FORT MYERS, Fla. -- On the cusp of his 20th professional season, Ryan Dempster made a decision that was little short of stunning. Though entitled to the $13.25 million guaranteed salary that awaited him in 2014, Dempster felt that he was not in position physically or emotionally to live up to his end of the pact.
And so, even though he could have collected on that entire sum just for going through the motions of rehabbing his injured neck while counting days to his retirement, he informed the Red Sox that he will not pitch this year, thus forfeiting the money that was his for the taking.
"I have too much respect for this game, too much respect for my teammates, and for the game of baseball and for the organization to go out there and not be ready," said Dempster. "I’ve always taken great pride in being able to be prepared and be ready to go out there and perform and I’m not ready to do that so I’m not going to out there and half-ass it and not be a 100 percent to committed to that."
From a practical standpoint, the decision gives the Red Sox immense financial freedom. The team likely would have dealt Dempster to any team willing to absorb a large fraction of his contract; no such suitors had emerged this offseason. Now, the Sox are relieved of the entirety of his money, giving them the freedom either to re-sign Stephen Drew or to save a substantial nugget for a potential blockbuster during the season.
Still, Dempster -- who would have been in competition for the fifth starter's spot this spring, barring a trade of either him or Jake Peavy -- offered the Sox veteran starting depth, a critical component of the Sox' success en route to a title in 2013. The Sox do not have a comparable pitcher with his kind of experience to replace him.
Nonetheless, after the Sox hoarded their upper levels pitching prospects for the last two years, the team believes that it has accumulated the homegrown arms inventory to withstand Dempster's departure. While the team lacks depth options with well-defined major league track records, it possesses strength in both numbers and potential.
"We've got a good core group or good young group of what we feel strong prospects," said Sox manager John Farrell. "They're long on talent and they're short on experience. We feel confident with the talent that's here."
With Dempster gone, here is a look at the Sox' depth options in order of major league ETA:
RHP BRANDON WORKMAN
25 years old
On 40-man roster
Big league ETA: Ready
2013 (Double-A, Triple-A, majors): 142 2/3 IP, 14-5, 3.72 ERA, 9.8 K/9, 2.8 BB/9
By the time he added 8 2/3 innings without an earned run in the postseason to his impressive campaign, Workman had earned the complete faith of manager John Farrell to the point that he was summoned as the team's eighth-inning option in the World Series clincher.
That emergence underscored the place that Workman holds in the Sox organization as the most trusted member of its pitching prospect pool. His willingness to attack the strike zone creates a vulnerability to hard contact and home runs, but he still generates plenty of swings and misses with his fastball and curve, and he's shown the ability to get ground balls on his cutter and change.
Workman's ceiling in the rotation is likely that of a durable fourth or fifth starter who can routinely deliver six-plus innings. As much as Farrell believes in him as a reliever, he is just as convinced that he has the arsenal to be a big league starter, a notion that gained steam when Workman had a 2.45 ERA in three starts with 18 punchouts and just four walks in 18 1/3 innings to start his big league career before his shift to the bullpen. He'll likely be available as a multi-innings relief option to open the year who would be the first line of defense if the Sox needed a starter.
RHP ALLEN WEBSTER
24 years old
On 40-man roster
Big league ETA: Early 2014
2013 (Triple-A, majors): 135 1/3 IP, 9-6, 4.72 ERA, 9.2 K/9, 4.1 BB/9
The impression made by Allen Webster in Red Sox camp last year was nothing short of spectacular. He showed the ability to unleash mid- to high-90s comets with sink, using the offering to get grounders while getting swings and misses on a diverse array of secondary pitches, headlined by an excellent changeup but with whiffs also coming on his slider and curveball. His 2013 season got off to a terrific start, including a strong outing in his big league debut, but it unraveled starting in May as he shuttled between the big leagues and Triple-A, getting hit hard and losing the strike zone in both locations.
Webster has the athleticism to repeat his delivery, with one talent evaluator describing him as being Zack Greinke-ish in terms of his athleticism and stuff. But there are questions about the right-hander's confidence and mound presence, and his willingness to use his fastball with conviction.
If his high walks and HBP totals were merely a matter of mechanics rather than psyche, then there is a chance that he could find a way -- as he did last spring and in April -- to pound the strike zone with the sort of stuff that is reminiscent of Clay Buchholz. For his part, Webster recognizes this fact and believes that he knows what he needs to do to attack the strike zone.
"I wasn't getting behind the ball. I was letting it go from behind my head and it was sailing away up and in to righties," Webster said of his struggles to throw strikes in the middle of last year. "If I command [the fastball] consistently, my other stuff plays along behind it really easily. … I know [the pitch mix] definitely plays [at the big league level], but it doesn't play from behind in the count. I have to get ahead first before I can think of getting batters out."
In an ideal scenario, Webster would once again submit a dazzling spring training and then validate that performance by overmatching hitters in Triple-A before positioning himself for a potential call-up. Whereas Workman has the foundation to thrive in the big leagues right now, Webster has more to prove. Still, his stuff could be that of a top-of-the-rotation starter -- so long as he can locate it and pitch with the conviction needed for such stature. If not, then he might end up drifting towards status as a late-innings bullpen option.
