The Red Sox have to decide toda whether or not to call up Aaron Cook from Pawtucket. The former Rockies starter signed a non-guaranteed, minor league deal with the Red Sox this offseason, but negotiated in an opt-out clause. The clause offered the 33-year old Cook some form of a guarantee on a non-guaranteed deal: if he wasn’t on the major league roster by May 1, he could elect free agency and latch on with another team willing to give him a better opportunity.
With the deadline fast approaching, the decision is really a no-brainer that the Red Sox should call him up. He hasn’t exactly been tearing up the International League, but he has done what he always does: limit walks and keep the ball on the ground. If healthy after two straight injury-plagued campaigns, he could be a big boon to the Red Sox pitching staff.
However, his real benefit to the Red Sox right now is as a reliever. Nowhere in his contract does it stipulate that the May 1 call-up must automatically push him into the rotation, and the Red Sox could best utilize his elite groundballing status as a means of helping to stabilize a messy relief corps.
The Red Sox rotation, while rather poor at preventing runs in the early going, is finally starting to hit its stride. The unit has the fourth-worst ERA in the American League at 5.13, but a 4.22 SIERA that fares more favorably.
The rotation has the second-highest walk rate in the league at 9.4 percent and a below average 1.8 K/BB ratio. Red Sox starters have induced grounders at a solid 46 percent clip, but they have struggled mightily with runners on base.
Overall, the Red Sox rotation has a 70 percent strand rate, which is the fourth-lowest in the league. With men on base, their starters have allowed a .397 wOBA against, and a .385 wOBA against with runners in scoring position. Both are league worsts and the major reason for the relatively ugly run-prevention marks.
But the situation is improving, and the rotation is essentially set. With Jon Lester and Josh Beckett at the front, Clay Buchholz behind him, and Daniel Bard and Felix Doubront occupying the last two spots, there isn’t any room for another starter. Doubront and Bard have been bright spots and shouldn’t be moved, while Lester and Beckett are bound to improve their peripherals as the season progresses. Plus, Daisuke Matsuzaka may return rather soon, and he is reportedly not a bullpen option.
Sure, the Red Sox could give Cook a few starts, but they would have to implement one of a few scenarios. They could opt for a six-man rotation with Cook at the tail-end. They could use Cook as a Sunday starter and just start him that day each week. They could “game” Clay Buchholz a bit and allow him to “work out struggles” in the minors for a few weeks. Or they could push Bard back to the bullpen. None of those seems very beneficial to the team so the best course of action is to use Cook as a reliever.
The Sox bullpen has been an absolute mess and could use someone that has an elite skill in some area. The Red Sox bullpen has a league worst 6.34 ERA. It has the third worst strand rate at 66 percent and the second worst BABIP at .328. Best laid plans didn’t come to fruition, either, as Bard moved to the rotation and Andrew Bailey got hurt before the season. Mark Melancon was demoted after seeing his ERA soar to 49.50. Alfedo Aceves has a 7.5 BB/9 and has struggled as a closer. The Sox should be trying anything and everything with respect to the bullpen right now, and Cook offers something that nobody else in the relief unit can offer: an elite skill.
No, groundballs aren’t as helpful as strikeouts, as the defense has to get involved, but Cook has a 57 percent career groundball rate that ranks sixth best of all time (or at least as long as records have been kept). In a tight spot in the sixth or seventh inning, with runners on first and second and nobody out, Cook’s ability to induce grounders increases the Red Sox odds of turning a double play or escaping the situation with limited damage.
He doesn’t need to be the setup man and absolutely shouldn’t close games, but Cook costs very little at $1.5 million and is different than pitchers like Scott Elarton, Pat Misch, Dave Bush and the litany of other former big leaguers signed to minor league deals. Cook is worth a roster spot and is someone the Red Sox shouldn’t allow to elect free agency just because he can’t be used as a starter right away.
Stash him in the bullpen for a few weeks and give him a starting opportunity if a starter or two gets injured. Otherwise, let him offer relief when the situation dictates the need for a groundball. Few pitchers in baseball history have been better than a healthy Cook at getting those grounders.