The intrigue surrounding the May Day deadline for the Red Sox to add Aaron Cook to their roster, in some ways, reflected an exercise in losing sight of the proverbial forest through the trees. Certainly, the question of whether or not the Sox will add him to the roster is significant, but not as significant as the fact that the team is in position to wait until the very last possible moment to make that decision.
Rewind to the offseason. With the back end of the rotation unsettled, there were cries to add Roy Oswalt or Edwin Jackson or Hiroki Kuroda via free agency. Boston could have been compelled to make a deal for Gio Gonzalez of the A’s.
The Red Sox resisted, instead choosing to pursue cost-effective options either via minor league free agents like Cook, Vicente Padilla and then long-since-released Carlos Silva, as well as internal candidates such as Felix Doubront, Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves. In so doing, the Sox ensured that they would have a war chest to address needs as they unfolded during the season while also keeping its prospect pool intact.
Most notably, the Sox still have Will Middlebrooks. According to multiple major league sources, the A’s sought Middlebrooks in a deal for Gonzalez (likely in a package along with closer Andrew Bailey and outfielder Ryan Sweeney). The Sox held the line, and so they still have the third baseman who is shredding the International League -- and who may be called up as soon as Wednesday, at a time when Kevin Youkilis is struggling with injury.
More on that in a moment. First, the basic details on where things stand with Cook.
Midnight came and went without the Red Sox adding the veteran right-hander to their major league roster, according to a source familiar with the situation. As such, the pitcher has the right to request his release Wednesday.
Still, that does not mean that Cook won’t be a member of the Red Sox. Indeed, the likelihood is that he will soon be in the majors in Boston after going 3-0 with a 1.89 ERA in five starts for Triple-A Pawtucket.
Cook has 24 hours to either exercise his opt-out clause or work out an agreement to stay in the Sox organization. If he exercises the opt-out clause, the team would then have 48 hours to call him up or trade him. At the end of that window, if he is not in the majors, then the 33-year-old would become a free agent, but indications are that -- while there is no formal agreement at this time between the club and the pitcher -- the Red Sox won’t let that happen.
On Tuesday night, the Sox optioned first baseman/left fielder Lars Anderson to the minors, thus freeing a roster spot on the big league club. Assuming that the pitcher opts out, the Red Sox are likely to call him up sometime between now and Friday, with the expectation that Cook will be available out of the bullpen while providing an insurance option for the rotation.
The Red Sox understand that the absence of legitimate, major league-ready starting depth is the quickest way imaginable to sabotage a season. Hence, the idea of letting Cook walk makes little sense to the club.
That said, the matter of whether or not Cook ultimately ends up in Boston says less about the shape of the team at this moment than the fact that a) the team feels comfortable waiting until the very last moment to call him up, at a time when he has shown unequivocally that he is prepared to help in the big leagues; and b) he will be used out of the bullpen.
Cook was signed in the offseason when the Red Sox were trying to discover quality from volume, pitting several candidates -- either starters coming off of injuries or relievers who were considered for potential rotation candidates -- against each other in hopes of finding solutions to the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation. When the Red Sox signed the right-hander, he represented a potential starting option as well as part of the effort to create rotation depth.
When the club broke camp with Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard as its fourth and fifth starters, it hardly represented a fixed shape to the rotation. If one of those two faltered, Cook (who looked terrific in spring training, recording a 1.88 ERA in 14 1/3 innings) stood ready to come up to the big leagues.
In Triple-A, Cook did everything the Sox could have hoped for when they signed him. Though he walked nearly as many (11) as he struck out (13) while having an extremely low punchout rate, his trademark sinker worked exactly as it is meant to do, eliciting a bunch of early-count grounders. He's allowed just one homer in 33 1/3 innings.
For any number of teams, Cook would be in the big league rotation already. But for the Sox, Doubront and Bard were arguably their most impressive starters in April, giving the team a chance to win every time they started.
