I know, I know. Matsuzaka has had as many downs as he's had ups throughout his career, and he's been shaky to say the least since winning 18 games in 2008. Inconsistency has plagued both his health and his performance, and it'd probably be more stunning if he thrives in his return than if he crashes and burns.
But that doesn't mean the potential isn't still there for Matsuzaka to have an impact.
With the Red Sox hitting "bottom" — as manager Bobby Valentine put it — in Saturday's crushing defeat at the hands of the Bronx Bombers, there's really only one direction to go, and that's up. While Matsuzaka's potential return hardly guarantees a one-way ticket to top of the standings, he could be a valuable arm without having to be lights out.
Most, if not all, of Boston's early-season struggles are related to the bullpen. The sputtering pen has surrendered 27 earned runs in 15 innings over the last four games. The 16.20 ERA in that span has raised the unit's season ERA to 8.44 heading into Monday's series opener against the Twins.
That kind of effort can hardly be described as "relief," and the Boston bullpen has looked even worse than the numbers indicate — if that's possible. The season is still very young, no doubt, but Valentine and the Sox might be forced to go down a road they weren't exactly looking to go down with Daniel Bard and move him back to the bullpen in the wake of this April fiasco.
Bard would plug a hole in the Boston pen should the Sox skipper elect to send the reliever-turned-starter back to late-inning duties, but the Red Sox ship would still take on water as a result of the void that would open up in the back end of the rotation. Aaron Cook, who's pitching well down at Triple-A Pawtucket, is one option, but the probability of him turning his career around in the AL East isn't much higher than Matsuzaka coming back and providing solid innings.
In other words, the Sox need arms in order to have options, meaning a healthy Matsuzaka is important, even if we truly don't know what to expect from him just 11 months removed from Tommy John surgery.
If all goes according to plan, Matsuzaka could be in line for a mid-May return, as he's set to begin his rehab assignment at Single-A Salem on Monday. That assignment should span 30 days, meaning Matsuzaka's return is line to be ahead of the 12-18 recovery period typically associated with Tommy John.
Matsuzaka may need to be eased back into things, but if he can be at least a portion of his 18-win, 2.90 ERA 2008 self upon returning, it could be enough to warrant moving Bard back to the bullpen and replacing him in the rotation with the Japanese product. Matsuzaka saw mixed results in his eight appearances in 2011, going 3-3 with a 5.30 ERA. He did, however, toss back-to-back one-hit, scoreless outings on April 18 and April 23 last year, so there could still be something in the tank. And all indications have been that he's looked impressive throughout his rehab.
Obivously, a lot still needs to happen over the next month before Matsuzaka can return to a big league mound, and his return wouldn't exactly have Red Sox Nation screaming from the roof tops. But given the state of the staff and the door it would open up for Bard's return to the bullpen, where the Sox so desperately need the tall righty, it shouldn't be overlooked.
For now, the Red Sox must stay afloat while the holes in the ship are repaired.