Appearances can be deceiving, of course, but it is difficult to ignore them nonetheless. And right now, it appears that the walls might be narrowing on Felix Doubront in his tenure as a Red Sox starter.
Disclaimer: This isn't the first time that the talented left-hander has found himself in such a position. After a 2010 season in which Doubront made his major league debut, for instance, there were rumors that a Red Sox trade involving him was not merely possible but inevitable.
Those proved false, and after injuries wrecked his 2011 campaign, Doubront seemingly found a toehold in the Red Sox rotation with a during a 2012 season in which he went 11-10 with a 4.86 ERA and more than a strikeout an inning in 29 starts. Members of the team raved about his stuff -- mid-90s two- and four-seam fastballs, swing-and-miss curveball and changeup, cutter -- and seemed to believe that a considerable step forward was possible.
But thus far in 2013, that hasn't happened. Doubront is 3-1 with a 5.67 ERA, and the Sox are 4-1 in his starts. He's more often been a part of than an impediment to success this year, as in his first four starts he worked between five and 6 2/3 innings while permitting no more than three runs.
Still, for the most part, with the exception of an ugly start in his most recent outing in Texas (3 2/3 innings, 6 runs, 12 hits), he's been more or less the same pitcher he was a year ago -- high pitch counts, a lot of swings and misses, a constitutional inability to work more than seven innings.
(Intriguing historical note: Doubront has made 37 big league starts with the Red Sox. He's never recorded an out in the eighth inning. That is the third-longest streak of starts of such length (or lack thereof) in team history dating to at least 1916, behind only a 53-game streak by Bret Saberhagen between 1997-99 and a 39-game streak from Brian Rose from 1997-2000.)
Enter Allen Webster. Team officials border on giddiness when discussing the 23-year-old. For that matter, so do scouts of other teams. One evaluator who saw his most recent outing in Triple-A Pawtucket -- in which he punched out nine in six shutout innings -- said he thought that Webster might throw a perfect game given his mix of a high-90s fastball with crazy sink, a swing-and-miss slider and an outrageous changeup. (Webster merely ended up giving up one run on two hits, striking out nine and walking none.)
With the Red Sox pitching staff in a state of flux, and desperate for innings from starters, the team elected to call up Webster and displace Doubront in the rotation for a start, moving the left-hander to the bullpen. Manager John Farrell, as he has done virtually anytime he has discussed Webster since spring training, gushed about the young right-hander.
"I think everyone looks forward to seeing that guy on the mound. He’s got great stuff," Farrell said of Webster. "He showed he’s got very good poise in the first outing that he made for us. We’ll see it again [Wednesday] night."
As for Doubront, whose disappearing fastball velocity over his last two starts has become an organizational mystery, Farrell suggested that the left-hander would offer bullpen depth on Tuesday and Wednesday, but that the team planned to have him make his subsequent scheduled start.
"It’s anticipated at this point that the next time we go through the rotation," said Farrell, "Doubront will be back in it."
Of course, Farrell also said a few days earlier that Doubront was expected to start on Wednesday, so the qualification of "at this point" represents something of a blaring siren: Take nothing for granted.
And it's hard to overlook the fact that in his one major league start, Webster had the kind of outing that Doubront has almost never produced. The right-hander mowed through the Royals for six innings in just 84 pitches, an average of 14 per frame. Doubront, in 37 career starts, has just one outing to his credit in which he proved that economical while working at least six innings.
Farrell said that Doubront's displacement in the rotation by Webster is expected to last just one start, with Doubront returning to the rotation to take his next turn. That may be true. After all, if the early season has reinforced one notion surrounding the Red Sox, it is this: You do not compromise major league-caliber pitching depth unless you are forced to do so.
Still, that toehold that Doubront seemed to have in the rotation after last year? Certainly, it seems somewhat less secure. And it's not just because of Webster.
The Red Sox are starting to crowd their upper levels with high-ceiling prospects -- guys with the potential to be better than Doubront, albeit without certainty that they can reach such lofty stature.
