- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona and pitching coach John Farrell devised a creative way to use five starters despite the scheduling oddity of three off days in the season's first 10 days, a plan that paid great heed to rest management, maximizing effectiveness and, just as important, rewarding all five pitchers.
But what happens when Daisuke Matsuzaka, who is pitched Monday afternoon in a minor league game, joins the starting mix?
The club has not ruled out using a six-man rotation, Farrell said Sunday, but stressed that any discussion is purely hypothetical until Matsuzaka is ready. And that is still weeks away, as Matsuzaka tries to make up for time lost to what the team called an upper back injury.
"The progression Daisuke is on must continue," Farrell said. "He's got to answer that basic question, is he now ready to step in at the major league level and contribute at the level he has shown us, and what we've been accustomed to seeing?
"Where we go from that point, who goes to the bullpen, does it bring back in the thought of a six-man rotation? I know for the fan or a baseball person who looks at the situation, it's why don't you just do that? On paper, [a six-man rotation] seems to be the elixir that will answer everything."
No team has used a six-man rotation over the course of a full season. Many teams have trouble finding three or four quality starters, never mind six. A six-man rotation would have a ripple effect on a team's bullpen, Farrell notes.
"It goes back to how much more stress can you put on a bullpen when you take the seventh guy out of there," said Farrell, alluding to the fact that on a 12-man pitching staff, six starters would leave you with an equal number of relievers. "If we have six starters going six or seven innings every time, well, that might alleviate some of that stress off the bullpen."
There are other factors.
"Then you're back into the fact that pitchers are always conditioned on the five-man rotation," Farrell said. "And what happens to one of the other five starters between now and the date Daisuke is ready to go? Is that cause to make a change and insert Daisuke at that time?
"These are all possibilities. At this point in time it's speculation. But we hope that we get to the point where we have to sit down and confront this. That means everyone's pitching well, and Daisuke's healthy and ready to go."
In the end, Farrell is asked, does it become a math problem? He laughed.
"There's a lot [of people] who would like to take baseball into a math problem," he said, "but there's also a human element and a very in-depth dynamic that we have to consider and we have to address and factor in. It's not a black-and-white game. And yet in some ways, when you have to make a final decision, yes, it is a black-and-white decision.
"But leading up to that, there's a lot of gray to contend with, and until the facts are more clear, that's how we're going to approach this."
Fact is, six days away from the start of the regular season, Matsuzaka is still in the equivalent stages of early spring training.
"Right now, he'd be at about March 1," Farrell said. "Basically, his two-inning outing the other day was like every starter who has gone two his first time out. Now, it's back to a one-inning progression, or additional inning, each time he goes out, which will pick up again tomorrow afternoon.
"He threw with a little bit more power his first game out [in minor league] camp, but it's not uncommon the second time for there to be a little pullback. That's very common. But there have been no restrictions. His bullpens have been very consistent. The intensity to them has been very consistent. In fact, the side days have become a little more intense. That's a sign that physically he's bounced back well from the upper back issue that was there at the beginning of camp."
Only in the last week have the other five starters been stretched out to the point that they are ready to begin the season, which means Matsuzaka is nearly a month behind.
"Once he gets to 90 to 95 pitches," Farrell said, "then we've got to see where we are and what decisions are made going forward."
Matsuzaka came into camp this spring intent on removing the sour taste left by a disastrous 2009 season, one in which he made just a dozen starts, won only four games, and raised questions about his conditioning, the health of his shoulder, and the status of his relationship with Red Sox management. That was strained when Matsuzaka publicly complained about training methods, then belatedly revealed he had not informed Boston of a groin injury he sustained while preparing for the World Baseball Classic.
The Japanese right-hander pleased Red Sox brass when he spent six weeks in Arizona training this winter and reported in superb shape. But just a couple of days before the official start of camp, Matsuzaka cut short a throwing session with what has been described as an upper back injury, which in baseball parlance can be a euphemism for back of the shoulder.
Initially, it was described as a minor issue, but it was more than three weeks before Matsuzaka resumed throwing, and he sustained another setback when a throwing session was curtailed by what was called a stiff neck.
Physical issues aside, it appears an effort has been made on both sides to re-establish a good working rapport. Asked if he sensed any reticence from Matsuzaka in his dealings with him, Farrell shook his head.
"None whatsoever,"' he said, citing the work Matsuzaka did in the offseason and the frequent communication that took place between the team and pitcher during his Arizona training. "We all, whether it's Daisuke, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Jon Lester, there are always going be situations you work through. With him, we'll continue to work through differences of culture, differences of training, differences of where we all come from, but that's out of respect to him."
And while the Red Sox would have preferred that Matsuzaka had come forth sooner about his groin injury, Farrell saw a flip side as well.
"You have to like the fact that when discomfort presented itself," he said, "he wanted the ball. He wanted to compete. So from that standpoint, you have to admire the fact he's not always looking at something as a way out. He felt a commitment, a way to stand up for his team, wanting to be a part.
"It was frustrating for him, that was clear, but I don't think you can say enough about what he's done this offseason. And the amount of conversation we had, and his input into how we constructed his program this spring, has been brought into the mix, so there's no reason to think that won't be the case going forward," Farrell said, referring to the improved communication.
Still to be determined, however, is whether Matsuzaka can bounce back to resemble the pitcher who won 18 games in 2008, or whether what the Red Sox termed a mild shoulder strain that essentially washed out last season will be an ongoing problem.
Farrell takes the optimistic stance.
"One, because of his talent," he said, "and two, as a pitcher and a person, this is a very intelligent guy. He's made a number of adjustments since coming over to the U.S. and pitching in the big leagues.
"We think back to '07, and all the things he had to contend with, whether it was the difference in the ball, the difference in the mound, the difference in daily life, the difference in the strike zone, the strength of the hitters from top to bottom in a lineup. He adapted his pitch repertoire to that fact as best he could, and won 33 games his first two years.
"Injury has sidetracked that last year, but provided there are no setbacks along the way from a health standpoint, there's no reason to think that he can't get back to that level. From the later action or the power to his fastball, those getting back to a normal range for him, there's no reason to think he won't be one of the better pitchers in the American League."
A healthy Matsuzaka could put a six-man rotation on the agenda. The Red Sox hope that he forces that conversation.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.