On a day the Red Sox are asking a rookie pitcher to make his big-league debut on three days rest, as they are with 28-year-old knuckleballer Charlie Zink on Tuesday, it’s obvious what motivated general manager Theo Epstein to make a deal with the Cleveland Indians for right-hander Paul Byrd.
The Red Sox are short on pitching at the back end of their rotation and were able to get Byrd on the cheap. The 37-year-old right-hander had cleared waivers, and the Red Sox are getting him either for an organizational player or a nominal cash payment, in the $10,000 range. Byrd was so lousy in the first half of the season (3-10, 5.47 ERA) that Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro couldn’t give him away before the trading deadline.
But he’s 4-0 with a 1.24 ERA since the All-Star break, quelling Red Sox concerns that he might be hurt. Byrd has said he was having mechanical issues that he has since corrected, and while his stuff has never blown anyone away, the soft-tossing right-hander has excellent command, will pitch to the big part of the ballpark, and could give the Sox the type of serviceable performance they’ve gotten in the past from the likes of John Burkett and Frank Castillo.
Byrd’s arrival coincides with the Red Sox placing Tim Wakefield on the disabled list with the same shoulder injury that shut him down during the postseason last October. That problem, which involves stiffness and inflammation in the back of his shoulder, surfaced at about the same time it did last season, and while the Red Sox kept it quiet at the time, Wakefield had an 8.76 ERA in five September starts while pitching hurt, and was left off the World Series roster.
This time, Boston is hopeful that Wakefield, who turned 42 on Aug. 2, can come back without missing too much time, but it’s not a lock.
Wakefield pitched much better than his 7-8 won-loss record suggests. He made 16 quality starts in 23 outings, and his workload (147 innings) exceeded expectations. Boston's plan going into the season was to get a combined 220 innings out of Wakefield and Curt Schilling in one rotation spot, but Schilling didn’t pitch at all before undergoing shoulder surgery.
Red Sox brass thought veteran Bartolo Colon might give them some depth, but he hasn’t pitched since June 16, and while he is on a rehab assignment now, his velocity is barely touching 90 mph and he’s only up to 45 to 50 pitches per outing. Maybe he makes it back in September, but with his history of elbow and shoulder problems, the Red Sox can’t take that chance.
The third – and unexpected – source of concern is rookie Clay Buchholz, who threw a no-hitter in his second big-league start in 2007 but has struggled mightily this season, especially of late (0-6, 8.61 ERA in his last eight starts). It’s a confidence issue for Buchholz, who turns 24 on Thursday, but even with three plus-plus pitches in his curveball, changeup and slider, he seems to have regressed slightly in his stuff, according to those watching him closely. While many teams undoubtedly will be asking for him this winter, the Red Sox are nowhere close to giving up on Buchholz – they expect he’ll eventually absorb the lessons pitching coach John Farrell and catcher Jason Varitek are imparting – but they can’t be certain he’ll turn it around this season. That’s another reason they went after Byrd.
Zink has put up good numbers (13-4, 2.89 ERA) for Triple-A Pawtucket and Boston will give him a look beginning tonight, but it’s a longshot that he’ll be the answer down the stretch. The Red Sox are high on 21-year-old Michael Bowden, who started the season in Double-A, but while he has allowed only two earned runs in 12 innings during his last two starts for Pawtucket, they aren’t convinced he’s ready.
In a perfect Boston world, Wakefield recovers quickly, Buchholz figures it out, Colon surfaces in September and Bowden duplicates Buchholz’s spectacular 2007 debut. In the meantime, Paul Byrd must do.
"It just seemed like the right time to have this kind of stabilizer,'' Epstein said. "You never want to get caught short on starting pitching in August and September because there's very little you can do about it. So this was an opportunity without dipping into our farm system to add a veteran that we feel we can trust.''