Red Sox bolster pitching staff

Updated: May 20, 2011, 7:09 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Reacting swiftly to their need for pitching depth, the Red Sox on Thursday announced they had made a trade with the Colorado Rockies for left-handed reliever Franklin Morales, signed veteran right-handed starter Kevin Millwood to a minor league deal, and designated left-handed reliever Hideki Okajima for assignment.

Kevin Millwood

Millwood

The Red Sox also activated reliever Dan Wheeler off the disabled list before Friday night's game with the Chicago Cubs. Michael Bowden, Daniel Nava and Jose Iglesias were optioned to the PawSox, while veteran utilityman Drew Sutton was added to the major league roster.

Morales, just 25, has had a wildly inconsistent tenure with the Rockies, his lack of control evidently leading the Rockies to give up on a pitcher who served as the team's closer for a short time in 2009, recording seven saves. Morales walked an average of 7.5 batters per nine innings in 2010, when he had an 0-4 record with a 6.28 ERA, and had walked 8 batters in his first 14 innings this season.

Last weekend, after Morales gave up a run-scoring double to the only batter he faced, Rockies manager Jim Tracy had counseled patience with the native of Venezuela.

"We're not going to pull the trigger here,'' Tracy told reporters afterward. "Patience is the operative word here.''

But according to Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, the Sox learned a few days ago that Morales might be available, and swung a deal for a player to be named later or cash.

"He's a very hard thrower, tough on left-handed hitters when he throws strikes,'' Epstein said after Thursday night's game. "This guy was one of the top prospects in all of baseball a few years ago. He's been a little bit erratic with his strike-throwing, but he still has plenty of upside there. It was a very reasonable acquisition cost, and if things are going right he has upside.''

Clearly, the Red Sox did not trade for Morales based on how he pitched against them. He was a 21-year-old rookie in 2007 when he faced them in relief in Game 1 of the World Series in Fenway Park and was charged with seven runs on six hits and a walk in just two-thirds of a inning. Last season in Denver, he faced them again and gave up a two-run home run to Adrian Beltre.

Morales' acquisition made Okajima expendable. The 35-year-old left-hander, who had been nontendered by the Sox last December but signed a minor league contract to return late in the winter, had appeared in just seven games this season for the Sox after starting the season in Pawtucket, pitching 8 1/3 innings. He had pitched just once since May 4, as Red Sox manager Terry Francona turned to Matt Albers for regular use and also began spotting Rich Hill since his call-up from Pawtucket.

Okajima Having re-signed with Boston during the offseason, it is disappointing that this is happening, but signing here was not a mistake. I am very grateful to the opportunity the Red Sox have given me over five years.

-- Red Sox reliever Hideki Okajima

"We weren't using Oki all that much the way that things evolved lately,'' Epstein said. "Morales is someone with significant upside. If we can get him to repeat his delivery and throw strikes, he can be tough to hit. He's going to take that second lefty spot and see if we can get some results.''

Hill's performance -- he has yet to allow a run in four appearances spanning 4 2/3 innings, has allowed just two hits and walked one while striking out six -- freed the Sox to make the move with Okajima.

"Rich has been throwing the ball well all year down in Pawtucket and got off to a nice start here,'' Epstein said. "He's certainly someone who matches up well against left-handed hitters. That second spot, not that we're experimenting with it, but it gives us a chance to capture some upside there that makes some sense for us.''

The Sox still have left-hander Felix Doubront, who performed in that role for a period of time last season, but he is currently on the disabled list with Triple-A Pawtucket because of a strained groin.

Epstein also confirmed the signing of the 36-year-old Millwood to a minor-league deal, contingent on his passing a physical.

"He'll start out in Fort Myers and throw a couple of sides before he goes to Pawtucket,'' Epstein said.

The Yankees signed Millwood late in spring training to a minor league deal, one that allowed him to opt out if they didn't add him to the big league roster by May 1. Millwood, who could have made as much as $1.5 million if the Yankees had summoned him, exercised that opt-out after making four minor league starts (4.50 ERA) and was sitting at home.

Millwood was counted upon by the Baltimore Orioles to anchor their rotation in 2010, the Orioles agreeing to pay $9 million of his $12 million salary in a trade with the Texas Rangers. Instead, he was a bust, going 4-16 with a 5.10 ERA. But he did make 31 starts last season, and in a pitching-poor environment could offer the Sox some insurance in the short term.

Millwood has a similar out clause with the Red Sox as he did with the Yankees, according to a baseball source.

The Sox have 10 days to either place Okajima on waivers, work out a trade for him or release him. If he clears waivers, he becomes a free agent and theoretically could accept an outright assignment back to Pawtucket.

Okajima, who played a valued role in the Sox bullpen in his first three seasons here, told Japanese reporters he had no regrets about re-signing with the Sox.

"I started the season down in the minor leagues, so I knew I had to regain the team's confidence in my pitching,'' Okajima told Japanese reporters. "It is my first time in this situation, so I'm not sure of what happens next.

"Having re-signed with Boston during the offseason, it is disappointing that this is happening, but signing here was not a mistake. I am very grateful for the opportunity the Red Sox have given me over five years."

Iglesias, widely regarded as the Red Sox shortstop of the future, appeared in six games for the Red Sox since his call-up May 8. In three of those games he appeared as a pinch runner, including Thursday night, when he was thrown out at the plate on a rare play, an apparent bases-loaded single to short left field on which Iglesias had to hold up to see whether it would be caught. The ball took a perfect hop to Tigers left-fielder Andy Dirks, who made a strong throw to nail Iglesias.

Iglesias also appeared in two games as a defensive replacement and made one start, on May 11 in Toronto, going hitless in three at-bats. He had struck out but reached on a wild pitch in his first big league at-bat the night before.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Information from ESPNBoston.com's Jack McCluskey was used in this report.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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