What To Do With Jake Peavy

Here’s another one I wrote for the Forecaster, with an addendum based on subsequent events:

If the Boston Red Sox make the playoffs, manager John Farrell will be faced with an unenviable decision.

The one pitcher who has looked like an ace for the Red Sox this year has not pitched since June 8. Six other starters have pitched well enough to crack a playoff rotation, whether this year or recently enough to make it difficult for Farrell to exile them to the bullpen.

The pitcher who best represents the enviable depth within Boston’s aceless rotation is newcomer Jake Peavy. Hoping to bolster their rotation at the trade deadline, the Red Sox traded rookie shortstop Jose Iglesias and two low-level prospects for Peavy, a seasoned veteran trying to reclaim some of the greatness that won him a Cy Young Award in 2007.

Peavy, a 32-year-old from Alabama, broke into the big leagues in 2002 with the Padres. He finished that season 6-7 with a 4.52 ERA, but struck out almost a batter per inning, limiting walks and home runs and suggesting a bright future. It didn’t take long for that future to come, as Peavy established himself in 2004 as one of the best pitchers in the National League, finishing 15-6 with a 2.27 ERA. He made his first All-Star Game the following year, and won his Cy Young two years after that, when he led the league in ERA, strikeouts, and wins.

Peavy’s tenure in San Diego would last just a year-and-change after that season. In 2009, the struggling Padres traded an injured Peavy to the nominally contending White Sox for a modest package highlighted by pitcher Clayton Richard. Peavy pitched brilliantly in three starts for Chicago when he returned from the disabled list in late September, but the White Sox had played themselves out of contention by then. He produced middling results for the White Sox through this summer, peaking with a 3.37 ERA and 194 strikeouts in 219 innings in 2011, but the White Sox aged out of relevance during that time.

Since his San Diego heyday, Peavy has moved away from his once-vaunted fastball/slider combination, leaning instead on a cutter, a change-up, and a sub-80 mph curveball to set up the heat that still touches 90. He’s pitched a little better than his 4.41 ERA might indicate, striking out over four times as many batters as he walks. Homers, though, have been a problem, as he’s given up 17 in his first 98 innings this year.

Where Peavy fits in Boston’s rotation is anybody’s guess. He has exhibited better control than any other starter on the team, but he’s a hair behind Felix Doubront and Ryan Dempster in strikeouts and hasn’t shown Doubront’s or Jon Lester’s ability to keep the ball in the ballpark.

If Clay Buchholz comes back healthy, he’s likely to start the team’s first playoff game. After Buchholz, Peavy (4.41 ERA, 4.19 Fielding Independent Pitching) might slot in behind Doubront (3.95 ERA, 3.61 FIP) and John Lackey (3.22, 3.74) in a four-man rotation. But that leaves out opening day starter and recent ace Lester (4.31, 3.94), who hasn’t been awful, and free agent acquisition and recent Cubs ace Dempster (4.77, 4.71), along with the kids- Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, and Steven Wright- who acquitted themselves admirably between Buchholz’s injury and Peavy’s arrival.

Dempster seems ticketed for the bullpen, and the rookies may come up against innings limits before October, which leaves five pitchers for four spots. Even if Lester’s recent numbers suggest he is not one of the four best available starters, it’s hard to imagine Farrell leaving the preseason ace out of the postseason rotation. Is it possible that Peavy is the odd man out?

If Buchholz can’t get healthy, Farrell’s choice is easy, but the offense’s job won’t be. If Clay comes back strong, the new kid might just have to prove himself in the heat of a pennant race, as there might not be a spot for Jake Peavy come playoff time.

This weekend, Jon Lester and Jake Peavy each pitched brilliantly against the Dodgers in a key series that kept Boston alone in first place in the AL East. Here’s a look at each Boston starter’s ERA and FIP over the last 30 days:

Lester 2.23 / 2.83
Lackey 3.12 / 2.94
Peavy 3.31 / 3.86
Doubront 3.86 / 4.24
Dempster 6.67 / 3.84

As steady as he was throughout much of the early summer, Doubront has faded some, and having thrown 140 innings with six rotation turns left, he’s liable to pass his career high of 161 innings well before the regular season is over. Farrell and his bosses may choose to use him sparingly (read: in relief) to save his arm for the future.

As good as his results have been, Peavy hasn’t pitched any better than Dempster from a defense-independent standpoint since he joined the Red Sox. Still, Dempster’s appearead like a bit of a loose cannon, and it’s hard to imagine him starting in the playoffs.

My updated prediction of Boston’s postseason rotation (should they survive beyond a potential play-in game):

1. Buchholz
2. Lester
3. Peavy
4. Lackey

If Buchholz doesn’t make a full recovery and Doubront fills in, this team is still capable of outscoring playoff teams. Fear not, Red Sox Nation. These aren’t the 2011 Sox.

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