At times, it's seemed like Ben Cherington could be the subject of an episode of "Hoarders" for the fashion in which he's clung to his inventory of upper-levels starting pitchers. A survey of the Red Sox general manager's wealth of arms that are considered to be close to big league-ready reveals an area of considerable strength that, in theory, borders on excess clutter given the reality of the number of spots available on the big league roster.
Brandon Workman, Drake Britton, Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa all made it up to the big leagues last year. The recent Rookie Development Program featured left-hander Henry Owens and right-handers Matt Barnes and Anthony Ranaudo. All seven of those pitchers will be in big league camp as starters, along with (barring a trade) the six primary starters for the Sox a year ago (Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront, Ryan Dempster, Jake Peavy).
In many ways, it's a dazzling group. Just two years ago, the Red Sox had just one homegrown pitcher -- Alex Wilson -- who was close enough to the big leagues to merit a non-roster invitation to big league camp. This year, non-roster invitees like Owens and Barnes (along with Noe Ramirez and Dalier Hinojosa) offer a very different depiction of the team's pitching prospect inventory.
"I think it’s an exciting part of this group in particular, I think, where we are with the farm system right now," Red Sox farm director Ben Crockett observed of the team's pitching prospects. "I think having a group of guys who were pretty excited about that at least got their feet wet at the upper levels last year, you know, we feel good about it. there’s a lot of work left to be done with that group but given the caliber of arms there, I think we’re excited about the progress that can be made this year."
Given that the Sox have fewer than 13 spots for their rotation, it's been natural to assume that the team will feel compelled at some point to trade some of its upper levels pitching inventory to address other needs. Yet Cherington made it through 2013 by adding to his pitching ranks (acquiring Jake Peavy at the trade deadline) rather than subtracting from it.
Yet the wisdom of hoarding becomes clearer given a) the cost of starting pitching and b) the reality that the majority of pitching prospects have the staying power of fruit flies.
As for the former, Clayton Kershaw's record-setting seven-year, $215 million contract raises the bar on the price of the game's best pitching. Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka -- typically projected as either a No. 2 or No. 3 starter in the U.S. -- is likely to receive a nine-figure deal worth more than $20 million per year this week. Peavy ($14.5 million) and Dempster ($13 million) are being paid handsomely to round out the back of the Sox' rotation.
As for the latter, the reality is that not all of the Sox' pitching prospects will make their mark in the big leagues. In fact, the rate at which even top prospects fall by the wayside is somewhat startling to consider. Last month, Matt Perez of Camden Depot (updating work by Scott McKinney with Royals Review) wrote an eye-opening summary on the rate of success and (mostly) failure of top pitching prospects.
He notes that, even though prospect ranking systems like Baseball America's annual top 100 prospects have shown considerable improvement over time in the accuracy with which they forecast pitchers becoming eventual "successes" (meaning average or better contributors at the big league level, as calculated by wins above replacement), the frequency with which a top 100 prospect becomes a solid big league contributor remains dismal. Perez broke down all top 100 prospects from 1990-2006, and determined that in the most successful four-year stretch of his study (2003-06), just over 72 percent (nearly three out of four) represented "busts" based on their big league performances.
In other words, as loaded as the Sox appear in terms of their pitching prospects, the reality is that they don't know who exactly will emerge as the impact big leaguers from their current inventory. What they do know is that through injury or simple performance issues, not all of the promising arms in their possession will become pitching staff cornerstones.
Hence, the hoarding. The Red Sox want to buy as much time as possible, gain as thorough an evaluation as possible, on their young pitchers as they push each other for those precious opportunities in the big leagues. As much as is possible, the team is waiting to see which pitchers will separate themselves to assert their worthiness for a future rotation role.
All things being equal, they'd rather pay $500,000 a year for a pitcher like a Webster or an Owens or a Ranaudo or Barnes to be a part of their rotation rather than dropping the $100 million or so needed to get a mid-rotation starter via free agency. The significance of being able to find the next Jon Lester or Clay Buchholz (or even Felix Doubront) is monumental given not only how hard it is to acquire solid starting pitching but also how liberating it can be in rounding out the roster to have young, affordable pitching options.
"I don't know if you can ever overestimate the impact or the value that young pitching can have," Red Sox manager John Farrell observed at the Sox' Rookie Development Program last week. "Today, not knowing who of those guys are going to establish themselves as being the next members of our rotation, we feel good about the group that we have. We don't know specifically who it will be. Knowing that it's a game of attrition and we're going to have to continually provide a supply of big league arms, that's where, when you consider what we have at the big league level, yet the number of quality players that are making their way through the system, (Cherington) has done an incredible job of sustaining that pipeline."
