Baseball

August 20, 2006

For Starters

A strugglingrotation has the Red Sox teetering on the playoff edge, so perhaps it's timefor them to make a drastic move

The nadir of theRed Sox' maddening summer came last Thursday night in Kansas City, where a 5-4defeat ended a humiliating six-game road trip in which Boston dropped fivestraight to the Devil Rays and the Royals, the two punching bags of theAmerican League. Even perpetually sunny DH David Ortiz was glum after thelatest loss dropped his team three games behind the Yankees in the AL East."Things are not going good," he lamented.

The Bostonrotation has crumbled like the Big Dig-its 4.98 ERA in August ranked 10th inthe league at week's end. "They just don't have the horses in the rotationto stay with the Yankees, and the White Sox and Twins, top to bottom, have muchbetter pitching than the Red Sox," says an AL team executive. "Afternot making a [major] deal before the [nonwaiver trade deadline], they need todo something to shake up the team. Otherwise I think they may be done." Notso fast. After sweeping the Orioles last week the lineup was humming-the RedSox were second in the majors in runs scored and first in on-basepercentage-and the defense was on pace to commit the fewest errors in teamhistory.

But here's themove that could save Boston's season: Turn Jonathan Papelbon, the rookierighthander who was converted to a closer in April, into a starter now. Groomedto be part of the Red Sox rotation during his three-year rise through theminors, the 25-year-old flamethrower, unlike most closers, has a devastatingthree-pitch repertoire and has been used liberally by his manager. In his last24 appearances, Papelbon (4-2, 31 saves, 0.91 ERA) had been summoned by TerryFrancona to pitch multiple innings 11 times.

While Papelbondoubts there is enough time left in the season to build up the arm strengthneeded to become a starter-"Next year, maybe, but not this year," hesaid last Friday-and Red Sox pitching coach Dave Wallace has indicated that theclub is not mulling the possibility, Boston needs to roll the dice to reach thepostseason. "It's not unreasonable to consider it," says Cardinalsgeneral manager Walt Jocketty, who has toyed with the idea of slotting his24-year-old setup man, Adam Wainwright (2-1, 3.13 ERA), into St. Louis'sstruggling rotation. Wainwright and Papelbon had each pitched about 60 inningsthis season. "It would take two or three starts to build up the pitchcount. It can be done. The problem for us is that it would leave a huge hole inour bullpen."

Too often theteam's best pitcher is wasted in the closer's role. If the Red Sox were to takePapelbon out of the pen, they wouldn't be any worse off than they were a yearago, when righty Curt Schilling ended his one-month stint as the team's closerand returned to the rotation in late August. Boston first went to a closer bycommittee, then let Mike Timlin finish games down the stretch; this season hewas 5-1 with a 3.07 ERA.

As a starterPapelbon would replace Jason Johnson (0-7, 6.80 ERA since June 2) and boost astaff that ranked 10th in the AL with a 4.64 ERA; even the aces, Schilling(4.81 ERA since the All-Star break) and Josh Beckett (league-high 31 homersallowed), have been eminently hittable. The move would also make Boston moredangerous in October, if it can get that far; last year the rotationsurrendered 14 earned runs to the White Sox in Chicago's three-game DivisionSeries sweep.

Boston has leftopen the possibility that Papelbon will be slotted into the rotation in 2007,but it shouldn't close the door on the idea this year.

• Get the latestnews in Jon Heyman's Daily Scoop at SI.com/baseball.

ChangingPlaces

The expert onmoving from starter to closer to starter is John Smoltz (right), the Braves'39-year-old righthander. Asked what he thought about putting Red Sox closerJonathan Papelbon into the rotation, Smoltz said, "I'd say you would have achance if you did it at the All-Star break, but now? I'd say no way. I don'tsee how you can build up the arm strength in that short period. I could neverhave done it, but I would never say somebody else can't." Here are Smoltz'sstats broken down into the three segments of his career, excluding 2000, whichhe missed with an elbow injury, and '01, which he split between the bullpen andthe rotation (stats through Sunday).

rookies, but he's the real deal," says Nationals catcher BrianSchneider. "He stands tall on the mound so his fastball jumps on you, andhe's got a good slider."

THE CLOUD HANGING OVER ST. LOUIS

Just how mediocre is the National League? At week's endthe NL Central-leading Cardinals, widely regarded as the club with the bestchance of derailing the Mets' march to the World Series, were 20-29 since June20, and that subpar stretch had cost them 3 1/2 games in the standings. TheReds were only 1 1/2 back heading into a three-game series in St. Louisthis week. Aside from Albert Pujols (right, .329, 35 home runs, 93 RBIs), theCards' offense (seventh in the league in runs and eighth in slugging) isnowhere near the juggernaut it was in recent years, but the primary reason St.Louis won't scare anyone in October is that its starting pitchers don't getenough strikeouts. The rotation's strikeout rate, 5.33 per nine innings, ranks28th in the majors. "Other than Chris Carpenter, all their pitchers arecontact pitchers," says an NL executive. "That works against averagelineups, but any good lineup will feast on them."

RUNDOWN

•Catcher Joe Mauer is having an MVP season in Minnesota(SI, Aug. 7), but so is the club's overshadowed first baseman, Justin Morneau(left). Last week, en route to leading the team in slugging percentage (.593)and RBIs (103), he became the first Twins player in 19 years to hit 30 homeruns in a season. "Joe's having a great year," says Minnesotacenterfielder Torii Hunter, "but Morneau's by far our MVP."

•Why are the Braves, 54-62 and six games out in the NLwild-card race at week's end, still a threat to make the postseason? All butsix of their remaining games are against teams that currently have losingrecords.

TWO PHOTOSDAMIAN STROHMEYER SAVINGGRACE
Papelbon would have greater impact as a starter than as a closer.
PHOTOJOHN IACONO PHOTOMIKE ZARRILLI/WIREIMAGE.COM PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH PHOTOTOM DAHLIN

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)