Wakefield’s Return — and Absence — Will Help Red Sox Down the Stretch


Aug 2, 2009

Wakefield's Return -- and Absence -- Will Help Red Sox Down the Stretch With all the buzz surrounding the big-name arms changing hands at baseball's trading deadline, everyone is forgetting one thing: The Red Sox didn't need a trade to add an All-Star starting pitcher this August.

No, the Sox can add one simply by activating one off the 15-day disabled list. Tim Wakefield, out since the All-Star break with a strained lower back, is nearing a return from the DL and the Sox will be thrilled to bring him back. Wake was officially deactivated on July 18, meaning the earliest he's eligible to come back is 15 days later, or Aug. 2. That would be Sunday.

Wakefield told the Globe earlier this week that his rehab was progressing well and that he planned to join the team in Baltimore this weekend to begin throwing bullpen sessions. Then, Sunday, the team revealed that he's shooting for a side throwing session on Tuesday in Tampa Bay.

In any event, he's close.

The Red Sox will get Wakefield back before long — no minor league assignment necessary. If they can get 10 more starts out of him between now and the end of the regular season, they should consider his rehab effort a success.

But at the same time, the Sox should be careful not to rush him back too aggressively. Wakefield turned 43 on Sunday, and it's never a good idea to be reckless with a 43-year-old body. If the Sox want to keep the old man around for a couple of more years (and they should), it would behoove them not to put him back on the mound until they're absolutely certain he's ready.

The Sox could certainly use Wake right now. Slotting an 11-game winner and All-Star into their rotation would be a big help. But there's no need to be hasty.

In Wake's absence, they've given John Smoltz a chance to work his way out of his current funk and adjust to the American League. It's never easy to make the move over from the NL to the heavier-hitting Junior Circuit, and that transition is even tougher when you're 42. But perhaps all Smoltz needs is time to figure things out — against these aggressive AL hitters, you can't learn overnight how and when to attack the strike zone.

Without Wake, the Red Sox have gotten a closer look at Brad Penny. Penny went through an incredibly consistent stretch of decent starts in June and July, looking at the time like he'd have a shot at making the Red Sox' playoff rotation. He's since gone into a little bit of a slump, including a seven-run outing on Wednesday night against Oakland. He'll need some time to work his way out of this mess.

Without Wake, the Sox have been allowed more time to work on developing Clay Buchholz. At 24, Buchholz has the stuff of a future ace, but he needs to gain more experience against big league hitters. After Sunday's performance in which he allowed seven earned runs in just four-plus innings, Buch's ERA is up to 6.05 with the big club this season. His high walk totals are discouraging as well. The Sox will need to work with Buchholz more to get him ready for the pressure of September and October.

With Wakefield on the disabled list the past two weeks, there has been no starting rotation controversy in Boston. All three fringe guys — Smoltz, Penny and Buchholz — have had regular turns in the rotation, and all three have the chance to improve down the stretch.

Wakefield is a solid pitcher, and his return will certainly help the team. But in the meantime, the Sox should keep a close eye on the rest of their rotation. There's a lot to be figured out between now and October.

Happy birthday, Wake. Here's hoping you get the best present of all: a safe, healthy return.

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