No six-pack, but Smoltz Returns

By Ted Cahill

The six-man rotation was over before it even started in Boston, but the Red Sox are still rolling the dice without Daisuke Matsuzaka in the rotation.

Matsuzaka’s injury saved Terry Francona from having to manage six starters, two of whom were supposed to stay on their regular schedules. How that was going to happen with off days was never really explained, but it’s now a non issue. Now all that anyone needs to worry about is how well John Smoltz’s shoulder will hold up.

In some leagues Smoltz has been picked up in the past few weeks, anticipating his return from shoulder surgery. But he’s still available in plenty of others (76 percent of ESPN leagues, 47 of Yahoo!). He will make his first start of the year Thursday at Washington, though some might see that as just another rehab start.

The right-hander made six starts in the minors, concluding with 61 pitches in Pawtucket last week. Smoltz posted a 2.63 ERA during his rehab and won’t have pitched in a week when he faces the Nationals.

So far Boston has had plenty of success with the risky free agents they signed over the winter. Brad Penny is pitching so well, the Red Sox are reluctant to trade the starter at the deadline. Rocco Baldelli and Takashi Saito have performed their roles effectively, verifying Theo Epstein’s decision to sign them.

Now it is Smoltz’s turn to show he was worth the $5.5 million the Red Sox offered him.

He topped out at 92 mph in his final start in the minors, but said that he didn’t control his split finger well. He’ll surely get that problem solved and be ready to go for Boston.

The greater concern for the Red Sox and fantasy owners is the 42-year old’s health. But if you’re a Matsuzaka owner or just in the market for another starter Smoltz is an arm that has to be considered.

Struggling Santanas: Much has been made of Johan’s midseason swoon this year and on the West Coast, where it’s a little less noticeable, Ervin is having difficulty coming back from an injury that kept him out for the first month of the season. There really isn’t too much cause for concern with either pitcher, they’re both very good and obviously Johan is one of the best in the game. But watch for how they handle themselves this week.

Johan will make a start in expansive Citi Field against the Cardinals, who haven’t been hitting the ball too well lately. As long as he avoids getting in trouble with Albert Pujols everything should be worked out for Johan.

Ervin, on the other hand, is more a question mark. He was skipped last time in the rotation because of a forearm strain, suffered during an ineffective outing against Tampa Bay. The right-hander threw a bullpen session Sunday and said he feels pain free. He’ll start at home against Colorado on Tuesday. He’s been up and down since coming off the DL, but we must remember that this is still a bit like Spring Training for him. He should start to turn things around.

Caught in the Webb: Arizona ace Brandon Webb suffered another setback in his rehab last week and his bullpen session was canceled. Webb hasn’t pitched since Opening Day and will have an MRI Monday. There has been some talk about pushing back the Cy Young winner’s return from around the All-Star break to possibly next season.

It’s difficult to determine whether this affects the last-place Diamondbacks more than fantasy owners who expected Webb to be a top of the line starter again. Without Webb the Diamondbacks are finished this year, but they’re already 16 games behind in the NL West and 8.5 back in the Wild Card race.

Fantasy owners can look elsewhere for starters, but the prospect of an entire season without Webb is very bleak. Arizona may decide not to bring him back even if he’s ready in August or September if they don’t make up some ground soon. Depending on the results of the MRI and the inevitable second opinion, it may be time to cut him loose and free up the DL spot on your team.

Pitcher pickup of the week: Brad Penny, Red Sox

Penny is making two starts this week, against Washington and Atlanta. The right-hander is 4-1 with a 3.61 ERA and a 1.42 WHIP in his last eight starts. This year his home-road splits haven’t been that favorable, but in his last two road starts he’s 1-0 with 12 strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings. Also the benefits of pitching in Washington shouldn’t be overlooked. This might be a pickup that actually sticks past this week because Penny seems to be regaining the form that made him one of the premier pitchers just a few years ago.