Friday, May 1, 2009

History not on the side of Smoltz, Penny

Will John Smoltz beat the odds and become the low-risk, high-reward starter that pays off? Photo from The Boston Globe.

The Red Sox have shut down John Smoltz for up to two weeks, though they say he isn’t hurt. But let’s face it, rarely is someone shut down when he isn’t hurt, especially when that someone is 41 years old, has thrown 3,395 big league innings, has undergone four elbow surgeries and is less than a year removed from major surgery on his right shoulder.

It’s understandable that the Sox would paint this delay in the most optimistic terms possible (it’s also consistent with their philosophies since 2005, as you can read about in Chapter 9 of Fighting Words, coming soon to a bookshelf near you!). But I also recall how optimistic the Sox seemed about Wade Miller in 2005, when he first missed a start in July with a sore shoulder and then went on the disabled list in August with tendinitis that Terry Francona said was not an injury.

Miller didn’t throw a ball for 15 days, during which he had two throwing sessions postponed, and made two minor league rehab starts but eventually underwent surgery on his labrum. He returned to the big leagues with the Cubs in 2006 but hasn’t come close to regaining his past form and is currently pitching for the Blue Jays’ Triple-A affiliate.

I bring up Miller not out of some odd nostalgia for the summer of 2005 (man, remember when Craig Hansen was The Next Big Thing?), but because he was the first injured starting pitcher on whom Theo Epstein made a low-risk, high-reward investment.

Unfortunately for the Sox, the next one to pay off will be the first. The Sox got just 23 starts combined out of Miller (16 starts) and 2008 fliers Bartolo Colon (seven starts) and Curt Schilling (no starts).

Epstein tried again last winter by signing Smoltz and Brad Penny, who was hampered by a bad shoulder last year with the Dodgers and joined the Sox shortly before Smoltz was brought into the fold. But while Smoltz works in Florida, Penny has a 8.66 ERA and nearly twice as many walks (11) as strikeouts (six) in four starts. (He’s also 2-0)

If missing on a bunch of rehabbing veterans is the worst thing about Epstein's resume, well, it’s a pretty damn good resume. And if a general manager is going to miss, better to do so on incentive-laden one-year deals than on the four- and five-year deals that really hamstring a team’s financial flexibility.

Nor did the Sox have outsized expectations for Miller, Colon, Schilling, Smoltz or Penny. The hurlers were signed with the hope they could provide high-upside depth, to safeguard the Sox against the injuries that inevitably deplete a rotation and, in the case of everyone except Miller, to buy the club more time to develop its homegrown starters on the farm.

Only Penny began the season in the big league rotation, though the Sox didn’t expect Schilling to be on the shelf come April when they re-signed him in November 2007. But even that deal was executed with the belief that Schilling was more likely to pitch 120 innings than 180 innings.

Even though Miller, Colon and Schilling didn’t work out, it’s easy to understand why Epstein would go to the well again with Penny and Smoltz this year. The Sox last year scrambled for starting pitching a lot more than their 95 wins would indicate. Every member of the projected Opening Day rotation hit the disabled list aside from Jon Lester, who emerged as an ace-quality starter (16-6 with a 3.21 ERA) in his first full big league season. In addition, Clay Buchholz, he of the no-hitter in his second big league start, had a brutal season that underscored the Sox’ desire to proceed as cautiously as possible with their young pitchers.

The Sox ended up receiving the equivalent of a season’s worth of starts from Colon, rookie Justin Masterson (who opened the season in Double-A but made eight starts for the Sox before finishing the season in the bullpen), post-trading deadline acquisition Paul Byrd (eight starts), organizational arms David Pauley (two starts) and Charlie Zink (one start) and top prospect Michael Bowden (one start). Those six hurlers combined to record a 5.00 ERA in 163 2/3 innings. Only five pitchers of the 40 American League pitchers who qualified for the ERA title posted an ERA higher than 5.00 last year.

So even though history suggests Smoltz and Penny will spend more time on the shelf than on the field, why not take a flier on a pair of veterans who could provide far more upside than last year’s fill-ins—or, for that matter, Miller, Colon or Schilling?

Smoltz has the greatest postseason resume ever (15-4, 2.67 ERA in 207 innings), is almost surely bound for the Hall of Fame, led the NL in wins and starts at age 39 three years ago and struck out 36 batters in 28 innings even as his shoulder throbbed last year. And Penny won 16 games in consecutive seasons in 2006-07, started the All-Star Game for the NL in ’06 and is still only 30 years old.

They were worthy risks, and risks Epstein will likely continue to take in future winters. But as for this year, don’t be surprised if Penny is replaced by Buchholz by the end of the month—or if the closest Smoltz comes to pitching for the Red Sox is on the back fields in Fort Myers.

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