ST. LOUIS -- This is not by design. This is not Plan A.
Jake Peavy will take the mound for Game 3 of the World Series against the Cardinals on Saturday. The Red Sox professed tremendous confidence in the abilities of the right-hander whom they acquired in a three-way trade from the White Sox this summer -- at a time when the Cardinals were also pursuing him.
"We know what kind of pitcher Peav is," said catcher David Ross. "I don't ever worry about Peav too much. He's got the heart of a lion. That guy goes out there and competes with the best of them. That's all I can ask for."
Nonetheless, in an ideal world, the Red Sox would have Clay Buchholz on the mound for the contest and available for a winner-take-all Game 7 if necessary. This is not the ideal world. As Buchholz prepares for a Game 4 start, it is, however, in some ways a familiar one.
In 2007, Buchholz emerged as arguably the top pitching prospect in all of baseball. He tossed a no-hitter in his second big league start in September, and in four late-season big league appearances, he was 3-1 with a 1.59 ERA.
Then 22, the Sox viewed him as a potential weapon in October -- perhaps out of the bullpen, perhaps even as a fourth starter for the postseason. Indeed, had he been healthy, there was a good chance that it would have been Buchholz, and not Jon Lester, who was in position to contribute in Game 4 of the World Series.
But those options were taken off the table due to shoulder fatigue that the right-hander experienced in Setpember 2007. Buchholz, who had thrown 119 innings in his first full pro season in 2006, had hit something of a physical wall while building that workload up to nearly 150 innings. The team felt it had to shut him down to avoid risking injury.
"Obviously, this was not our first choice or even our second choice," Sox GM Theo Epstein noted at the time. "This was pretty much our last choice, our last option. Unfortunately, this was something that, after discussions with the medical staff, is something that we have to do."
Now, the Sox once again find themselves measuring Buchholz's October contributions due to his overall shoulder strength.
The situations aren't identical. This year, the fact that Buchholz is dealing with a dead arm reflects the lost shoulder strength he had in his three months of downtime due to inflammation in the bursa sac of his shoulder rather than an unprecedented workload in his career. Nonetheless, there is at least something of an echo in the outcome.
"When [the shoulder fatigue] started to show up [in 2007], there was going to be no risk taken. How it compares to what he's dealing with now, on some level, yeah, I'm sure there are some similarities," said manager John Farrell after his team's off-day workout at Busch Stadium on Friday. "But it's also unique here where he was shut down for so long [in 2013].
"Different set of circumstances. Still, it's his shoulder area in general. And yet, every evaluation says he's not at risk of a long-term situation. If that were the case, we'd be going a different direction."
The fact that this is the second time that Buchholz has been limited at a time when the Sox are playing their most important games raises bigger-picture questions about his durability going forward.
Buchholz (who turned 29 in August) is wrapping up his age 28 season. When he was on the mound, he was the picture of dominance in the regular season, going 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA. Between the regular season in the big leagues (108 1/3 innings), his minor league rehab starts (4 innings) and the postseason (16 2/3 innings), he's logged 125 innings.
At this stage of his career, he still has yet to reach 200 innings in a single season. He has come close a couple times -- between the majors, minors and playoffs, he logged 196 innings in 2009, and 193 1/3 innings in 2012 -- but he has yet to reach the magic threshold that typically defines pitcher durability.
And so, increasingly, it is fair to wonder: Will he ever?
The concern is hardly an immediate one for the Sox. Right now, they're far more concerned about what will happen in the World Series, how much Buchholz has in the tank for his Game 4 start, what Peavy might be able to deliver in Game 3 and a potential Game 7.
Still, the question mark hovering over Buchholz's status at this time underscores the one that looms over his career: Can he ever be a reliable, durable contributor?
It's worth acknowledging that his is not the prototypical starter's frame that screams of the ability to assume an innings haul. There are lithe pitchers who have been able to remain on the mound (Tim Lincecum comes to mind), but it's not the Platonic starting ideal, which more closely resembles someone like teammate Jon Lester. Nonetheless, because of Buchholz's athleticism, his loose arm and the relatively modest effort in his delivery, the team projected him to be a durable starter as he came up through their system.
"He always maintained his durability, for the most part, in the minor leagues," recalled Sox assistant GM Mike Hazen. "He did a good job. He worked hard. He's always been a really good athlete. He's always been a wiry-framed guy, [but there were] no concerns from a durability standpoint."
Hazen said that the Sox projected Buchholz to be a 200 innings-a-year contributor, something the team expects of anyone whom it moves into the rotation. Yet Hazen likewise said that the team is "not really" surprised that the right-hander has yet to reach that threshold, insofar as it's difficult to assume that any pitcher will reach that mark.
Perhaps more importantly than how the team once projected Buchholz, Hazen suggested that the club still believes that the pitcher -- who is under contract for two more seasons, with club options for both 2016 and 2017 -- has 200-inning seasons in front of him.
"We firmly believe that he can [be a 200-inning pitcher] and that he's going to be," said Hazen. "Some of the stuff that's happened has been sort of a freak of nature. You've got to throw those out sometimes. He's doing everything he needs to do to put himself in position to do that, and he's going to in the future."
