but he has the stuff to dominate… he just hasn't put it all together in Boston.
    Bottom Line: I'm on record saying that I'm done with Buchholz, but Penny's mediocrity has got my praying that he'll prove me wrong.

  2. Ted August 6, 2009 at 8:54 AM #

    So Buchholz could emerge but the bottom line is you're done with him?

  3. Dante August 6, 2009 at 9:17 AM #

    Ive got a feeling Smoltz throws his best game as a Red Sox tonight in the Bronx.

  4. Colin August 6, 2009 at 9:33 AM #

    Yeah Ted…I can say I'm nearly done with Buchholz. He bitched and moaned about wanting to play with the big boys and he can barely hold a 7-run lead against Baltimore. It's BS. I think he needs more development and FYI I'd trade him over Masterson. Masterson at least didn't have an ego and promoted camaraderie.
    As for the rest of the rotation, I fear Smoltz might get rocked along with Buchholz. If we can get the 7-0 game Beckett I'm all smiles, and if our dominant Lester comes around, the BOS/NYY season series could be ours.

  5. Evan August 6, 2009 at 9:51 AM #

    Tazawa is pitching well at Triple-A. I hope he comes up in September to provide a shot in the arm.
    Problem is, we might have lost the playoff spot by then.

  6. Ted August 6, 2009 at 9:51 AM #

    Colin, I was questioning the wording and logic of the comment I replied to, not making any statement about Buchholz. I see Smoltz putting it together as a much better bet.

  7. Guidas August 6, 2009 at 9:56 AM #

    What – you're just getting to this now? When we could've had Cliff Lee AND VMart last week? Or Roy Halladay and VMart judging from the fact that none of Buchholz, Bowden, Kelly and Anderson were dealt for VMART and we had this post-trade deadline comment by Theo:
    “There were some deals that we were talking about which included giving up five or six good prospects, and even those deals, had they gone down, we looked and liked what would have remained in our system.”
    If that quote is true then he did his team a disservice by not dealing those players if he could've added a Lee or Halladay – and sounds like he could've based on the deal Philly rejected which means the Sox could've had Roy for approximately Buchholz, Bowden, Anderson and two of Kelly, Bard, and Westmoreland. So going forward as we are staring into the abyss of 2006 repeating itself, do you take any satisfaction that in 2011 or 2012 Kelly or Westmoreland may make the big club? I sure don't. I'd rather have Beckett-Halladay-Lester and who cares for the next 1.3 years and see if those guys make a solid contribution in Toronto in 2011-12, by which time it shouldn't matter because, with their resources, the Sox should still be much better than the Jays.
    Big miscalculation by Theo. Potential is great, but the future is now.

  8. Orange Julius August 6, 2009 at 10:12 AM #

    Smoltz? Please. All it's been is fat, hnaging breaking ball after fat, hanging breaking ball. He couldn't even beat 2nd divion teams. It's an insult that they continue to give, and he continues to take, the ball. This game will be about 6-0 after 3 innings. Hopefully this will be the last time he ever "graces" (and boy, does this guy ever seem to think he's still special) the uniform.
    Shrek 3 is a better option. They haven't won a tough game since game 1 after the ASB. Yes, I'm pessimistic after seeing them repeatedly roll over, yes I am.

  9. Ayliena Soyer August 6, 2009 at 10:26 AM #

    Anyone know what exactly is wrong w/Matsuzaka?

  10. Eric August 6, 2009 at 10:29 AM #

    Wait wait wait everyone… stop the presses! The answer we all sought has apparently manifested itself. We no longer need to worry about the rotation. Paul Byrd is back. I'm so glad we weren't overzealous putting together a bigger package for Felix Hernandez with the likes of Paul Byrd waiting in the wings. At last I can rest assured, the Red Sox will be just fine!

  11. Ted August 6, 2009 at 11:30 AM #

    The 03' Sox managed to get within one Grady Little brain fart of the World Series relying on John Burkett for the stretch run and in game 6 of the ALCS. Sure he sucked, but good teams make up for their weaknesses somehow and that's what these Sox will have to do also.

  12. JoeSox August 6, 2009 at 12:18 PM #

    So you think we could've gotten a little over a year of Halladay for Buchholz, Bowden, Anderson, Kelly, and Bard? Why would you do that? I wouldn't do that. If that's what the Blue Jays wanted, they can keep Halladay on their mediocre team next year.
    The fact of the matter is that the only two good options at the deadline were Lee and Halladay. All indications were that the Jays didn't want to trade Halladay to a divisional rival and we would've had to pay way more than others to get him. And we had no idea how Halladay would have taken to extension talks in the offseason or how that would've affected our budget. Lee would've been cheaper, judging from the price that the Phillies gave up for him, but at the time most people were crying out for offense, not pitching. Now they've changed their tone again. Oh well.
    Do I like having Smoltz, Penny, and Buchholz as our back three starters? Hell no. But Wake and Dice-K are injured, which hurts the rotation, and any waiver wire deals probably won't be much better. So we're stuck with 'em. Hopefully Buchholz can pull it together, Smoltz can stop being old, and Penny can stop sucking in the second half.

  13. Lyndsay August 6, 2009 at 2:55 PM #

    what about making some August waiver deals? there are still some good players on that list: Arroyo, Harang, etc. not to mention Ron Mahay as the additional lefty bullpen guy. Mark Teahen is versatile, can hit and can cover at 1st, 3rd, and OF. I really hope Theo is taking a good look at the waiver options right now.