FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The stuff was breathtaking. Rubby De La Rosa's performance in a spring training game on Friday night, in which he snapped off knee-buckling curveballs, squeezed changeups that dove from bats and, by the way, unloaded explosive 94-96 mph fastballs was the sort of thing that sends a buzz through a crowd and an organization.
"The feel he has for offspeed pitches, particularly when you have that type of velocity or fastball you can go to, he's obviously showing us the ability to pitch without being predictable," said manager John Farrell. "A couple of 3-2 counts, right-handed, left-handed, he's not only willing but goes to [the changeup] with confidence and when you combine that with the power, it's really a rare combination. And just with two outings in spring training, he's not been afraid to go to any pitch in any count. It's been very encouraging the way he's thrown the baseball."
De La Rosa's explosive fastball inspires radar (gun) love and scoreboard watching to see how close to triple digits it can come. That pitch alone would make him a significant prospect.
But the fact that his secondary pitches are so good that he sometimes favors them as much as, if not more, than the fastball? That's a bit ridiculous, not to mention unfair to opposing hitters who are trying to gain their timing in spring training.
The 23-year-old right-hander, as Farrell noted, showed three swing-and-miss pitches on Friday, something that suggests not just a starter's arsenal but the potential to pitch in the upper half of a rotation (depending on command and pitch efficiency -- elements that could sabotage not just that ceiling but even could jeopardize a future in the rotation).
Already, between the early signs from De La Rosa (four scoreless innings) and Allen Webster (two shutout innings with four strikeouts), there is the evidence of the potentially transformative impact that last August's trade with the Dodgers may have had on the Sox. Both young pitchers -- ticketed for the rotation in Triple-A Pawtucket to start the year -- showed electrifying arsenals that suggest huge ceilings.
What is the impact of the addition of two such arms? It can be felt in a few different ways.
First, there is the depth equation. Webster and De La Rosa both have shown clearly that they have legitimate big league stuff. Whereas last year, the Sox' starting rotation depth after the start of the year consisted of veterans from whom the team was hoping for a bounce back in terms of both health and production (Aaron Cook, Daisuke Matsuzaka), this year, if any of the five members of the rotation falter, the fallback options may have as much, if not more, upside than the pitchers they're replacing.
Whenever Webster and/or De La Rosa get the opportunity to pitch in the big leagues, while some inconsistencies would be reasonable to expect given their relative inexperience, the Sox will be excited for the potential of what they might contribute. After all, the last time that the team had starting pitching prospects with their kind of stuff in big league camp was when Clay Buchholz was putting himself on the prospect map six years ago. Early signs have given the team reason to feel good about its starting pitching depth -- and it's worth noting that the stuff that both former Dodgers pitchers have shown also points to an ability to help, if needed, out of the bullpen should a need arise there later in the year, even if the team wants to continue to cultivate them as starters for the long haul.
Yet that's only part of the equation. Just as significant, and perhaps even more so, is the wealth of possibilities that the additions of De La Rosa and Webster open in trades.
Teams that want to make blockbuster deals for established players almost invariably need to have minor leaguers (or young big leaguers) with high ceilings to offer in return. Usually, it takes at least one such pitcher to make a deal, sometimes more.
The last time that the Sox had such a piece was when they dealt Casey Kelly to the Padres as the centerpiece of the Adrian Gonzalez deal, though at the time, the team had a limited number of upper levels pitching prospects behind him. As such, dealing Kelly contributed to a subsequent absence of homegrown depth options in the seasons that followed.
Almost all of the Sox' deals for All-Star-caliber players in the last decade have required upper levels pitching prospects. Kelly was a prerequisite to the Gonzalez deal. The team's acquisition of Victor Martinez required the departure of Justin Masterson. The deal for Josh Beckett needed to include Anibal Sanchez. The acquisition of Curt Schilling needed Casey Fossum and Jorge De La Rosa.
In their own right, De La Rosa or Webster could make considerable chips in a potential deal. After all, they've already been the centerpieces of one blockbuster transaction.
But what if the Sox decide that they want to keep both, and that those two right-handers' abilities are too great to consider dealing them elsewhere? If that occurs, then the fact that those two pitchers were added from the Dodgers on top of a promising group of younger arms forming in Double-A and below in the Sox' system suggests that the Sox soon may have the arms to move if they want to address some kind of future need. (Top-of-the-rotation starter? Middle-of-the-order slugger?)
Matt Barnes is likely to open this year in Double-A, giving the Sox another strong rotation prospect whose stuff to date has suggested a mid-rotation ceiling. And then there are pitchers like right-hander Brandon Workman and left-hander Drake Britton, both of whom feature starting pitchers' builds and, potentially, pitch mixes, and who concluded strong years in Double-A, as well as Anthony Ranaudo, who could regain status as a starting pitching prospect if he is healthy in his return to Double-A this year. Moreover, if Webster and De La Rosa push the developmental envelope, the Sox could consider dealing someone like Felix Doubront from the major league rotation.
That's upper levels pitching inventory around which a deal can be built -- without necessarily strip-mining the team's rotation depth options. The team has a number of pitchers who could emerge as big league starters, albeit with varying degrees of probability and a wide range of ceilings.
Not all of those pitchers will become quality major league starters. Injuries will deplete the group. But the fact that some or many of them have at least the potential to become major league contributors will impact what the Sox can do going forward.
The team resisted the urge to trade from its prospect inventory this offseason, but that was in part a reflection of the fact that the team didn't see the potential to acquire the one player who would clearly push the team's playoff aspirations clearly over the top as it attempts to rise from the ashes of last year's 69-93 mess. That calculus likely will change at some point, perhaps even during this season.
And if the Sox do decide that they're ready to deal, for the first time since pitchers like Buchholz, Jon Lester and Justin Masterson were all in the farm system at the same time, the club is showing glimpses of a pitching pipeline that can not only supply depth to the big league team but that can also serve the team well in deals.
That outlook could change in a hurry depending on the health and performances of some of those pitchers in Triple-A and Double-A this year. But for now, in the early (and invariably optimistic) paces of spring, the abilities of De La Rosa and Webster have been eye-opening.
At the time that the Sox made their deal with the Dodgers last August, the focus was on the impact of what the team gave up -- specifically, the possibilities created by freeing cash and dealing underperforming, high-priced veterans. Now, just over six months later, the dimensions of what the team got back are becoming increasingly and dazzlingly apparent. In Webster and De La Rosa, the Sox' prospect pool experienced a dramatic reconfiguration that, in turn, now opens numerous possibilities to the team.