Pitching depth puts Sox in great spot

Pitching depth puts Sox in great spot

Whoever came up with the phrase "strength in numbers" might have had a glimpse into what the Red Sox's pitching staff would look like heading into the 2009 season.

Already deep with starters and rich with power arms in the back end of its bullpen, Boston was able to scrounge the free-agent market to acquire some proven veteran hurlers at a relatively cheap price.

Red Sox assistant general manager Jed Hoyer said that after winning the World Series in 2007 and reaching Game 7 of the American League Championship Series in '08, his team learned it would eventually need the extra arms -- even if it might seem like an abundance going into Spring Training.

"I don't think we have had this much depth in the past," said Hoyer, who has been with the Red Sox since 2002. "But I think it's something we've learned a little bit through trial and error. We've had some seasons where we got a little bit thinner, and at certain times it hurt us. Certainly, a priority of ours going into the offseason was to make sure we had enough depth to get through a whole season. And one thing we did factor in this offseason was that we played very deep into October the last two years, and inevitably that will take a little bit of a toll on some of the pitchers."

This month, Boston was able to ink quality starters in John Smoltz and Brad Penny to one-year deals because both were coming off tough injury-plagued 2008 seasons.

In Smoltz's case, the 41-year-old right-hander -- signed to a base salary of $5.5 million -- knows he can be ready for Opening Day if he hurries with his rehabilitation process from right shoulder surgery. But with the amount of options the Red Sox have in the starting rotation, he can take it slow, make a full recovery, be ready by May or June and hopefully be at full strength when games matter most -- in September and October.

"We're looking at the big picture here," general manager Theo Epstein said during Smoltz's introductory news conference. "The reason we're acquiring John Smoltz is to put him in a position to get back to 100 percent and dominate at the most important times of the year. For us, that works backwards from October and the stretch run and the second half of the season."

Not to worry, the 30-year-old Penny -- signed to a base salary of $5 million -- has already started throwing, and there's no reason to believe his shoulder will keep him off schedule in Spring Training.

With that, Boston can go into this season with a starting rotation of Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jon Lester, Penny and Tim Wakefield. Emergency starting options could include youngsters Clay Buchholz, Michael Bowden and Justin Masterson -- though he's mostly used as a reliever.

Then, when Smoltz rejoins the team, the Red Sox will have a decision to make that could put the 16-year veteran knuckleballer Wakefield in the bullpen.

Hot Stove

But too many options is never a bad problem to have.

"There's not a team in baseball that at some point during the season isn't out there looking to add more pitching," Epstein said recently. "We think by being aggressive this winter, and by taking educated gambles on some pitchers, we have a chance to build that depth now at the right price rather than during the season, when it's very difficult to do and you have to give up prospects."

For the bullpen, the Red Sox were able to get another bargain when they signed Takashi Saito to a one-year deal with a club option for 2010. Saito, who has compiled 81 career saves with a 1.95 ERA in 180 games, gives Boston another quality setup man alongside Hideki Okajima, Masterson, Manny Delcarmen, Ramon Ramirez and Javier Lopez.

All of them could be leaving the door open for Jonathan Papelbon -- signed to a one-year, $6.25 million contract on Tuesday -- to close it.

"We have some pretty significant depth in the bullpen, and I think you need that depth," Epstein said.

"We already have Papelbon at the end of our bullpen, so we think we have a chance, provided the health is where we need it to be, to roll a number of guys out there who have a chance to dominate. With the hitters that we'll face in the American League East, I think that's important."

Alden Gonzalez is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.