Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Are Sox prepared enough to deal with Wakefield what ifs?

What do the Sox do if Buchholz shines in Wakefield's absence?

Tim Wakefield went on the disabled list Tuesday afternoon in what was either the last in a series of remarkable coincidences or the final step in a meticulously plotted chain of events designed to provide the nearly 43-year-old some rest while allowing the Sox to maximize the depth of their starting pitching.

I’m going to assume it’s the latter, because even Quentin Tarantino would have trouble penning a script with this many random twists of fate. Think about all that transpired leading up to yesterday’s news:

—Wakefield made his final start prior to the All-Star Game July 8.

—Terry Francona announced on July 12, two days before the All-Star Game, that Wakefield would not pitch again until July 22, providing him 13 days of rest between starts.

—Francona also announced July 12 that the Sox—who were off on July 16, the first day of the second half, before playing six straight games—would employ a six-man rotation for that cycle of games and that Clay Buchholz would make the Sox’ first start of the second half against the Blue Jays on his regular four days rest.

—Joe Maddon said the day of the All-Star Game that he would utilize Wakefield as an emergency pitcher, one he would not call upon unless the game went deep into extra innings and he needed someone to throw multiple frames.

—Wakefield did not pitch in the All-Star Game and hurt his back in a side session in Toronto Saturday, leading the Sox to place him on the shelf and replace him with Buchholz, who starts tonight in Texas on, amazingly enough, his regular four days rest.

—Wakefield is placed on the disabled list retroactive to July 18, meaning the earliest he can return is Aug. 2—two days after the trade deadline.

If this really was all part of a grand plan, it’s further confirmation of how careful and thorough the Sox are in all matters, baseball and otherwise. If the Sox have been planning for Buchholz to take Wakefield’s spot in the rotation for the rest of July, then they’ve exhibited even more foresight than we gave them credit for last week.

It doesn’t help the Sox, from a competitive standpoint, to officially announce they plan to give Wakefield—who has been injured in each of the last four seasons—a few weeks off, even if they have in the past alluded to such plans for their pitchers. The longer a guy like Buchholz toils away at Pawtucket, the better the Sox’ depth looks to potential trading partners as the July 31 deadline approaches. And yet by bringing him up now, the Sox can see their 4-5-6 starters—John Smoltz, Brad Penny and Buchholz—pitch twice more apiece as they try to figure out what to do with the glut of starters come August.

That said, it’s also quite fair to be skeptical about the severity and location of Wakefield’s injury. During the AL Division Series two years ago, Francona admitted the Sox fudged the details of Wakefield’s “back” injury, which was first revealed to be a shoulder injury and then later a small tear of the right rotator cuff.

It’s also worth wondering if Wakefield, who authored the feel-good story of the first half, is headed for a far less satisfying second half even if he does return within a couple weeks. The last time Buchholz made a start for an ailing Wakefield, he threw a no-hitter. That probably won’t happen again tonight, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens if Buchholz strings together a couple good starts in Wakefield’s absence and the club still has five other starters when Wakefield returns.

The Sox can only reward Buchholz with trips back to Pawtucket so many times before they run the risk of damaging relations with their potential future ace. Smoltz is a future Hall of Famer whom the Sox signed with his October brilliance in mind, so he’s not likely to be dumped. If it comes down to Wakefield vs. Penny, Wakefield probably wins based on recent performance as well as organizational stature.

But still: As nice a tale as Wakefield spun the first three-plus months of the season, the fact is he was a league average pitcher outside of his inflamed win total. What if he’s clearly the Sox’ sixth-best starter when he returns? As studious as the Sox are about everything, I can’t imagine there’s any preparing for a scenario that awkward.

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