Cherington, formerly the Sox' director of player development, has plenty of experience in terms of both the reality of pitching prospects hitting on their ceilings and the impact of trading away young talent.
The Red Sox have had 22 instances of pitchers in Baseball America's top 100 prospects list since 2000. While the career arcs of the most recent pitchers who were thusly recognized (Casey Kelly in 2010; Anthony Ranaudo and Drake Britton in 2011; Matt Barnes, Allen Webster and Henry Owens in 2013) remain to be determined, a nearly complete picture of the pre-free agent years of the pitchers who ranked among the publication's top 100 prospects in the 10-year span from 2000-09 can be made.
Here is the complete list (with Baseball America's ranking of the prospect in parentheses) -- with every instance of players who were ranked on multiple occasions included. The categories of success are based on the breakdown by Perez in his post for Camden Depot:
Michael Bowden (83) - 133 2/3 innings, career WAR 0.8 (bust)
Daniel Bard (98) - 257 1/3 innings, 1.2 average WAR (below average)
Clay Buchholz (4) - average 2.7 WAR per full cost-control season (good)
Justin Masterson (64) - average 2.0 WAR per full cost-control season (average)
Michael Bowden (94) - 133 2/3 innings, career WAR 0.8 (bust)
Daisuke Matsuzaka (1) - average 1.5 WAR per full cost-control season (average)
Clay Buchholz (51) - average 2.7 WAR per full cost-control season (good)
Daniel Bard (81) - 257 1/3 innings, 1.2 average WAR (below average)
Michael Bowden (83) - 133 2/3 innings, career WAR 0.8 (bust)
Jon Lester (22) - average 4.2 WAR per full cost-control season (superior)
Jonathan Papelbon (37) - average 2.5 WAR per full cost-control season (good)
Craig Hansen (54) - 93 2/3 innings, career WAR -1.9 (bust)
Jonathan Papelbon (91) - average 2.6 WAR per full cost-control season (good)
Seung Song (60) - never reached majors (bust)
Brad Baker (76) - never reached majors (bust)
Sun-Woo Kim (94) - 337 innings, career WAR 0.3 (bust)
To summarize: Of the 16 instances of Red Sox prospects getting ranked in Baseball America's top 100 prospects from 2000-09, there were:
7 busts (Bowden x 3, Hansen, Song, Baker, Kim) who offered little to no big league value
2 below average results (Bard x 2)
2 average results (Masterson, Matsuzaka)
4 good results (Buchholz x 2, Papelbon x 2)
1 very good result (Lester)
If pitchers are looked at individually, the breakdown is:
5 busts (Bowden, Hansen, Song, Baker, Kim)
1 below-average (Bard)
2 average (Masterson, Matsuzaka)
2 good (Papelbon, Buchholz)
1 very good (Lester)
At first glance, this short history looks rather ominous, with the majority of pitchers who made the list (6 of 11) being below-average or busts and more than two-thirds (8 of 11) being no more than average. However, three of the busts took place more than a decade ago. If one looks only at the players whose entry into the Sox system postdated the Dan Duquette regime, the relatively small group of pitchers features three of eight who were below-average or busts -- the same number that was good or very good.
And, of course, one can look at the group even more charitably -- if one considers that Bard, Masterson and even Matsuzaka at one point or another all represented significant assets. Still, the point remains with players like Bowden, Bard, Matsuzaka and Masterson -- each of whom represents a different sort of cautionary tale regarding player development -- that predicting the future with pitching prospects is an exercise in driving with a blindfold.
That notion underscores why the Red Sox, even at a time when they appear almost overloaded in future impact talent, have been anything but eager to part with their arms inventory. Better to keep a pitcher and be faced with a dilemma of converting him to a late-innings arm than to suddenly trade the next Masterson (for less than full value) and create a shortage that hamstrings the organization for years to come.
"Some might subscribe to the idea that there's safety in numbers, which in a certain sense there is. But it's our job to let that player reach his ultimate potential. Time will tell what that is," said Farrell. "The great thing is that the pool of talent is large. Not to say we would ever have too much, but if there's the need for a change of role because of the numbers of guys available, then it's a further benefit."
The Sox are taking the approach that there is not merely safety but strength in numbers -- and for now, the team seems in no hurry to undermine that asset.