I’m a Tim Wakefield fan as much as the next guy, if not more. I love his story, his stoicism, the fact that he gave up a historic home run to Aaron Boone and became even more beloved among Red Sox fans.
Still, I wonder: How long must the Sox keep Wakefield around?
For those who may have forgotten, the Sox were full of conflicting agendas at the start of last season — agendas driven by a small group of cranky and/or underperforming veterans, of whom Wakefield was one.
There was David Ortiz, grousing while batting .143 in April. There was Mike Lowell, stewing over his diminished role. And there was Wakefield, seething when he lost his rotation spot to Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Lowell is now retired, but I wonder if the Sox are heading for similar discord this April, even amid the excitement over their additions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez.
Ortiz again is struggling against left-handers this spring, but he is not an immediate issue, not after his spectacular turnaround in the final five months of last season.
Wakefield, on the other hand, is a question. Not as big a question perhaps as closer Jonathan Papelbon, who is getting poor results this spring, but a question nonetheless.
I want to tread lightly here: Wakefield, 45, is the oldest active player in the majors, and his accomplishments demand respect. He is seven wins shy of 200 and 13 shy of tying Cy Young and Roger Clemens for the most wins in a Red Sox uniform, 192.
No doubt, Wakefield would love to achieve those personal milestones, but what are the odds?
Wakefield, a knuckleballer, won only four of 19 starts last season. He will open this season as a long reliever if he makes the team, as expected. Frankly, he is problematic in either role; he suffers from frequent back trouble, struggles to cover first base. If I were playing against him, I would bunt my brains out.
And remember, his team is trying to win the World Series.
I’m not suggesting that the Sox dump Wake immediately to avoid demoting a reliever such as right-hander Scott Atchison, who has one minor-league option remaining. Wakefield, at least in theory, offers protection if one of the starters gets injured, and his salary is a relatively paltry $2 million.
For now, the Red Sox might as well keep their pitching depth intact. Matt Albers, another right-handed reliever, is out of options, which means the Sox can lose him on waivers if they bump him off the 25-man roster. For that reason, Albers probably will make the team over Atchison, too.
No big deal — the Red Sox surely will summon Atchison before the season is over, probably sooner than later. Wakefield, though, is clogging the staff. At some point the Red Sox almost certainly will need to make better use of his roster spot.
The idea that Wakefield represents some kind of salvation as the team’s No. 6 starter is folly; Wake had a 5.71 ERA in 19 starts last season. Without him, the Sox still would have right-hander Alfredo Aceves, left-hander Felix Doubront and maybe even lefty Andrew Miller as rotation candidates.
Aceves also is oft-injured, while Doubront, bothered by a sore elbow, has yet to pitch in a major-league game this spring. The Sox need to add rotation depth with or without Wakefield — and I trust they could figure something out without him.
These things are never easy. Players of a certain stature rarely depart without a shove. Wakefield said last October he would retire at the end of this season, then went back on that statement in January, leaving open the possibility he could pitch in 2012 and beyond.
OK, but when does it end? Wakefield is not going to pitch until he is 60. There will come a moment when the Sox need to tell him goodbye — a moment that will be painful for all.
Ortiz, 35, is in a less precarious spot: He had a .942 OPS after May 4 last season, with 29 home runs in 451 at-bats. Still, the Sox merely exercised his $12.5 million club option, paying him above market for a DH, rather than signing him to a contract extension.
Heaven forbid Ortiz gets off to another slow start; all of the questions from last April will resurface, even if he merits the benefit of the doubt. In truth, Ortiz no longer should face left-handers — he had a .599 OPS against them last season, compared with a 1.057 OPS against righties. But rather than use lefty masher Mike Cameron in a platoon, the Sox will bow to Ortiz’s pride.
This is it, though. The Sox, like the Yankees, are itching to abandon a full-time DH and initiate a rotation at that position, the better to keep older veterans fresh. The shift for both teams could occur as soon as next season, if not before; the Yankees’ Jorge Posada, like Ortiz, is in the final year of his contract.
As I’ve written before, it is not a writer’s place to say that a player should retire — the decision is too personal, too emotional, too difficult for someone on the outside to understand.
The player’s team, though, should not be without a say; it’s the team’s money, the team’s responsibility to put the best club on the field.
Ask Pedro Martinez or Johnny Damon; the Sox can be rather unsentimental even with players who helped them win World Series titles.
I fear that with Wakefield, and eventually Ortiz, the team will need to show that side again.