Daisuke Matsuzaka finished fourth in the American League Cy Young Award voting in 2008. While some saw his 18-3 campaign as a bit of a mirage, there was no denying from a Red Sox perspective that the acquisition of the Japanese legend was paying off.
Since then it?s been a series of injuries, false starts and disagreements which have caused some to wonder if the marriage will last. Matsuzaka has had two straight injury-plagued seasons riddled with inconsistency and has reached the age of 30 with few answers for the millions who asked upon his arrival, "Who is this guy?"
So, before we embark on the right-hander?s fifth season in a Red Sox uniform we have to ask, is Daisuke Matsuzaka ready to give the Red Sox a solid season once again?
Team executives seem to suggest he is. General manager Theo Epstein said just after the 2010 season ended that Matsuzaka?s arsenal began to round into form by the end of the year, even if it wasn?t immediately evident in the results; Dice-K finished a nine-win campaign by going 1-3 with a 5.94 ERA in his final nine starts.
Roughly eight months earlier, however, Epstein was telling reporters in Fort Myers that Matsuzaka had "something to prove" in 2010. It?s safe to say the team didn?t get what it was looking for. The righty began the year on the disabled list, revisited it less than two months later, missed another start in the midst of the club?s playoff push in August and failed to last longer than six innings in 60 percent of his starts.
It gave us an extremely average fifth starter and one who has offered no indication he will be any better next year, with the exception of what Epstein said was improved stuff late in the season.
Then again, Matsuzaka has offered no indication of anything in his Red Sox career, remaining as unpredictable as any player on the roster. His fluctuations from start to start, even inning to inning, are practically the stuff of legend, if legends were borne out of inconsistency.
Therefore, in analyzing whether or not Matsuzaka is primed for a return to his 2008 form, the best launching point is his health. The team and the player were famously at odds in 2009 when Matsuzaka came to camp out of shape, in the eyes of the Red Sox, and managed to make just 12 starts. He then told a Japanese Web site that his physical issues stemmed from the organization?s conditioning plans, which did not jive with what Dice-K had done back in Japan.
Eventually, it was brushed under the rug and Matsuzaka came to camp last spring looking better. However, he couldn?t even make it to mid-March before a neck strain set him back. The slow rehab from the issue delayed Matsuzaka?s season debut until May. Perhaps from overcompensation for one ailment, he had two others as the season progressed, one in his forearm and another in his back, although some felt the latter was just a ruse to remove the shaky right-hander from a must-win meeting with Tampa Bay.
That?s two straight seasons marred by early missteps from which Matsuzaka was unable to recover.
If Matsuzaka can hit the ground running once pitchers and catchers report as he did in 2007 and 2008, and sustain that pace without injury into the regular season, he has a chance to rebound. Matsuzaka did throw his fastball with more confidence in 2010, something observers have said is key to his effectiveness. He also saw increased velocity and success with his emerging cutter, and showcased an improved changeup. This was some of what Epstein alluded to when discussing the righty?s improvements.
Unfortunately, the improvements were too little, too late. In an effort to prove his worth once again, Matsuzaka will have to be ready to go bright and early.
Each day of November, NESN.com will explore a different issue facing the Red Sox this offseason.
Nov. 18: Can David Ortiz deliver back-to-back 30-home run, 100-RBI seasons?
Saturday, Nov. 20: Which minor league talents will make the biggest splash if and when called up to the majors?