Webster and Rubby De La Rosa have strikeout-an-inning stuff in Triple-A. In Double-A, Brandon Workman, Anthony Ranaudo and Matt Barnes all project as potential big league starters; left-hander Drake Britton has the stuff to do so, though somewhat like Doubront, there are more questions about whether he will achieve the needed pitch efficiency to reach (and stay in) the big leagues in that role. In High-A, Henry Owens -- though further away -- has been nothing short of dazzling.
Still, it's worth recalling that in past instances where it appeared inevitable that a veteran would get overtaken by prospects, such a scenario never unfolded. Tim Wakefield spent years spitting in the face of the perception that up-and-coming waves of pitchers would usurp his place in the rotation. Prior to the 2008 season, even after he won the World Series clincher, Jon Lester was viewed more frequently (at least outside the Sox front office) as trade bait than a future rotation fixture. So it would be a mistake to suggest that a change in the rotation pecking order is inevitable.
After all, Doubront is young (25), he's talented (9.5 strikeouts per nine innings as a starter since the start of 2012), he's cheap ($519,000) … but despite all of those attributes, at the still-tender age of 25, after a 2012 season that represented a potential building block for his future, he's instead seen his standing erode.
As has been the case in multiple seasons in his pro career, Doubront arrived in spring training in what the Sox considered less-than-ideal shape. In February, GM Ben Cherington talked about the team's view of Doubront's conditioning.
"By far the best way to build a pitching staff is to integrate a young pitcher into the rotation and see him succeed. It’s one thing to get to the big leagues and be a starter, but it’s another to succeed and actually take on meaningful innings. That helps us build a rotation more than anything else,” explained Cherington. “Right now, Felix is the most recent guy to do that. We’re going to continue to push him. He knows that. He has a chance to be really good. With the guys who have a chance to be really good, we owe it to them to push them. We’ll keep doing that."
Perhaps Webster's presence will do that, underscoring that nothing is guaranteed for Doubront. Of course, Doubront suggests that he does not take his starting spot for granted, and acknowledges that his role as a Sox rotation member is dependent upon improvement from what he's shown this year, and particularly what he showed in his last start, when he allowed six runs on 12 hits in just 3 2/3 innings while getting only three swings and misses.
"I have to keep working," said Doubront. "I have to prove more, be more successful. We're working on that. We're working hard on that."
The left-hander suggests that he's seen progress in recent days in his between-starts work in bullpen sessions, a notion seconded by pitching coach Juan Nieves. While he cherishes the opportunity to be a big league starter, he does not resent having his start skipped so that he can offer a long-relief presence for a couple of games.
"[The move to the bullpen is] just for two days. That's it. Everything is going to be normal for my next start. It's just for now," said Doubront. "We're working for the team. I'm just doing this for the team. It's their decision. It doesn't affect me at all -- I'm not disappointed or anything. I'm just going to do what they want me to do."
The Sox still see a pitcher with considerable talent, albeit one who is a work in progress. They see the swing-and-miss stuff, and the fact that, start after start, he proved capable of shutting down AL East teams in 2012 -- but they also see that Doubront has been unable to harness it in a fashion to give them consistent innings at the big league level.
"That's one of the biggest challenges -- he has a lot of swing-and-miss pitches, and all the foul balls he gets," said Nieves. "All of a sudden -- cha-ching, cha-ching -- you have a lot of pitches. We're trying to get those pitches in the strike zone more, hopefully get more contact on the ground. The most important thing for him is, within the first three pitches, get a ground ball, to stay longer in the game, be able to pitch deeper."
Of course, now Doubront's needs have become twofold -- improved pitch efficiency and the restoration of his velocity to the mid-90s. Because there's no apparent injury in the left-hander, the Sox remain hopeful that the latter will occur, something that would make the former more feasible.
"He's a good pitcher," said Nieves. "Slowly and surely, the velocity will come back."
For Doubront's sake, it had better. While the current summons of Webster may not represent Doubront's knell as a member of the Sox rotation, it underscores the idea that there's a phalanx of talented young pitchers who are marching towards him.
The footsteps are getting louder.