In some ways, it seems appropriate that Brandon Workman could not get through even a full week of his big league career without shuffling between the rotation and the bullpen. After all, when he was an amateur, the debate about whether he was better-suited for life as a starter or reliever was a polarizing one.
Despite his scheduled start for the Red Sox against the Athletics, Workman seems likely to head back into the bullpen early in the second half as the Red Sox try to assess what kind of contributor he can be in an area of immediate need. But even as there are both short- and long-term questions about the role in which the Sox will ask the 24-year-old to perform, there still seems to be a clear sense of what he will offer when on the mound.
Workman entered 2013 as the consensus sixth-best pitching prospect in the Red Sox organization, behind pitchers like Matt Barnes, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Henry Owens and Drake Britton. Yet he has blitzed past all of them in gaining the organization's trust to be a contributor both right now and for the second half based on a relentless competitiveness and determination that serve as the basis for a pitcher who has become the most consistent performer on the mound in the Red Sox' minor league system.
While his march to the big leagues might be a surprise to some -- after all, he wasn't even invited to the team's own Rookie Development Program in January -- those who have known Workman the longest are not shocked by the turn of events.
"We scouted him pretty heavy in high school as well, had a lot of interest in him. Just getting to know Brandon and his family a bit, seeing where they live -- they live on a big ranch, and they worked it," said Red Sox cross-checker Jim Robinson, who was the Sox' area scout in Texas who followed Workman both in high school and in college at the University of Texas prior to the Sox tabbing the right-hander with their second-round pick in the 2010 draft. "He didn't sit around. Brandon developed a work ethic through his father and the stuff he did on the ranch. They were hard-working people. You don't want to be so cliched, but they're hard-working, humble people.
"I think it's become evident with everyone in the organization that's watched him pitch, his determination and fearlessness on the mound is true. We saw that as an amateur. It's proven to be a very good trait for him professionally."
Indeed, virtually every conversation with members of the Red Sox organization about Workman begins with a discourse on the right-hander's makeup. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound right-hander is a character study in self-confidence.
Most prospects, at some point, waver in the face of adversity -- whether within a game or over a prolonged period of struggle. Workman is not among them.
"I call him a horse, because when he gets on the mound, it's no nonsense. It's a pitching style but also the way he looks on the mound," explained High-A Salem pitching coach Kevin Walker, who spent most of 2012 with Workman before his late-season promotion. "He's big -- a 6-foot-5, 240-pound guy -- he's got the Texas roots, which also tell you the toughness is there, but the way he pitches, he has a game plan. He's not going to shy away from it. He's not afraid of who's in the box.
"He's relentless in the strike zone. He's fearless about going inside, loves to go inside. He does all the things a pitcher needs to do to own the plate. That's kind of the thing he's gotten good at, the way he attacks the zone, trusts his stuff and has confidence. The confidence that he shows on the mound never wanes. He's a guy that really believes in himself."
In some respects, Workman's big league debut against the Mariners last week was an appropriate reflection of why the Sox do not think he will shrink from the task of contributing in the big leagues, regardless of role. His debut featured a homer and two doubles before he recorded an out, eventually yielding three runs in the inning.
Yet instead of panicking and seeing the game unravel completely, Workman gathered himself and didn't shy from his gameplan, instead identifying the flaw in his first inning as one of execution rather than stuff. He struck out two in a perfect second inning.
That is who Workman is. As a strike-thrower, there are times when he's vulnerable to hard contact. But contact will not deter him from staying in the zone, forcing the action and making the next hitter swing if he wants to get on base.
"He's really good at not letting things bother him," said Walker. "He's very poised, very composed, very mature.
"It is a tough development for some guys to handle an inning where things don't go their way. Maybe they lose a little confidence or shy away from throwing strikes," he added. "[But] Workman, all the times I've watched him, he's a real believer that his stuff is good enough to win games any night that he steps on the mound. He may give up a hit or a home run, he'll separate that pitch and go to the next one. He gets back on the mound and makes another pitch, goes back to his core belief that he knows how good he is and trusts his stuff."
That trust in his abilities is what allows the Sox to forecast meaningful contributions from Workman regardless of the stage of the game. He has the potential to be a pitch-efficient innings-eater by virtue of his stature and assault on the strike zone. At the same time, his willingness to come after opposing hitters also seems a fit for a late-innings role, particularly given that the Sox saw his fastball play up to sit around 95 mph (up from 92-93 mph while topping out at 95 mph as a starter) when he worked out of the bullpen in college.
Based on his amateur career, opinion was divided among scouts about whether Workman was best suited for one role or the other. Robinson, based on the evolution he witnessed from Workman's high school career to Texas, suffered no such lack of certainty.
"I thought he was a starter. I really did. I'm glad he's developed that way," said Robinson. "I just thought the size, the strength, the durability factors all played into that. And his development as a pitcher blossomed. It gave me more of a sense he could be a starter, with the variety of weapons, the durability and his ability to throw strikes. He's a great strike thrower. I'm sure his command still needs to tighten up, but he throws strikes -- always has.
"The delivery and his arm action from high school to the time we selected him smoothed out, became more repeatable, less effort," he continued. "That was the first thing you started to see once he went to college. From there, the development of his cutter was obviously a gigantic development for him. And the fastball continued to tick up. He threw hard in high school, too, but he was probably a little more consistent, a little higher velocity in college. And the refinement of all his pitches. He had a really good curveball, kind of took a backseat the year we drafted him when he used his cutter a lot more, but he always had it. We saw certainly a plus pitch with that prior to the cutter showing up.
"He kind of became more of a pitcher in an overall sense as opposed to a two-pitch power guy in high school who overmatched everybody. He really learned how to pitch, threw strikes, changed speeds and became a pitcher."
The Red Sox will have an opportunity to see how those abilities translate to starting on the highest competitive stage on Sunday. Yet while they cannot forecast the results, there appears little question about the approach.
"On the mound, whether it be inning one, inning seven, or inning nine, I don't think he thinks about that," said Walker. "He slows the game down, focuses on executing and getting outs. The pressure, the atmosphere -- he separates that well. He knows he's got a job at hand, and that's to execute a pitch and do it well. Hopefully, in Oakland, he does that and has a good start."