Erik Bedard trade a telling sign?
Red Sox's deal for lefty may indicate trouble ahead for ailing Clay Buchholz
CHICAGO -- Prepare for life without Clay Buchholz.
"Clearly, we have some concern for Clay," Boston Red Sox GM Theo Epstein said Sunday night. "It's been a couple of months now, which is longer than we expected it to be. We're still awaiting some more feedback and another opinion. I think we have a feel for what might be going on, but Clay is seeing another expert [Robert Watkins] to get his opinion and then we're all going to put our heads together this week.
"I'll refrain from answering in too much detail until we have a chance to talk to Clay and we have a chance to talk things through. We think we're in the process of getting to the bottom of it, and we're all going to put our heads together early this week and talk about it with Clay before we discuss it publicly."
Parse those words all you want, and you won't find a silver lining. Buchholz's bad back almost certainly is worse than anyone thought it was (in fact, one report indicates the injury is a stress fracture), and the Sox can no longer persuade themselves that Buchholz is likely to return in time to help them this season.
That's the biggest takeaway from Epstein's acquisition of Seattle Mariners left-hander Erik Bedard, a deal he said he struck just a minute before Sunday's trading deadline, a two-step transaction preceded by a separate deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers roughly a minute earlier, in order to line up the pieces necessary to satisfy the Mariners.
"We would not have been satisfied if we let the deadline pass without getting a starter," Epstein said in a conference call with reporters.
They very nearly did, which might serve as a referendum on the reservations the Red Sox have regarding Bedard, who two years ago this week had surgery for a torn labrum in his left shoulder that knocked him out of the game for more than a year. Bedard also missed the last month with a sprained left knee, impressed no one in his first start back last Friday, and had his suitability for the AL East openly questioned by the general manager who had him when he was with the Baltimore Orioles.
By all appearances, Bedard was not Boston's first choice by any stretch, but trades in the end are about the art of the possible, and Epstein's options were restricted by Hiroki Kuroda's insistence on staying with the Dodgers, Ubaldo Jimenez's price tag and Rich Harden's medical history, which quashed a deal the Sox had in place for the Oakland Athletics' right-hander on Saturday night.
At least the negotiations for Kuroda were not in vain. Because Epstein knew what Dodgers GM Ned Colletti wanted from the Sox while discussing the right-hander, he was able to place a call to Colletti as time was winding down, strike a deal with the Dodgers, then package a Sox prospect (Portland outfielder Chih-Hsien Chiang) with a Dodger prospect (outfielder Trayvon Robinson) to land Bedard and minor-league reliever Josh Fields.
Epstein, of course, stressed the potential upside Bedard brings. He did, after all, enjoy a two-month stretch just before injuring his knee in which he was one of the league's most dominant pitchers, running off an 8-3 record in 11 starts with a 1.77 ERA, a .191 batting average against, 68 strikeouts and 15 walks in 71 1/3 innings. Impressive numbers, all.
"The reports in spring training were really good," Epstein said. "His stuff started to come back. In April, the results weren't great, but the reports were still encouraging, and in May and June he was throwing very well and starting to look like one of the best left-handers in the league."
But as was the case with Harden, who has made 10 trips to the disabled list in his career, Bedard has been unable to stay healthy. You have to go back six years for the last time Bedard made it through an entire season without a trip to the DL, and anyone who has had that much work done on his shoulder is hardly a sure bet not to break down.
Still, Bedard represents a short-term fix, not a long-term solution, so all he needs to do is remain intact for two months. But then there are the questions about his makeup that were raised by Jim Duquette, the former Orioles general manager.
"He doesn't like the attention," Duquette, now an analyst on the MLB Network, told Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald. "When he's the guy, he doesn't succeed. And I always thought, because he didn't want to be the guy, that it would hold him back. I thought he'd be a real solid No. 3 [starter] in a small market. But it would concern me going into a big market. After I left the Orioles, I even tried to dissuade a couple of big-market clubs that were interested in him."
Epstein discounted those concerns Sunday night.
"We're very comfortable with adding Erik to this ballclub," he said. "More than anything, I think he's a really good fit for this club, and I think he's going to get along just fine with his teammates. He's very competitive when he's on the mound. He lets his arm do his talking for him a little bit, which is fine with us.
"There are a lot of labels in baseball. Obviously, every club does its research and you do background information on players, but I've also found in this game there can be labels that aren't always accurate. Until you're in the clubhouse with a player, you don't really know, and you can't always project a player from one situation into another.
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"We got to know Erik as well as we could, we're more than comfortable with what we found out as far as projecting him into our clubhouse. He'll embrace the situation, pitch some big games for us, and thrive."
Bedard came at the cost of four prospects, none of whom were on the 40-man roster nor regarded as players with a guaranteed place in Boston. Federowicz was held in high esteem for his defensive skills, but it remains to be seen whether he'll hit. Chiang put up great numbers in Portland, but he was in his second season with the Sea Dogs and has outfielders stacked ahead of him. Rodriguez has a big arm, lighting up the radar gun in the South Atlantic League, and Fife was in his second season in Portland.
As explained here, the Red Sox might have had trouble shoehorning Federowicz, Chiang and Fife onto their 40-man roster this winter.
So Epstein accomplished his goal of protecting his best prospects. And before assuming that the Sox can't possibily survive the loss of Buchholz, it is useful to consider this: He already has missed six weeks, and in that time, the Sox are 25-13 with an overall ERA of 3.74. The starters' ERA has risen in that span from 3.91 to 4.41, but Jon Lester also missed some time in that stretch. The Sox went 20-6 in July, their best July ever.
It was with good reason, then, that a quizzical expression appeared on Kevin Youkilis's face when asked if this trade was the boost this club needed.
"Boost?" he repeated. "I don't know, we're in first place. I don't know if we need a boost. I think we've got a pretty good team. That's why there wasn't a major move made."
Bedard may help. He won't be make or break.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.