With Josh Beckett and Jon Lester carved in stone in the Red Sox rotation for next season and Daisuke Matsuzaka and Clay Buchholz penciled in a bit more tenuously, there are several pitching directions general manager Theo Epstein might choose to follow to fill the role of a fifth (or spot) starter.
One is to hope that a veteran like Tim Wakefield or Paul Byrd is able to stay healthy and pitch consistently enough to warrant a start every five days.
Another is to look to a younger pitcher in the Red Sox' farm system — a la Junichi Tazawa or Michael Bowden — and hope he's ready to step up and be a reliable major league hurler.
A third possibility, as Sean McAdam of the Boston Herald wrote Thursday, is to go after an inexpensive veteran pitcher with some serious upside who just so happens to be rebounding or recovering from some variety of injury.
Smoltz and Penny fit the bill last offseason for Theo and Co. And after both struggled mightily during limited time on the mound for the Red Sox in 2009, they were both jettisoned within three weeks of each other in August.
Still, despite those low-risk, potentially high-reward failures, could another set of recovering former No. 1's be on the way this winter?
Don't rule it out.
"There's a tendency on the heels of some of those buy-low, one-year deals not working out to go in the other direction, and say we're not going to do that, we're going to avoid anyone who's coming off a bad season or anyone who's got health concerns,” Epstein told the Herald earlier this week.
"I have a natural instinct to say ‘Let's shy away from that a little bit,'” he continued. "But the reality is, looking at our club, we want sort of a complement to [Wakefield] in the fifth starter's role. We're probably not going to end up with a front-line free agent starting pitcher with the way we look at the market and the nature of the market these days. Could we end up with another buy-low, high-upside, low-risk starting pitcher somewhere on the roster? Sure. And if it doesn't work out, we'll move on.”
So who, then, might qualify as Theo's likely pursuits?
Thirty-year-old Brandon Webb of the Diamondbacks, a Cy Young Award winner in 2006, made just one start this season after struggling with a sore shoulder and finally deciding to undergo surgery. He would certainly be an intriguing addition for the Red Sox, but Arizona has stated publicly that they're likely to pick up his option for next season. A probable no-go.
Free agent righty Rich Harden of the Cubs is another option, one in whom "a number of executives and scouts in the game” say the Red Sox would be interested. Harden, 27, has missed considerable time over the course of his career, averaging just 18.1 starts per season over his seven years in the majors. But when Harden is healthy, he's great, with "a mid-to-high 90s fastball and a devastating changeup that he can throw at various speeds and angles,” McAdam writes. If he's willing to accept a modest base salary with an incentive-laden contract, Harden sounds like a viable fit for Boston.
Ben Sheets, 31, the former Brewers right-hander, didn't pitch at all in 2009 after undergoing elbow surgery last February. He likely wouldn't be ready for competitive, major league pitching until July or August of 2010, but he could serve as a short-term, late-season replacement for a Wakefield or Byrd.
Former Cardinals lefty Mark Mulder, 32, didn't pitch this past season, either. In fact, he's missed most of the last three seasons with major shoulder issues. He's expected to be ready sooner than Sheets, however, and could start working out for teams before long.
If healthy and properly motivated — and pitching for a probable playoff contender like the Red Sox would seem a solid motivator for any of these veterans — there's plenty of potential upside among these four to interest a bargain-hunting GM like Theo.
But weren't we saying the same thing a year ago about Smoltz and Penny? How'd that work out?
Not well, as we know. That in itself should make Epstein and the Red Sox plenty skeptical.
But there's something intriguing, hopeful almost, about Smoltz's success after returning to the National League and joining the Cardinals later in the season. The same can be said for Penny's 4-1 record and 2.59 ERA in six late-season starts for the Giants.
In many cases, the talent is still there with these types of pitchers. It's all about getting into the right situation in the right city with the right team. And if that fit is found, there's often plenty of skill left to be rediscovered and brought back to the fore.
All it takes is one successful gamble, and who knows, Theo and the Red Sox might just hit the jackpot in 2010.