Red Sox Should Sign Low-Risk, High-Reward Starter to Create Competition for Fifth Starter’s Spot

Since the Red Sox acquired Daisuke Matsuzaka before the 2007 season, they have struggled to tap into the right-hander’s full potential.  

Armed with four solid pitches, an athletic body and a history of success in Japan, Matsuzaka has the requisite tools to be an above-average major league pitcher, and should at least be capable of residing in the middle of the Red Sox’ talented rotation.

 But Dice-K has been inconsistent at best throughout his first four seasons as a Red Sox, and has struggled through injuries and ineffectiveness for the majority of his MLB career.

 Matsuzaka has posted an outstanding 46-27 record during his stint in Boston, but has an ERA of 4.18, has walked 4.3 batter per every nine innings he’s pitched and has started over 30 games in a season just once. His 2008 season was considered great by some, but advanced statistics suggest that his 2.90 ERA that season should have been above 4.00, and his 80.9 percent left on-base percentage was out of the ordinary that year as well.

In short, Matsuzaka has been a largely average pitcher during his time in the majors. The Red Sox have tried babying him at some points, taking a hard stance with him at others and have attempted just about every method in between, but have still been unable to get Matsuzaka’s talent to translate into success.

There is one strategy, however, that the Red Sox have yet to take with Matsuzaka — threaten his job security.

It’s widely assumed that Matsuzaka will be the Red Sox’ fifth starter when 2011 begins. Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett and John Lackey appear set to occupy Boston’s first four rotation spots, and veteran Tim Wakefield is poised to become the team’s spot-starter and primary long reliever out of the bullpen.

But with a bevy of intriguing pitching options on the free agent market, the Red Sox don’t need to have Dice-K be their only option headed into next year.

Brandon Webb – a former Cy Young award winner — is without a team, and is likely looking for a short-term deal to rebuild his value. Webb is a sinkerballer who could have success in the AL East by keeping the ball in the yard, and comes with a ton of upside.

Erik Bedard has had a ton of trouble staying healthy over the past several seasons, but has pitched in the AL East before, and brings added value as a left-hander. If the Red sox were to add him on an incentive-laden deal, he could provide huge dividends for a team short on southpaws.

Rich Harden is one of the riskiest free-agent options this year, but also comes with the biggest upside. Harden has had trouble lasting deep into games and throwing strikes, but has some of the best stuff in baseball, and is capable of being a top-of-the-rotation starter if he improves his control.

Jeremy Bonderman, Justin Duchscherer and Jeff Francis are some other intriguing names, and while none had particularly inspiring 2010 campaigns, all are still young enough to turn their careers around as well.

Challenging Dice-K by signing a veteran starter could certainly backfire in any number of ways, but it’s possible the added competition may finally spurn him to improve his performance. By all accounts Matsuzaka is a competitive guy who hates losing, and jeopardizing his status as a starting pitcher is sure to get his attention.

It’s far from guaranteed that such a strategy would work, but in a division where every start is key, the more options the Sox have next season, the better.

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