The Returnees, Pt. I

We’ve heard a lot this winter about new faces, and rightly so; by my count, 11 of the 25 men who will likely break camp with the Sox in early April were not in the Sox system last season. We’ve heard plenty about Coco Crisp, Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Rudy Seanez, Julian Tavarez… we’ve read more articles that had previously ever been written about Alex Gonzalez. We’ve all essentially made up our minds about those guys, and what to expect in 2006. I’d like, then, to spend some time discussing familiar faces; those players who will return to the Sox in 2006. I’ll do this in two parts. Today I’ll focus on the pitching staff – rotation and bullpen. On Wednesday, I’ll look at the lineup itself. What can we expect from these guys? Decline, improvement, or stability? What are some of the factors that will go into each? Keep in mind I’m only going to be talking about veterans here; we’ve discussed Papelbon and Youk enough for now. I’ll also be leaving off David Wells, as the biggest factor for him is when he’ll be dealt, and what we’ll get in return.
Curt Schilling
It’s entirely possible that there’s no greater wild card for the 2006 Sox than Curt Schilling. In 2004, he was the anchor of a dangerous starting staff; he placed second in Cy voting, shouldered a heavy burden in terms of innings pitched, and provided generations worth of inspirational highlight reel footage in late October. As good as he was in 2004, he struggled mightily with both health and performance in 2005; he missed significant chunks of the season, had a rocky tenure as a reliever, and an inconsistent series of starts in August and September.
Obviously, the biggest factor for Schilling is th health of his surgically repaired right ankle. The surgery itself is now over a year old, and Schilling’s had a full offseason to rehab. He’s talked quite optimistically about his progress in recent months, but then he sounded similar during periods of last season. It’s been noted that he appears to have shed poundage, which may or may not prove to be a good thing but which will certainly relieve some of the pressure on his ankle. If he can come all the way back, it would turn this already interesting club into a force to be reckoned with. If the healing turns out to be smoke and mirrors, the club will once again struggle to keep a lid on opposing offenses.
My best guess is that he’s healthy, but lacks the ankle strength that contributed to his greatness. Schilling is essentially a two-pitch pitcher; he has other weapons, but 90% of his pithes are fastballs and splits. He relies on velocity and control with the fastball, and a weakened ankle could harm both. In addition, last year’s injury may have masked decline brought on by advancing age. The bottom line for me is this; I’ll be happy with 170 innings of 4.10 or 4.20 ball from Schilling. I can’t bring myself to hope for any more than that; even the above would be a marked improvement from 05.
Tim Wakefield
It’s really impossible to predict anything Wake does. He’s a year older, yes, but knuckleballers have a different shelf-life than the average pitcher. He’s been remarkably injury free over his career. He goes through occasional rough patches, but can still be counted on to shoulder tremendous IP loads at or slightly above league average production. I essentially expect the exact same from him in 2006 as we got in 2005, and I’ll be quite happy with it. There’s no particular reason to be either overly optimistic or pessimistic about him; he’s the Old Faithful of the Boston staff.
Matt Clement
Which one will we see? The first-half Clement, who looked like a steal at $8 per, or the second-half version, who looked confused, frightened, and uncertain? In the end, Clement’s Jekyll and Hyde routine averaged out to… well, average. Only a brief sidelining after a line drive struck his skull kept him below 200 IP, and his ERA+ ended within whispering distance of 100. I’ve been on record before saying I like Clement; sticking with that, I can envision him improving on 2005 this year. The real question is whether he’ll ever manage to have a stable season; only once in his career has he gone a full season without a single month where his ERA exceeded his final seasonal total by more than a full run.
If Clement can find a way to even out his performance and his focus, he could be a very solid innings eater for this club, as a #4 starter. I think having a full year in Boston under his belt will help him, as will the improved defensive infield behind him. I’m predicting Clement to end up with respectable, slightly above league average figures; not great, but still quite valuable.
Bronson Arroyo
Bronson’s an enigma to me. I feel as though his carriage started to turn back into a pumpkin midway through last season; lefties opened holes in his sequence, and he lost the placement of his fastball, necessary for him in order to set up his admittedly excellent breaking stuff. Still, his success against RHH offset his struggles vs. lefties – potentially more-so in the rotation than it would in the pen, where he’s currently projected to start.
My gut feeling on Bronson is that he’ll continue to slide, slowly. I think that by May or June, we’ll hear trade rumors; it’ll be about that time that Jon Lester should be ready to join the big club, and dealing Bronson could make room. But, assuming for the moment that he sticks it out for the season, I’d imagine we’ll see about 200 innings with a 4.4, maybe 4.5 ERA – still perfectly acceptable for a #5 guy, but indicative of his continued decline.
Keith Foulke
Foulke, like Schilling, is a total wild card. I am actually even more pessimistic toward him than I am toward Curt; to me, there was more wrong with Foulke than simple knee problems last year. There were mental issues, and there were mechanical issues, and I’m not sure either were solved with surgery; he certainly didn’t look improved in his brief return last season. Moreover, has his confidence been irrevocably damaged? In 2004, Foulke had an awful spring, but his track record overruled it. Will he be able to overcome a difficult March, should he have one?
Luckily, the Sox have a remarkably deep pen to cover should he falter. But I’m afraid that on Foulke, I have to be a pessimist; he won’t last long as closer, and a part of me doesn’t see him staying on this club that deep into the season.
Mike Timlin
Timlin was, again, a rock in the pen last year. He did everything we needed and asked, and he did it well. But the fact remains that he’s getting up there; at age 40, decline can come quick. He’s in exceptional shape, and if used carefully he should still be quite effective, but let’s not underestimate the fact that he threw more innings in 2005 than in all but three of his previous seasons. The effect of that can carry over.
I’m guessing he’ll be effective, but luckily he won’t need to be stellar. Somewhere between his 2005 and 2004 years would suit me fine; we have the kind of bullpen depth other teams dream about, and if he falters, the slack can be picked up.
Check back Wednesday for the hitters.

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