Doubront faltered on Tuesday night against the A’s. Though he featured a spectacular changeup that accounted for five of his career-high eight strikeouts, his imprecise fastball command and inability to get ahead in the count resulted in a yield of a career-high five earned runs in four innings. It was the shortest start of his big league career, and it put the Sox in an early 5-0 hole from which they could not escape en route to a 5-3 loss to the A’s.
Still, Doubront continued to show the makings of electric stuff in the early going. He has struck out more than one of every four batters he has faced this year, with his 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings leading the American League, and the Sox should have won all four of his starts in April, having been prevented from doing so only by a bullpen meltdown in a game in which the left-hander dominated against the Yankees.
Bard, meanwhile, has the lowest ERA of any member of the rotation (3.72). In his three starts, he has struck out just over a batter an inning (19 punchouts, 18 2/3 frames). In his last two starts, he has allowed just three runs in 13 2/3 innings (1.98 ERA), thus convincing the Sox to resist the temptation to shift him back to the bullpen.
And so, April came and went and the Red Sox did not feel like they needed to rush Cook into the rotation. To the contrary, they felt comfortable keeping him stashed in Triple-A for as long as possible, and even now, at a time when he appears close to joining the big league staff, it is not expected to be at the expense of any members of the current rotation, including Bard and Doubront.
In some respects, that suggests that the Sox are bucking the odds.
“The natural thing would be to assume that if you’re giving me a spot and you’re giving Doubront a spot out of spring training, one of us is going to struggle out the gate. Probably statistics show that a first-time major league starter handed a job out of spring training, I guarantee it’s at least a 50 percent failure rate,” said Bard, who will start on Wednesday. “Obviously, three or four starts in, nothing is written in stone, but I think we’ve both proven that we’re not intimidated by starting at this level, we’ve proven an ability to get guys out, go deep into games and give us a chance to win. I think [the fact that Cook hasn’t been summoned to the rotation yet] says a lot.”
Make no mistake -- the Red Sox rotation has not been a strength to date. Sox starters rank 27th in the majors (and 11th in the American League) with a 5.45 ERA, and the early struggles of Buchholz have been of historic proportions, while Jon Lester and Josh Beckett have delivered stinkers. Still, based on the track records of those three and the promise (and indeed the performance) shown by Bard and Doubront, what the Sox have seen is the potential for the rotation to emerge as a strength with the five members who currently comprise it.
And so, Cook represents an option right now not of necessity but instead an alternative who gives the Sox some comfort in case of injury or continued struggles by one of the current starting five. The Sox can slot him in on occasion as a sixth starter to help manage the workloads of Bard and Buchholz (particularly in the coming stretch of 20 games in 20 days that starts on Friday). If Clay Buchholz cannot improve his results, or if Bard ends up having to move back to the bullpen, Cook represents a hedge.
“When you’ve got a guy like Cookie that’s a good pitcher, you can never have too much pitching. Every year you end up getting a guy who gets injured or needs a week off, something happens, and you need a guy to come up and fill in,” said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “Cookie’s that guy that can still pitch at the big league level. He probably deserves more of a shot than a minor league deal, but he had to prove that he was healthy and that he can still pitch. He gives us depth, which is what every team needs.”
The shape of starting pitching depth can alter dramatically. After 2011, the Sox are as aware as anyone that teams that pat themselves on the back in self-congratulation for having starting depth are likely to endure a harsh lesson in how quickly a seeming surplus can prove a shortcoming.
There may come a time when the Sox need Cook in their rotation. For that matter, there may be a time when the Sox need more than just Cook to reinforce their rotation.
But at least in April, the Sox weathered the storm, and the early returns on their offseason strategy are promising. Bard and Doubront both look like viable big league starters with the stuff to be above average in that capacity. Cook gives the team depth, at a time when he is throwing the ball better (and in better health) than he has in years. And Middlebrooks -- whom the Sox kept, rather than trading him to shore up the rotation -- looks to be on the cusp of a role as an everyday third baseman, as he has vaulted himself into consideration as one of the top prospects in baseball.
At this point, Cook represents a luxury rather than a necessity for the rotation. While the season remains in its infancy, that development is one of the more promising early signs of 2012 for the Red Sox.