Wakefield has logged 160 or more innings in all but four of his seasons in Boston, employing his knuckleball in true workhorse fashion. But after a lower back injury limited the 43-year-old to just 129 2/3 innings last season, the Red Sox will need to be cautious with him going forward.
In 17 starts during the first half of the 2009 campaign, Wakefield went 11-3, earning his first trip to the All-Star Game as a sort of lifetime achievement award. He was the glue that kept the Red Sox rotation together, despite Daisuke Matsuzaka's ailing shoulder and Brad Penny's inconsistency. Unfortunately, the injury bug reached Wakefield immediately after the Midsummer Classic, forcing him onto the disabled list from July 18 until Aug. 26.
Wakefield returned to make a few appearances in the final month of the regular season, but for the second time in three years, his back woes forced the Red Sox to exclude him from their playoff roster. The veteran was disappointed then, but he was also understanding, mindful that Theo Epstein and Terry Francona must do what's best for the team.
Now, there appears to be a disconnect between Wakefield's plans and those of the Red Sox. When Epstein inked John Lackey to a five-year contract, he most likely envisioned his Opening Day rotation featuring Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Dice-K. Such a plan would leave one of the most loyal Red Sox of all time as the odd man out.
Wakefield, on the other hand, believes that his decade and a half of service has earned him the right to be a full-time starter. He claims that his back is fully recovered, that his competitive spirit is as strong as ever, and that he should therefore get the ball every fifth day.
Nonetheless, the Red Sox are right to be concerned for their prized knuckleballer's health, and a swingman role could be mutually beneficial.
For the team, having Wakefield available out of the bullpen would offer increased flexibility to a pitching staff that could have used it last year. One piece the Red Sox lacked for the majority of the 2009 season was a long reliever — someone to come in for low-leverage innings in one-sided games. When Penny had to be removed after three innings in a contest on April 17, Francona was forced to turn to Manny Delcarmen in the fourth. When Wakefield himself couldn't finish the fifth on May 29, in came setup man Daniel Bard for mop-up duty.
Having Wakefield around to cover those innings could be invaluable to the Red Sox, because the key cogs of their relief corps would be able to focus on their routine assignments and stay healthy throughout the season. Francona turned to righty Ramon Ramirez for more than one inning on nine occasions before the All-Star break last season, and after an excellent first half, the 28-year-old was predictably fatigued down the stretch. Similar situations are avoidable when a true long man is available in the bullpen.
Moreover, Wakefield himself wouldn't need to endure the strain of six-plus innings every fifth day. Although his pitching schedule would be unpredictable, riding on the whims of the injury bug and the performance of his teammates, Wakefield would almost certainly pitch fewer frames, even if he's forced into starting duty because one of his teammates goes on the disabled list. Less work inherently means a lower risk of getting hurt, and staying healthy should be the top priority for Wakefield at this point in his career.
Wakefield has shown impressive longevity and durability throughout his 16 years in the majors, but he's not getting any younger. That may be a tough pill for Wake to swallow, but he has downed far more bitter ones in recent Octobers. He must again understand that the Red Sox are making decisions in the best interest of the team.
That team includes Wakefield, by the way. Epstein ensured as much when he agreed with Wakefield on a two-year, $5 million contract to replace the team's perpetual option. No matter his role, Wakefield will remain a valuable member of the Red Sox for as long as he dons their uniform. But in order to be useful and productive, he must stay healthy.
Becoming a swingman might help Wakefield do just that.
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