All-Aughts Team of the Decade SP5: Tim Wakefield

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He’s certainly not the ace of the All-Aughts Team of the Decade, but Tim Wakefield has himself a spot in the rotation as the No. 5 starter (there are five rotation spots that will be named) as he is the only pitcher to play for Boston every year from 2000-9. Before we get to the decade, let’s take a brief spin through Wake’s history.

Originally drafted as a first baseman in the 1988 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates, Tim Wakefield became what we all know him best for in 1989: a knuckleballer. In 2002, his major league debut occurred on July 31st at age 25 against the St. Louis Cardinals. Already having logged six complete games in Triple-A, his debut consisted of a complete game with 10 strikeouts against the St. Louis Cardinals. He posted a scant 2.15 ERA the rest of the way while going 8-1 en route to helping the Pirates earn a playoff berth, in which he bested Atlanta Brave Tom Glavine twice in the NLCS. Alas, Sid Bream had other ideas when it came to the victor of the series.

Tim Wakefield hit a wall in 1993, as he struggled right from the outset, earning himself a demotion to Triple-A Buffalo. Although he finished the season back in the majors and strong (two shutouts to conclude the season) he still finished with an ugly 5.61 ERA and 6-11 record in 20 games started, four relief appearances, and a total of 128.1 IP.

Wakefield reported to Triple-A to start the ’94 season, but couldn’t make it to the majors the entire year, leading the American Association in losses, walks, and home runs allowed. (Cool aside: Alan Embree tied for the AAA lead in losses with 16.) Wakefield’s shot at pitching in the majors was wiped out in September when he was recalled, only to go on strike. Wakefield was then released on April 20, 1995…

and Mr. Red Sox was born.

Rays vs. Red Sox Game 4

Signing with the Red Sox on April 26, he led the Red Sox to the division title, going 16-8 with a 2.95 ERA in 27 GS, 195.1 IP. He nabbed the Sporting News’ AL Comeback Player of the Year Award, two years after gaining the magazine’s NL Rookie of the Year honors.

Wakefield’s ERA soared to 5.14 the following year, but he remained in the rotation all year long, going 14-13. In 1997 and 1998 he made the majority of his appearances as starts, but also contributed out of the bullpen.

Despite winning as much as 17 games in 1998, he struggled with control and finished with respective ERAs of 4.25 and 4.58. Wakefield started the 1999 season in the rotation, but when closer Tom Gordon got injured, Wakefield became the closer for the Red Sox and notched 15 saves, blowing only three.

Once Derek Lowe emerged as a viable alternative, Wakefield returned to the rotation and finished with 17 games started, 49 total games, 140 innings pitched and a 5.08 ERA. This is where the Red Sox and Wakefield found themselves at the turn of the century. Wake had proven that he could serve in virtually any role, and succeed in said roles. Wakefield would repeat his 17 games started in 2000 (5.48 ERA) and 2001 (3.90 ERA), also contributing many times out of the bullpen during this two-year period.

While Wakefield quietly ached to be a starter, his versatility and effectiveness was a bonus to the club while being a curse to him. It’s long been a testament to Wakefield’s attitude that the club felt able to place Wake in situations that the club needed him in without fear of backlash.

And then, finally, Timmeh’s chance come. In July of  2002, he was shifted back to the rotation, where he has remained since.

In 2003, Tim Wakefield went 11-7 with a 4.09 ERA and pitched admirably in the ALCS against the Yankees. It was this season that truly put him on the map of baseball fans worldwide. Here was this aging knuckleballer who had served ably for years and was pulling everything together to succeed on the big stage. He won Games 1 and 4, and made a relief appearance in Game 7, retiring the side in order in the 10th. Everyone knows what happened in the 11th.

In 2004 (Fire Brand archive: Tim Wakefield: Hitting his stride or hitting the links?, 4/21/04), desperate for redemption, he went 12-10 with a 4.87 ERA during the regular season and gave up his Game 4 start in the ALCS to save the bullpen in Game 3, pitching 3.1 innings for a final losing score of 19-8.