But it's worth asking: Are there pitchers who struggle with their durability who subsequently become durable in their late-20s or 30s? There aren't many precedents on whom the Red Sox can lean in making such a projection going forward.
Since graduating to status as a full-time big league starter in 2010, Buchholz has now logged 554 innings -- just under 140 a year. That innings total puts him in a surprisingly narrow band of starters in big league history. Buchholz is one of 46 pitchers who, as a full-time starter (making at least 90 percent of his appearances as a starter, rather than shuttling between the rotation and bullpen) between his age 25 and 28 seasons, has logged between 400 and 600 innings in the big leagues.
Of those 46 pitchers, none has been as good, as dominant, as Buchholz. He has a 3.15 ERA and 135 ERA+ (ERA relative to the league, adjusted for park) between ages 25-28, both easily the best marks of this 46-pitcher group.
In other words, there are few pitchers in baseball history who have shown such dominance -- something that would leave a team inclined to leave them on the mound and to log innings -- yet such frailty.
So, what happens to such pitchers? Are there examples to suggest that pitchers who haven't been durable can achieve that status?
The track record isn't terribly promising. Of the 46-pitcher group, just 11 (24 percent) had even one 200-inning season in their age 29 season or later. Of those 11, one was knuckleballer Tim Wakefield -- who had a unique career path that included considerable time in the minors between ages 25 and 28 -- and eight more had at least one 200-inning season between ages 25 and 28.
So, there are just two pitchers in this group -- Joe Saunders and Bill Wegman -- who never had a 200-inning season between ages 25-28 but who had one after turning 29. Yet Saunders had logged 200 combined innings between the majors and minors in 2006, and Wegman had done the same as a 28-year-old.
In essence, there are virtually no instances of pitchers in baseball history who combine Buchholz's talent and lack of durability between the ages of 25 and 28 who become 200 innings-a-year horses after that point. The Sox are aware that there aren't a lot of precedents to suggest that Buchholz will become durable going forward, yet they maintain hope.
The reasons for Buchholz's inability to log innings have been diverse. He suffered a hamstring injury while running the bases in 2010. He had a non-displaced fracture in his lower back in 2011. He fell just short of 200 innings in 2012 due to an erosion of his esophagus and gastrointestinal bleeding. This year, he had shoulder inflammation.
Why the host of injuries? At a certain point, it ceases to be productive to say why and instead becomes necessary just to look at the reality that he is a pitcher with a long injury history, something that now casts a shadow on the notion of his ability to ever emerge as a dominant top-of-the-rotation anchor.
That is not to say he lacks value. To the contrary, when he's on the mound and healthy, there was no pitcher who was more valuable this year, just as there have been few who have performed at his level since 2010. He is still an incredibly valuable pitcher.
"You have to look at the quality of those innings pitched. A lot of guys who don't pitch 200 innings, it's because they can't pitch 200 innings based on results, not on physicality or durability. They make their 33 starts and get bombed," said Hazen. "That's not the case with [Buchholz]. The 160 innings we've gotten are elite. You're still taking that. This year, [Felix] Doubront, [Ryan] Dempster stepped into that void in a lot of ways and pitched very well some of the time he was down, so we were able to work around that, manage it and the time we did have him, he carried us. We'll take that carrying performance from one of our starting pitchers, no doubt. That's rare in and of itself."
As they go forward with Buchholz, the Sox will do so hoping and perhaps even believing that the right-hander will emerge as a pitcher capable of delivering reliable innings, but aware that they must also make plans for the possibility that he cannot. Indeed, the fact that the team felt compelled to trade for Peavy -- to ensure rotation depth even if Buchholz wasn't able to come back at full strength -- represented just such a form of contingency planning.
In future years, the Sox will need to continue to make plans for the possibility that Buchholz will not be able to deliver a full complement of innings. Of course, that would be true even if the right-hander had a healthy track record.
"We always plan for that not happening with every guy. We don't know who it's going to be necessarily [who will fall short of 200 innings]," said Hazen. "There's no season anymore, as we've seen '11 and '12 happen, where we can project five guys to throw 200 innings. It's probably not going to happen. It hasn't happened for us recently and we always have to plan for that situation where it doesn't happen. It doesn't matter who it is. We're going to try to have contingency plans for all the pitchers.
"That's why the young pitchers become so important for us, especially the guys that have the options, because being able to bring those guys up and make two or three starts, if a guy's fatiguing a little bit, give him extra time, you don't have that ability. It's not around the All-Star break, it's not a period where you can take a skip or something like that, it has to be a DL situation, you need that guy that's going to step in for those three to four starts. That's where those guys, the [Rubby] De La Rosas, the [Allen] Websters, [Brandon] Workman, [Anthony] Ranaudo, [Matt] Barnes, [Henry] Owens in the future become so valuable to the organization. We haven't had that over the last couple of years. This was the first year, and it paid enormous dividends."
That, certainly, was true in the regular season, when Workman could step in for Buchholz and ensure that the Sox rotation didn't cave without its most dominant pitcher.
But October is another matter.
This is the time of year when a team wants not merely a viable alternative, but instead hopes to have its best pitchers log the most critical innings of the season. And while it appears that Buchholz will at least be in position to take the mound for Game 4 -- with an unknown amount of gas in the tank -- it is safe to suggest that the team would have loved to lean on the right-hander even more.