Saying Daisuke Matsuzaka needs to be relieved of his rotation duties is easy enough, but replacing him may be more difficult. The Red Sox didn’t just go with Dice-K in the fifth spot because they felt obligated to due to his contract; the problem had more to do with the lack of alternative options for the role.
The Red Sox have options, but all of them have their own set of question marks. At this point, though, with Matsuzaka struggling as much as he has over the last few months he has pitched, Boston may need to explore one of the other questions and hope that the answers provide acceptable alternatives.
The most obvious candidate to replace Matsuzaka is the man who has done so many a time in the past. Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield has been in and out of the rotation over the past few years, pitching in whatever role or inning the Red Sox need him to based on the rest of their roster or his injury status. He is the oldest active major leaguer now that Jamie Moyer was forced to sit out with an injury, and, for that reason, he is risky as a full-time starting pitcher, too.
Wakefield is a huge injury risk, as he has suffered back problems since the 2003 season. It has been much more of an issue of late, as he has four entries in the Baseball Prospectus injury database since 2009 for his back, including back surgery this past winter to repair a herniated disc and nerve root decompression. Prospectus’s injury forecasting system, CHIPPER, understandably rates Wakefield as a high risk to miss at least 15-30 days during the 2011 campaign.
When on the mound and healthy, though, he fares well enough. From 2008-2010, Wakefield has posted an ERA+ of 99, a K/BB ratio of 1.9, and averaged just over six innings per start. That is nothing special by any means, but if he can be average or a little below, then he is doing his job as the fifth starter. PECOTA projects him to be worth a little over a win if he were to reach the 150 inning mark.
Wakefield would need to remain healthy for that to happen, but if they can squeeze a few months worth of innings from Tim Wakefield: Starting Pitcher, then it could be worthwhile.
If Wakefield is injured–or, even before Wakefield goes in to the rotation to begin with–the team also has Alfredo Aceves. The former Yankee has had his own back injuries that have kept him off of the mound, but he has pitched very well whenever he does make it to the mound.
Aceves, in 131 2/3 career innings pitched, has an ERA+ of 142, a 2.9 K/BB ratio, 1.2 homers per nine allowed, and an ability to strike out more batters than his career rate indicates. He also has as extensive of a back injury history as Wakefield, with four entries in the database for it from 2009 to the present. That ERA isn’t going to hold up (especially if he moves to the rotation full-time) but chances are good he will out pace anything Matsuzaka puts out there–assuming he lasts the year on the mound, of course. PECOTA agrees, forecasting Aceves for a 4.10 ERA and a win worth of production in just 62 innings, and as we’ve discussed, the Rule of 17 likes Aceves as a starter as well.
As much as I would love to include Felix Doubront on the list of replacements for Matsuzaka, I don’t think it is his time just yet. He threw just 37 innings in Triple-A last year, and wasn’t so good that he is a no brainer for a big league gig. I’m a huge Doubront fan in the long-term–I think he should step in to the rotation in 2012, for instance, and I think highly of him as a potentially dominating reliever as soon as now–but I’m not convinced that letting him in the role now when he could be further refining his occasionally iffy command in Triple-A is a superior move to just letting Wakefield and Aceves duke it out as long as their backs allow them to.
One thing to remember when considering Wakefield or Aceves in the rotation over Matsuzaka is that Dice-K has his own extensive injury history. Regardless of who Boston selects for the fifth spot, there will be a high risk of injury, but if Matsuzaka is sent to the back of the line, and is allowed to pitch in the role again only after Wakefield and Aceves have had their turn, then the Red Sox will likely be better off.