By Jeff Louderback
Daisuke Matsuzaka’s career with the Boston Red Sox could be finished. Multiple media reports indicate that the Japanese right-hander wants to have Tommy John surgery because of a tear in his right elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament.
According to Alex Speier of WEEI.com, Dice-K will meet with Red Sox officials on Friday. At the least, it appears that Matsuzaka will not return this season, leaving an open spot in the rotation. Theo Epstein could explore a trade for a starting pitcher, but that is not necessary. The Red Sox have viable options within the organization.
Two pitchers in the Red Sox farm system who cannot be counted on to help are Kevin Millwood and Junichi Tazawa.
The 36-year-old Millwood, who opted out of his minor league contract with the Yankees earlier this season and was roughed up with their Triple-A affiliate, made his Pawtucket debut last night. The results were not pretty. He allowed four runs and five hits in 2.2 innings. His once powerful fast ball sat in the high 80s. Millwood is 158-137 in his career with a 4.11 ERA, but he is far from the pitcher he was even two seasons ago, when he was 13-10 with a 3.67 ERA in 31 starts and 198.2 innings with Texas.
The soon-to-be 25-year-old Tazawa has returned from Tommy John surgery and is rehabbing in the advanced Single-A Salem rotation. The high ceiling right-hander breezed through Portland and Pawtucket in his first season of professional baseball in 2009, and he tasted a cup of coffee with the Red Sox (2-3, 7.46 ERA in six games, including four starts). He features a plehtora of plus pitches he throws with tremendous command, but it takes time for a pitcher to regain his form after returning from Tommy John surgery.
Tazawa was hit hard in his first two appearances with Salem, allowing 12 runs and 13 hits in 7.1 innings. He rebounded with two scoreless and hitless innings yesterday. Tazawa could help the Red Sox bullpen at some point in the second half of the season, but he is not a starting pitching option this year.
Two starting pitchers who can fill the void left by Matsuzaka are currently on the Red Sox roster. Tim Wakefield and Alfredo Aceves have pitched well, though Aceves was roughed up on Tuesday and Wakefield allowed four runs and seven hits over six innings yesterday. When John Lackey is activated from the disabled list in time for Sunday’s game, Scott Atchison will probably be optioned to Pawtucket and Aceves will return to the bullpen, unless the Sox choose to keep Aceves stretched out by returning him to the Pawtucket rotation.
Interestingly, three pitching prospects at Pawtucket who can help in the rotation at the major league level are also arms that can help in the bullpen. They are:
Felix Doubront - The 23-year-old left-hander, who has been dominant at Pawtucket, returned from the disabled list (oblique strain) earlier this week and posted 3.1 innings of no run, one hit baseball. Before his stint on the DL, Doubront logged four solid outings and overall has a 1.59 ERA in five starts and 17 innings, allowing 10 hits, striking out 23 and walking seven. He has held opposing hitters to a .172 average (.250 lefties, .132 righties). Doubront’s long-term future is as a starter, and the Red Sox sent him back to Pawtucket after a brief stint with Boston earlier in the year so he could get stretched out as a starter and provide insurance in the rotation. This is why Doubront will probably remain at Pawtucket for the short term.
Andrew Miller - A former first round pick of the Tigers who was rushed to the majors and then not allowed to develop after a trade to the Marlins, Miller has been impressive at Pawtucket. The power left-hander has held lefty hitters to a .130 average (and righties to a .172 average) and has a 2.47 ERA in 10 games (nine starts). In 47.1 innings, he has allowed 26 hits and has struck out 39 batters, but he has also walked 34. Miller has control issues, but in his last start, he tossed a one-hit shutout over seven innings and walked two. The 26-year-old Miller has an opt-out clause in his contract if he is not called up to the Red Sox by June 15. If the Sox summon him to the big league club, they cannot send him back to Pawtucket without exposing him to waivers. He could be called up to fill a spot in the bullpen if Rich Hill is placed on the disabled list.
Kyle Weiland - It was thought that the 24-year-old Weiland projected as a late-inning reliever at the major league level, but he has caught the Red Sox attention as a starter for Pawtucket this season. In his first taste of Triple-A, the former Notre Dame closer who was drafted in the third round in 2008 has a 3.46 ERA in 10 starts for the Paw Sox. In 52 innings, he has 57 strikeouts and has allowed 42 hits. He is right-handed, but he has been tough on lefties, holding them to a .186 average (righties are hitting .252).
Boston’s depth will be fine as long as Lackey regains his form and emerges as a No. 4 starter for the Red Sox. The Sox have one of the best 1-2-3 punches in baseball with Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz. Lackey is capable is being one of the better back of the rotation starters in the game. He doesn’t have to serve as an ace like he did when he was with the Angels.
With Aceves and Wakefield, plus the availability of Doubront, Miller and Weiland, the Red Sox should not have to make a trade to fill the No. 5 spot in the rotation.
In an ideal scenario, Lackey will regain his form and Doubront will get stretched out at Pawtucket so he can join the rotation in July. Doubront could make the Red Sox opening day roster next season as the No. 5 starter. His time could arrive sooner.