Expect Tim Wakefield’s Knuckleball to Flutter at Fenway in 2010

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As the Red Sox front office sets out to scour both the free-agent market and the trading block for additional pitching talent this offseason, the future of the longest-tenured member of the Boston Red Sox hangs in the balance.

Tim Wakefield is 43-years-old but after 175 wins in a Red Sox uniform, he wants plenty more.

However, if Wake does find himself back in the Red Sox' rotation next season, it will be as the team's No. 5 starter, if that. Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka appear firmly entrenched in the top four spots and Wake is the odd man out if a new arm were to land in Boston.

There are certainly possibilities out there. On the trading block, there's the possibility of rising superstar Felix Hernandez. On the open market, there are possibilities of Rich Harden or John Lackey. There's even an outside chance of a deal with Brandon Webb.

The Sox will be eager to throw some money around this offseason — after a disappointing three-game exit from the ALDS, it's impossible to get complacent. This is a team that will be looking for improvement.

For sentimental reasons, it's hard to admit that Wake is the weak link. But the Sox probably won't hesitate to make a serious upgrade at the back of their rotation.

Wake still wants to pitch and has made that clear. And while he told the Boston Globe on Friday that "I’m not planning on getting to that point and retiring," it remains unclear what role he will assume when he returns to the Red Sox in 2010.

The bullpen is probably the best bet.

Wakefield has been an integral part of this team for the past decade and a half but his days as a starter appear to be numbered. Last year, a back injury plagued the second half of one of his best career starts to a season. He put up a 1.86 ERA through the first month and picked up 11 wins before reaching his first career Midsummer Classic. But after that, it all came crashing down as he went 0-2 with an ERA of 6.00 after the break due to ongoing back and calf problems.

When the Red Sox re-tool their roster this offseason, they'll look for a more consistent presence in their starting rotation. As for Wakefield, the likelihood of him prolonging his career will come in the form of a long reliever and spot-starter when the time is right.

The knuckleball can be a valuable weapon for the Red Sox out of the bullpen. Imagine having to face Lester's blinding heater for six innings, a knuckler in the seventh and Daniel Bard followed by Jonathan Papelbon from there on out. It's a scary thought for the rest of the American League.

Wakefield has been a top-notch reliever in the American League before. For parts of four seasons, from 1999 to 2002, Wake came out of the bullpen as a part-time setup man and a part-time closer. With Boston's rotation stacked and likely to only get better this offseason, he has a chance to return to that role now.

After 175 wins in 15 seasons wearing a Red Sox uniform, Wakefield has earned the Red Sox' respect. He may be getting on in years, but he's guaranteed to age well — years of lobbing knuckleballs in there at 65 miles an hour have done little to wear away at the Sox' veteran.

He still has plenty left and one way or another, he'll get his shot.

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