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In Red Sox rotation, the squeeze is on

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  June 27, 2011 08:05 AM

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Clay Buchholz is a week away, assuming no further setbacks, and so the ticks of the clock are now clear and crisp. Jon Lester is in. Josh Beckett is in. And once Buchholz returns, presumably for an Independence Day outing against the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park, that leaves three men for two spots.

In alphabetical order: John Lackey, Andrew Miller, and Tim Wakefield.

Which one of these doesn’t belong?

Me? I’d go with Wakefield and Miller in this scenario, but let’s try to be as fair as possible about this. After all, we all have our biases. (Ahem.) On some level, Lackey, Miller, and Wakefield all deserve the right to remain in the starting rotation when Buchholz returns, leaving manager Terry Francona with a difficult decision when Buchholz returns.

One way or another, someone is either going to feel slighted, albeit for different reasons.

Here are the cases for and against each pitcher.

Season: 5-6, 7.36 ERA.
Team record in 11 starts: 5-6.
Last start: 3.1 IP, 4H, 5 ER, 4 BB, 4K, 1 HR, 2 HBP.
Last four starts: 3-1, 6.26 ERA.

The case for: Lackey is in the second year of a five-year, $82.5 million contract and sending him to the bullpen could destroy any chance of salvaging his season. Before arriving in Boston for the start of last season, Lackey was 102-71 in his career and averaged 13 wins a season for the Los Angeles Angels. He won 14 last year. For as poorly as Lackey has performed this season, he is a far better pitcher than what he has demonstrated.

The point? If the Red Sox are going to get anything out of this guy, it will have to be as a starter. Lackey has made just one relief appearance in his career – that coming with the Angels in 2004. He is a proud man who was the staff ace with the Angels. Fans in Boston have no emotional attachment to Lackey for a lot of reasons, but try to take that out of it. If you move him to the pen, you may lose him.

The case against: Based purely on performance, Lackey has been the club’s worst starter all year. Minus a three-game stretch in late April – all against three of the worst offensive teams in the league – the A’s, Angels, and Mariners – Lackey has a 10.20 ERA in eight starts. He’s been better since coming off the disabled list, but he still hasn’t been good.

At this point, the simple fact of the matter is that Miller and Wakefield have pitched better than Lackey has. If manager Terry Francona keeps Lackey in the rotation despite that, what kind of message does that send in an organization that generally puts the emphasis on winning?

Season: 1-0, 3.09 ERA.
Team record in two starts: 2-0.
Last start: 6 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 0 HR, 1 HBP.

The case for: Retained by the Red Sox during the offseason, Miller is a former first-round pick (No. 6 overall) who has had control problems for much of his career. Now, however, Miller seems to be around the strike zone far more consistently, particularly with his off-speed pitches, and he has the stuff that scouts dream about in a left-handed pitcher, beginning with a fastball in the mid 90s.

Albeit in starts against San Diego and Pittsburgh – two of the worst offensive teams in baseball – Miller has handled himself quite well in his two outings. Lackey, for instance, made his last start against San Diego and was utterly inept, suggesting that nothing should be taken for granted. Miller has done nothing to warrant a demotion to the bullpen. He is scheduled to start again over the weekend in Houston.

The case against: Is this fool’s gold? Miller turned 26 last month and he’s not a kid anymore. If he can throw strikes consistently – and there is still some doubt about that – he can also help the Sox out of the bullpen, something Lackey and Wakefield are less positioned to do. In fact, putting Miller in the pen might be the best utilization of resources.

Regardless of Lackey’s performance against San Diego, Miller hasn’t faced a real lineup yet; whether Houston qualifies is debatable. Even since he joined the Red Sox, Miller has walked five in 11.2 innings, a rate that translates into almost four walks per nine innings. That is still on the high side. As intriguing as Miller is, he is also the low-man on the totem pole in terms of service time and would likely handle the demotion better than Lackey or Wakefield.

Season: 4-3, 4.54 ERA.
Team record in nine starts: 5-4.
Last start: 6 IP, 7 H, 5 ER, 4 BB, 2 K, 1 HR, 0 HBP.
Last three starts: 1-2 3.86 ERA.

The case for: When are we going to learn our lesson with this guy? As a knuckleballer, Wakefield has the most value when consistently utilized as a starter. Since the Red Sox began giving him a regular turn in the rotation, he is 4-3 with a 4.11 ERA. That performance is completely consistently with what Wakefield has given the Sox over the majority of his career, making him a perfect fit for the end of the rotation.

Before his last outing at Pittsburgh, Wakefield allowed four earned runs in 15 innings – a 2.40 ERA. He has made a major contribution since the Sox lost Daisuke Matsuzaka for the season and has pitched into the sixth inning or better in all seven starts since being moved to the rotation. Based on performance, Wakefield deserves to remain a starter.

The case against: Miller has better raw stuff and Lackey counts for roughly six times as much against the payroll. Meanwhile, the knuckleball remains as fickle as ever. Baseball people like certainties – namely, velocity – and Wakefield’s “fastball” is clocked in the low 70s. Knuckleballers are generally .500 pitchers, leaving Lackey and Miller with better upside.

At Wakefield’s age – he’ll be 45 in August -- durability is seemingly a question. He has pitched 69.1 innings this year and has not exceeded 140 innings since 2008. Moving him to the bullpen would help lessen the workload and allow him to continue serving as a de facto sixth starter, giving the Red Sox an emergency alternative at any moment’s notice.

So, is Wakefield the odd man out?

And if he is not, who is?

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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