Many members of the Sox still believe in the ceiling and upside of Webster.
"He came up, he had some challenges, much like any first year pitcher would have, but if we were looking at Allen Webster walking into this camp coming off the year he had solely in Triple-A, you'd say, wow, this is another major step towards another very good major league pitcher," said Farrell. "He went through some challenges last year for the first time, and it doesn't taint our feel for what his capabilities are."
RHP RUBBY DE LA ROSA
24 years old
On 40-man roster
Big-league ETA: Early 2014
2013 (Triple-A, majors): 91 2/3 IP, 3-5, 4.39 ERA, 8.1 K/9, 4.9 BB/9
The Sox merely scratched the surface with De La Rosa in 2013, a season in which his results didn't align with his potential. Part of that was the right-hander's fault, as the organization had questions about his conditioning at the start of the year. But part of that was a byproduct of extenuating circumstances: The fact that he was working his way back to comfort on the mound in his first year on the mound following Tommy John surgery, the fact that he was negotiating his way through restrictive pitch counts, the fact that he was acclimating to a new organization . . .
The net result is that the Sox will know a lot more about what De La Rosa can be at the end of this year than they do right now. In particular, the team will gauge whether he can show the command to permit his high-octane arsenal -- a mid- to high-90s heater (he hit triple digits as a starter before Tommy John surgery) that is straight but powerful enough to generate whiffs, complemented by the ability to get swings and misses with his changeup and slider -- to play.
"You're hoping after a full year of Tommy John and it's the second year now, you're almost waiting for that extra gear to kick in -- the gear that, I don't have to create more with my body, I can manipulate the baseball with my hand a little more," said Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves. "I always say I'd rather see 92, 93, 91 to the glove than 105 everywhere else. I'm really looking forward to a guy like him, coming back in the second year from Tommy John, being able to command it. Hopefully we can see an extra gear there. Going from fifth gear to sixth gear would be great. If it happens, great, but ball to the glove [is key] for me."
While there are some evaluators who wonder whether De La Rosa is best suited to air things out in short stints, it is worth noting that of the Sox' depth options, he's had the most success as a big league starter. In 2011, prior to his surgery, the right-hander went 3-5 with a 3.88 ERA, 55 strikeouts and 30 walks in 55 2/3 innings, offering (at age 22) the first signs of what appeared to be considerable potential.
Like Webster, De La Rosa would likely benefit from the ability to open the year in Triple-A. In his case, he likely needs an opportunity to enjoy a stretch in which he can work without restrictions and dominate.
One caveat with De La Rosa: Even with a brief year-ending stint in the Dominican Winter League, he worked only 95 1/3 innings in 2013, and has never logged more than 110 1/3 innings in a professional season. That suggests there might be different workload restrictions (albeit ones that are less severe than he faced a year ago) with him than with Workman or Webster.
Still, his mix of swing-and-miss offerings gives him a big ceiling -- perhaps as high as that of a No. 2 starter if he can keep his stuff in the strike zone.
RHP ANTHONY RANAUDO
24 years old
On 40-man roster
Big-league ETA: Mid-2014
2013 (Double-A, Triple-A): 140 IP, 11-5, 2.96 ERA, 8.2 K/9, 3.0 BB/9
There were stretches when Ranaudo simply blew away his opponents in Double-A in the first half of the year, mixing a 91-95 mph fastball (which topped out at 97 mph) with a curveball that likewise garnered swings and misses and a viable changeup that he brought into the mix. Some scouts saw him on days when it looked like Ranaudo possessed the upside of a No. 2 starter in the big leagues -- a drastic departure from the 2012 season in which Ranaudo rarely showed the mix of a big league starter while struggling through injury.
However, some of Ranaudo's dominance in Double-A derived from an ability to get batters to chase fastballs above the strike zone. His punchouts typically came from an expansion of the strike zone; at the upper levels, opposing hitters may prove less likely to chase his heater, which would result in a diminished strikeout rate. The fact that he went from 8.7 strikeouts per nine to 6.2 strikeouts per nine when he was promoted to Triple-A in August hinted at that possibility. That raises questions about where his future might lie in the spectrum of a No. 2 to a No. 4 starter, with the majority of evaluators suggesting that he's closer to the latter than the former.
Still, if healthy, Ranaudo has a chance to exceed the more pessimistic projections about what type of starter he might be, given strong reports on his aptitude and makeup. Since he is on the 40-man roster, and given that he had a strong month and a half in Triple-A, he has perhaps the best chance to accelerate his big league timetable of anyone on this list. With a strong early performance, it's not inconceivable that he could assert himself as the best option of Pawtucket's rotation members in the early season.
LHP DRAKE BRITTON
24 years old
On 40-man roster
Big-league ETA: Mid-2014 (if as a starter)
2013 (Triple-A, majors): 123 2/3 IP, 8-8, 3.78 ERA, 7.4 K/9, 3.2 BB/9
The Sox converted Britton on the fly from the rotation to the bullpen in the big leagues last year, and the left-hander answered the bell with seven straight scoreless appearances to open his career before giving up nine runs in his final 12 innings of the year.
