In less than one week, Aaron Cook will be a member of the Boston Red Sox, or on his way to signing a contract with another team. It's unlikely -- but not impossible -- that the 10-year veteran sticks around in Pawtucket, waiting for an opportunity with the big-league club, especially since he had major-league job offers this past winter.
Cook was signed as depth and insurance. It was likely that one of Daniel Bard or Felix Doubront would not succeed in spring training as they attempted to make the starting rotation, and as the other competition for the role included Vicente Padilla, Carlos Silva, and a pitcher the organization loves as a reliever, Alfredo Aceves, Cook's chances were as great as anyone's. Turns out, though, that both Bard and Doubront did what was needed to secure rotation gigs, while the rest of the competition fell by the wayside due to injury, ineffectiveness, or needs elsewhere.
Cook was one of the arms waylaid by injury, and he required time in Triple-A after spring training ended in order to build up his arm strength. This also gave the Red Sox time without pressure to watch Bard and Doubront in action. While we don't have a whole lot to go on just yet -- five starts between the two of them -- the results have been positive. Doubront is leading the club in strikeouts per nine, and when he's hitting his spots, he's been very effective. Bard is inducing swings-and-misses on more than one-third of his pitches, and though he walked seven batters in his last start, the last few of those had more to do with the manager than they did Bard.
Cook has a 1.33 ERA in Pawtucket, but he also has more walks than strikeouts. It's normal for him to have a low punch out rate, as he's an extreme groundball pitcher, but seeing someone who has pitched in the majors for 10 years give up just a few runs in a small sample against inferior competition isn't as thrilling as the context-less ERA makes it look. Cook is useful when healthy, and can be an average starter, that's no better than what Bard or Doubront could provide (and with less ceiling than those two have, as well). The risk levels for Cook aren't much different than those as-of-yet untested starters, either, as he's someone who has suffered quite a few injuries in his career, and is coming off of a three-year stretch with a 94 ERA+ and just 382 innings because of it.
Bard and Doubront also represent more for the future of the organization than Cook. The former Rockie is a band-aid for the 2012 season, while Doubront and Bard are an opportunity for the Red Sox to develop a pair of starting pitchers who will be far more effective than their low price tags suggest. That's a necessary addition for a team that's looking to get under the luxury tax next season, for a team that wants to be able to afford Jacoby Ellsbury when he's a free agent, and for a team that will, sooner than later, need to set money aside for the pitchers like Jon Lester that they developed on the farm in the years before Bard and Doubront.
What does this mean for Cook? The starter struggling the most in Boston's rotation is Clay Buchholz, who as of this writing is the owner of an 8.87 ERA and a change-up that he can't keep down in the zone consistently. That's a temporary issue, most likely, one that can be worked out with pitching coach Bob McClure, as it was once worked out with former pitching coach John Farrell. Unless it turns out Buchholz is injured, Cook isn't going to sub for him in the rotation in the next week.
If Cook isn't going to replace one of the arms it was expected he might have to, and none of the other three starters are in need of a disabled list stint that gives Cook's presence meaning, what can the Red Sox do with him? There are a few options here, as unlikely as they are to occur. Cook can come to the majors in the bullpen, and work on a schedule in relief. Both Doubront and Bard could use help keeping their workload down in their first seasons as starters in the majors, and letting Cook come in after one of them would help considerably. Picture a scenario where Daniel Bard finishes five innings and sits at 90 pitches -- Cook could be ready to come in for him either the moment he needs to be lifted in the sixth, or he could just start the sixth and pitch 2-4 innings, depending on how he's doing and how much the rest of the bullpen needs him to cover.
This would help keep Bard's innings down, and more importantly, keep him from throwing while fatigued, allowing him to slowly build up his arm strength throughout the year without forcing the issue. It would also leave Cook mostly stretched out should the need arise for him to start.
Cook might not be in for this plan, though, since he can start every fifth day for another team in need of that. It's also unlikely he'll want to just be a reliever waiting for a rotation spot to open, a la Padilla. If that's the case, and he's unwilling to sit in Pawtucket until his next opt-out date on June 1, then Cook will be a free agent.
This isn't the ideal situation for the Red Sox, but it isn't the end of their depth, either. Padilla is in the bullpen should they need spot-start duty, and while he isn't a fantastic option to start, he's not a replacement level arm, either. (In fact, Padilla's three-year ERA+ is 96, slightly better than Cook's.) Daisuke Matsuzaka will be back in mid-May, and for the first time in years, should be healthy. He might be frustrating relative to his price tag and the expectations set out for him years ago, but separate yourself from that momentarily. Dice-K has a 108 ERA+ in his 622 innings in the majors, and while much of that rests in his strong 2008 campaign, he's been effective when healthy over the last three seasons. He just hasn't been healthy very often, and it's showed in his overall numbers. To be fair, though, neither has Aaron Cook, and with Dice-K undergoing Tommy John surgery last year, you might say that he's more likely to remain healthy in 2012 than Cook, who suffers from one nagging, small problem after another.
Dice-K and Padilla aren't the sexiest depth options, but the Red Sox still have the money leftover from the Marco Scutaro trade, too. Roy Oswalt will be free to sign -- and anywhere this time around, according to his agent -- come June. (And, unlike during this winter, the Cardinals seem to have already found their replacement for one of Jake Westbrook or Kyle Lohse in Lance Lynn.) If not Oswalt, there's the trade deadline, and a deal can certainly go down prior to July 31 if need be.
In short, Boston isn't out of plans should Aaron Cook depart within the next week. The depth situation is better with him, in the sense that more pitching is a good thing, and given how things went down last season, not having pitchers to back up the rotation is a frightening proposition. But not having Cook around isn't likely to derail their season, thanks to the rest of their off-season planning.