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May 25, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL East

Five-Alarm Arms

by Ben Kabak

Six-game losing streaks have a way of cropping up over the span of 162 games. When they happen can dictate the narrative that surrounds them. The Yankees suffered through one that ended last week, which was dismaying but ultimately forgettable. The Red Sox, on the other hand, opened the season with one and have been trying to live it down ever since. Now just a half game out of first, the Sox are playing as everyone expected them to, but their pitching depth is on the verge of taking center stage in their season’s narrative.

After starting out 0-6 and 2-10, the Red Sox have turned it on. They beat the AL Central-leading Indians last night to improve to 26-22 on the season, but they’re doing it with their bats. The team’s offense is tops in the league in on-base percentage, fourth in slugging, and third in OPS. The pitching, though, has been pedestrian. Sox hurlers have struck out a lot of batters, but they have also walked plenty of hitters and been prone to the longball. Their team ERA is 11th in the majors.

Boston’s pitching raises concerns for other reasons as well. Over the past week, the Sox have seen both John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka go down with injuries. Lackey is battling off-field problems as his wife struggles with cancer, and the pitcher also has a sore elbow. Matsuzaka, on the DL for the fifth time in two seasons, has returned to Japan with an elbow injury that could be serious, and club officials are seemingly fed up with his disappointing performances.

So who’s next for Boston? Over the weekend, they threw Tim Wakefield and Alfredo Aceves against the Chicago Cubs in back-to-back games. Both pitchers held their own: Aceves saw the bullpen ruin his five-inning, one-run performance and Wakefield chipped in 6.2 shutdown innings on Sunday night’s national stage. Whether these two can stay healthy, get outs, and keep the Red Sox in the game will determine how Boston’s next few weeks unfold.

Aceves and Wakefield represent the front line of Boston’s pitching depth. The Yankees jettisoned Aceves after a year lost to back injuries and a biking accident that left him with a broken clavicle shortly before the non-tender deadline. He threw 12 innings last year, and PECOTA pegged him for around 60 this year. Wakefield, 44, reached 140 IP last year, but with below-average results. PECOTA expected 79 innings out of him and 140 for the pair, but the two pitchers have already thrown 50 frames on the season.

If the Red Sox can coax eight or ten more starts out of Aceves and Wakefield, they might be able to weather this storm. Lackey will likely return before Matsuzaka, although his 8.01 ERA isn’t pretty. But Aceves’ role in the starting rotation, in particular, has a cascading effect on the team. When the Red Sox pulled him out of the long relief role, they lost some bullpen flexibility, and if his back can’t withstand the physical stress of throwing 90-100 pitches every five days, they could lose his arm all together.

Wakefield poses the same problem. After a heavy workload in the first half in 2010, the knuckleballer broke down. He suffered a herniated disk, an injury that has plagued him for the past three seasons, and he was able to make just three starts after July 20th. From July onward, he sported a 6.11 ERA and threw just 45.2 innings. The club should consider anything it gets out of him right now a bonus.

Beyond those two, the Sox’s options aren’t pretty. Kevin Millwood, let go by the Yankees at the end of April after a few disappointing minor-league starts, is with the organization but not yet ready for the majors. Andrew Miller and Brandon Duckworth, two NL castoffs, are next in line, with Felix Doubront sidelined by a groin pull. Expecting much from any member of that trio might be a tall order. Miller has racked up 31 strikeouts in 35.1 Triple-A innings, but he has walked 28, and Duckworth hasn’t sniffed the majors since 2008. That the team even considered Millwood after some alarming scouting reports that focused on his 84-mph fastball underscores just how badly the Sox need arms of any kind in their organization right now.

Even down a couple of arms, Boston’s outlook isn’t bad. Josh Beckett lowered his ERA to 1.69 with six strong innings against the Indians last night, and Lester and Buchholz have both been pitching to their reputations. The offense, which has scored 4.7 runs per game since the 2-10 start, doesn’t need an ace; it just needs a few guys to supply innings.

Boston isn’t the only club atop the American League East wondering where its depth went. The division-leading Yankees are suffering through a similar problem, albeit in the bullpen. When the season started, the Yanks expected Rafael Soriano, Joba Chamberlain, and David Robertson to back up Mariano Rivera from the right while Pedro Feliciano and Boone Logan did the same from the left. Bartolo Colon was expected to be the long man.

With Phil Hughes on the shelf, Soriano off to see Dr. James Andrews today, and Feliciano a week away from starting a last-gasp throwing program, the Yankees are deploying their depth right now. Colon is the club’s number-three starter, while five no-names—Luis Ayala, Lance Pendleton, Hector Noesi, Buddy Carlyle, and Amauri Sanit—have filled in for Soriano and Feliciano with varying degrees of success.

While the Red Sox have to worry about the short-term health of their fragile back-end starters, the Yankees are concerned with the long-term health of their bullpen. Joe Girardi might be tempted to turn the ball over to Robertson and Chamberlain every night, but as Scott Proctor and others proved in the later Joe Torre years, that formula leads to injury more often than not. Robertson, who has been struggling with his command, has been throwing more pitches this year, and the Yankees know that at 41, Mariano Rivera has to be handled with care.

With the organization’s heralded arms still a year or two away from the Bronx, the Yankees will try a kitchen-sink approach to staffing the back end of the bullpen. Noesi, impressive in two outings, will have a shot to lose the long relief job, while Luis Ayala has a 1.50 ERA and a nifty 2.25 K/BB ratio in a bunch of low-leverage appearances. Still, just as the Sox need starting arms, the Yankees will continue to scour the major-league landscape for bullpen relief. Burning out their few good arms in May would hurt their chances come late September and October.

The two big spenders in the East have both poured millions into their pitching. The Yanks have devoted $16 million to their pen, while the Sox’s starting corps carries a hefty long-term price tag. Nonetheless, the AL East might just come down to the guys making peanuts who were pitching for their major-league lives two months ago. The deepest club, whichever it may be, will have the inside track for the crown while the Rays just try to stick around.

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Aging Hurlers (05/25)
<< Previous Column
Divide and Conquer, AL... (05/18)
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Premium Article Divide and Conquer, AL... (06/01)
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Premium Article On the Beat: The Red S... (05/25)

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