Britton's immediate success in the big leagues obscured the fact that he skipped a critical developmental step along the way. The left-hander made just one start in Triple-A before the Sox' depleted bullpen necessitated his promotion to the big leagues.
While he features what one AL scout described as "big-time ability" -- a mid-90s fastball, a slider that made considerable strides last year and worked as an out-pitch in the big leagues, a usable curveball and changeup -- that hint at starting pitcher potential, most believe that his future is indeed as a late-innings, hard-throwing lefty. Still, his stuff is too good not to ignore the possibility of developing him in the rotation (with a likely back-end ceiling), but he'd likely need to demonstrate more in Triple-A before he'd become a consideration as a depth option.
RHP MATT BARNES
23 years old
Not on 40-man roster
Big-league ETA: Late-2014
2013 (Double-A, Triple-A): 113 1/3 IP, 6-10, 4.13 ERA, 11.3 K/9, 3.8 BB/9
On the one hand, Barnes recorded just six outs in the seventh inning or later, made nine starts of fewer than five innings and just six of six or more innings while struggling with pitch efficiency, a byproduct of his inability to add a consistent breaking ball to his excellent fastball and solid changeup. On the other hand, most evaluators agree that the fastball is special, zipping through the strike zone at an easy 93-96 mph (topping out as high as 98) in a fashion that allows him to garner tons of swings and misses on pitches in the strike zone. In 2013, despite his issues with pitch efficiency, he was a strikeout machine, leading the Eastern League in strikeouts per nine innings.
Ultimately, Barnes took stock of his strong finish in his season-ending promotion to Triple-A and recognized a meaningful building block going forward.
"Even though I wasn't completely happy with my numbers last year -- I would have liked them to be better -- I thought it was a really productive year for myself," said Barnes. "I learned a lot about myself and I finished a lot stronger than I had the year before, and even, frankly, better than I started. That's a real positive that I took away and was able to leave the season with a good month and a half, two months, where I could say, 'I took a lot away from this,' and feel really good entering the offseason."
There were times when Barnes showed an average curveball. It's a pitch he won't need often -- just enough to give batters something to think about beyond the fastball and changeup. If he can develop any kind of consistency with his breaking ball, even if it advances only as far as being a slightly below-average pitch, then his primary weapon is good enough to imagine a mid-rotation future.
That said, because he's not on the 40-man roster (the Sox don't have to add him to the 40-man until after the 2014 season), unless he absolutely overpowers the International League early in the year, he'd be unlikely to bypass the other potential depth starters until later in the season. There is some arsenal refinement that the Sox would like to see before deeming him big league ready.
LHP HENRY OWENS
21 years old
Not on 40-man roster
Big league ETA: 2015
2013 (High-A, Double-A): 135 IP, 11-6,2.67 ERA, 11.3 K/9, 4.5 BB/9
The top Red Sox pitching prospect is also likely the furthest from the big leagues, as the 21-year-old Owens is expected to open 2014 in Double-A Portland, and he doesn't have to be added to the 40-man roster for purposes of protecting him from the Rule 5 draft until after the 2015 season. Still, talent often dictates the pace of development, and when Owens watched Workman move from Double-A to a staple of the Red Sox staff in 2013, he had an epiphany.
"If you perform, everyone is going to get their opportunity," said Owens. "My biggest worry might be that I have to learn how to grow a beard. I can’t really grow facial hair yet. Too young, I guess. Maybe down the line sometime."
Fortunately for Owens, most members of the Red Sox have shed their beards. As for his mound attributes . . .
The left-hander doesn't feature huge velocity, but opposing hitters clearly struggle to pick up the ball from the hand of the 6-foot-7 hurler, allowing him to get plenty of swings and misses even as he works at 88-92 mph (bumping up as high as 95 mph) with his fastball. He has a devastating changeup, and a curveball that often represents a solid average offering and at times plays up as plus. When the curve was on last year, Owens verged on unhittable. Indeed, the watchword of his season was unhittable, given that he had the lowest opponents' batting average (.177) of any pitcher to qualify for the ERA title in full season minor league ball.
He still needs to improve his strike-throwing and lower his walks total to reach his projected ceiling of a No. 2 or No. 3 starter, but the Sox are optimistic that he will do just that as he continues to add muscle and strength needed to repeat his lanky-framed delivery. Indeed, the strength gains he's made have been considerable already as he prepares for the start of his third pro season -- he added six pounds of muscle just from the time of the Rookie Development Program in January through his arrival for spring training in Fort Myers. Meanwhile, he shows a very advanced understanding of how to pitch, with a feel for sequencing and pitch selection that suggests a pitcher who can find ways to succeed even without his best stuff.
Some evaluators were underwhelmed with his stuff, but still saw a pitcher who harbored similarities to Reds left-hander Tony Cingrani (who had a 2.92 ERA, 10.3 strikeouts per nine and 3.7 walks per nine as a 23-year-old rookie last year). Others see considerable upside of Owens' stuff, in a fashion that -- in combination with his feel for his craft and deceptive delivery -- make him a pitcher around whom the Sox should plan to build for years to come.