On Wednesday, Roy Halladay did what seemed impossible. In one of the great hitter's environments in the majors, against one of the best lineups in the majors, he threw a no-hitter in Citizens Bank Park.
Of course, while the Phillies ace became the first, that was a title to which he had nearly been beaten to the punch. It was less than five months earlier than Daisuke Matsuzaka carried a no-no of his own into the eighth inning against the Phillies in their home park.
That was an outing of jaw-dropping dominance for Matsuzaka. It followed a contest in which he'd permitted nine hits and seven runs in fewer than five innings.
Such dramatic shifts of fortune in a five-day span suggested that 2010 was a challenging year to know what to make of Daisuke Matsuzaka. Again.
After a tumultuous 2009 season that saw him and the Red Sox clash over his training habits following the World Baseball Classic, Matsuzaka committed to a new fitness program starting in the offseason, working out at Athletes' Performance to rave reviews. And then, as soon as he showed up in spring training, he had back and neck issues that left the Sox concerned that he might be spiraling off to another season of ill health.
He missed all of April, then laid eggs in three of his first four starts, and had a 7.89 ERA through May 17. Then he nearly tossed a no-hitter against the Phillies and was off and running, going 5-2 with a 2.76 ERA, a span during which opponents hit just .204 against him. After that glimpse of excellence, the pendulum swung in the other direction, with Matsuzaka becoming the first Red Sox in nearly 70 years to allow four or more earned runs in seven straight starts. Over his last 11 starts, he was 2-3 with a 5.40 ERA.
He once again proved a confoundingly inconsistent pitcher -- not just to Red Sox fans, but to the Red Sox themselves. Red Sox GM Theo Epstein suggested that the season was a "mixed bag" for the 30-year-old.
And so, many wondered whether his last start of the 2010 season -- four runs (two earned), five walks, six strikeouts in five innings -- might be his last as a member of the Red Sox, and whether the Sox, after four years of ups and downs, might cut the cord and trade him with two years (each with $10 million salaries attached) to wipe the slate clean.
The idea is understandable. Matsuzaka's year-end numbers -- a 9-6 record and 4.69 ERA over 153 2/3 innings spanning 25 starts in 2010 -- are those of a pitcher who is a back-of-the-rotation option, and on a team with championship ambitions, perhaps less than that. His 4.27 walks per nine innings are the third highest total in the majors, and he resides in a division that punishes such indiscretions. He is an extreme flyball pitcher who seems better suited to the large parks and feckless lineups of the AL West or the National League. After four seasons in which Matsuzaka has delivered wildly inconsistent production, there are many who are ready to move on.
The Red Sox, however, might not be among them.
A team source said that the right-hander is "very much" the team's plans for 2011, and that there is no planned effort to shed the pitcher. A few things play into that status:
--The team felt that Matsuzaka turned an important corner with his strength and conditioning, and that the results -- at lease physically, if not in line scores -- were evident. He looked the part of a power pitcher this year, with his fastball velocity better than it had been since 2007. He was typically working at 92-94 mph, rather than enduring several starts where he was working more in the 89-91 mph range, something that often characterized his performances in 2008 and 2009. Both is cutter and slider showed increased life and power as well.
In short, his stuff often looked better than his results.
"There were some moments of brilliance, and there was some frustration along the way too, to be sure. I think the positive is from coming off of last year when he wasn’t able to maintain health and consistently take the ball, he did that this year after coming back from the injury in spring training," said Epstein. "To look where we were with him in March, and where we are now, I think we feel a lot better about it now. Along the way there’s been consistent velocity that we hadn’t seen the last couple years, and some improvement in the secondary stuff, even as recently as his last couple starts, so again more positive signs to take into the winter."
--If they do believe that there was a disparity between stuff and numbers, then the Sox would be unlikely to get full value for the pitcher in a trade. Other teams will make their offers predicated on performance rather than potential, meaning that return could be modest -- perhaps another team's salary dump, or prospects who fall short of elite.
--He's not a financial albatross. The initial posting fee of $51.111111 million has long since been flushed (quite literally, as one can learn here). Matsuzaka has two years left, each at $10 million. That's slightly -- but not extremely -- above market for a mid- to back-of-the-rotation pitcher. For the Sox, he is eminently affordable for the last two years of his deal.
--He showed the capacity to dominate. Matsuzaka had five outings of at least eight innings in 2010. In those, he did not permit a single eighth-inning run. By way of comparison, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz each had six such outings; John Lackey had three; Tim Wakefield had two; Josh Beckett had one. So, for one out of every five starts in 2010, Matsuzaka looked like a pitcher capable of elite performances. In his second-to-last start of the season, pitching in Yankee Stadium with the Sox trying to claw their way back into contention, he was overpowering, logging eight innings and allowing two runs while striking out seven and walking just one.
--He continued to make strides over the course of the season. In his final two starts, he featured a modified split-change (reminiscent of the bread-and-butter pitch employed by teammate Hideki Okajima) that added to his arsenal.
--The Sox typically don't unload players unless they have the depth to replace them. Given that the team feels that it requires seven to eight capable big-league starters to make it through a season, any deal involving Matsuzaka would require the Sox to make a counter-move to bolster their rotation depth. Entering 2011, the Sox currently have five pitchers -- Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka -- who would be in the rotation, with Felix Doubront and Tim Wakefield representing their depth options. For the time being, the team doesn't have viable depth behind that group. That could change over the course of the season, but the organization currently lacks strong in-house candidates to be next in line for the rotation should the Sox deal one of their current starters.
--He has a full no-trade clause. While that is a surmountable obstacle for some teams, it is nevertheless an impediment with which the Sox would have to deal in order to ship Matsuzaka elsewhere.
All of those are reasons why the Sox might not try to peddle the right-hander aggressively this coming offseason. That said, should other teams inquire about the right-hander, the team would be irresponsible not to at least listen.
And already, there are glimpses that the baseball world will be monitoring the pitcher's availability.
The Mariners will reportedly monitor Matsuzaka's availability to see if a buy-low opportunity exists. Peter Gammons suggested on The Big Show that the Mets would love to trade Matsuzaka for Carlos Beltran. (Worth mentioning: the Sox appear to have little interest in Beltran, despite a brilliant September in which he hit .321 with a .967 OPS, given both the injury concerns about his surgically repaired right knee and the hefty $18.5 million he is owed in 2011.)
Other teams would be eager to swoop in and bid on Matsuzaka should the Sox show a willingness to sell low on the pitcher. But the fact is that Boston rarely trades away such players until they have exhausted their value (Byung-Hyun Kim, Julio Lugo, etc.) as members of the Red Sox.
Matsuzaka has not reached that point. To the contrary, the team believes that he is capable of more -- in Boston -- than what he showed in the past two seasons. He may never again finish in the top three of the Cy Young voting, as he did in 2008, but there is reason to think that -- now that his conditioning issues have been resolved -- he is capable of being a solid contributor to a playoff-caliber team. To trade him, the Sox would have to a) find another team willing to pay a price that reflects that stature and b) acquire another pitcher who would leave them in better shape without the four-year veteran than they are with him.
Could that happen? Of course. Is it likely? Not to the club's current way of thinking.