Not everyone would volunteer to salvage the bullpen at the expense of  a Game 4 start, when it was certain the Sox would lose the game and go down 3-0 in the series. How amazing is this?

Wakefield also showed up for relief duty in Game Five, throwing three shutout innings to win the 14-inning showdown. Due to this body of work and other factors, Wakefield got the honor of kicking off the World Series. He didn’t notch the win, although Boston pulled the game out on Mark Bellhorn’s home run off the Pesky Pole.

In 2005, Wakefield won 16 games (the third time he’d won that many, and first since 1998) while losing 12. He had a 4.15 ERA, and then checked in with a 4.63 ERA in 2006, a season that was cut short by injury as he only made 23 starts. 2007 saw Wake nab another ring, albeit this time with minimal involvement, losing Game 4 of the ALCS to the Cleveland Indians, dropping the BoSox to a 3-1 series deficit. It was his only appearance of the 2007 postseason. (Fire Brand archive: Tito hurting Sox’s chances at World Series, 10/17/07.)

During the season, however, he won 17 games, tying a career-high set in ’98. (Fire Brand archive: Wakefield picks up slipping Red Sox, 8/13/07.) The transition from 2007′s 4.76 ERA to 4.13 in 2008 over 30 starts came with a change at catcher. Doug Mirabelli, his longtime personal catcher, was released. (Fire Brand archive: Sudden Shocker: Red Sox release Doug Mirabelli, 3/13/08.) 2008′s Wakefield caddy became Kevin Cash, and then George Kottaras in 2009 before a late-season ascension of Victor Martinez.

(Don’t forget Mirabelli’s bizarre trade back to Boston in April of 2006, rushing to Fenway in a police cruiser to catch Wake after Josh Bard’s failed gambit. Theo Epstein has acknowledged it was an ill-advised, panic move. Fortunately, it hasn’t and won’t come back to bite the Sox, giving fans a feel-good story to tell future generations of Sox fans. Fire Brand archive: Panic move by Theo, 5/1/06)

MLB Florida Marlins vs Boston Red Sox

In 2009, Wakefield hovered around a mid-4 ERA for the seventh straight year, leading the American League in victories at the halfway point while being named to the All-Star team. (Fire Brand archive: Mr. Reliable, 3/14/09.) It all went to hell in a handbasket after that, as he made just four starts the rest of the way before undergoing back surgery in the offseason. (Fire Brand Archive: Wakefield set to return, but for how long? 9/21/09.) At this point, Wakefield’s perpetual $4 million option in place since 2006 came to an end. The team opted to guarantee Wakefield two years in exchange for lower base salaries. (Fire Brand archive: Wake re-signed, contract re-negotiated, 11/9/09.)

The two-year deal all but assures that Wakefield will reach 200 wins in his career. He’s currently at 189, with 175 wins coming with Boston. He’s just 17 wins short of tying Cy Young and Roger Clemens for most wins by a Red Sox pitcher.

Unfortunately, it’s no given that Wake reaches both milestones. For four straight seasons, injuries have gotten in the way of Wakefield, causing him to falter near the end and largely be a non-factor during September and October. At this point, it’s nigh-impossible to count on Wakefield to contribute the second half of the year, and one might cast doubt on the first half. Wakefield will enter the new decade perhaps much like he entered the one we’re recapping: as a swingman. It all depends on moves that Theo Epstein makes.

Off the field, Wakefield has been among the most charitable players in the game and is constantly being nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award. He has an annual charity golf tournament, and has a partnership with the Franciscan Hospital for Children in Boston.

With Wakefield’s off-field work and his 110-95 record with a 4.33 ERA in 346 games (250 starts), it’s abundantly clear that Wakefield belongs on the 2000-9 Team of the Decade.

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