MINNEAPOLIS -- Rarely for the Red Sox has the showcase event known as the All-Star Futures Game assumed such literal significance.
Jon Lester arrived in Minneapolis on Sunday night, hours after Red Sox minor league left-hander Henry Owens had concluded his work in the Futures Game. Whereas Owens served as a prelude to Lester during baseball's midseason break, however, the question of whether Owens potentially represents an eventual successor to Lester as a front-of-the-rotation option for the Sox is an increasingly significant one.
No one, of course, expects the Sox' top pitching prospect to step in as the new pillar of the rotation in 2015. And given the typical player development paths, it's probably a few years before Owens might be able to grow into whatever big league role represents his ultimate destination.
But, at the least, in Owens the Sox have a pitcher who is driven by the self-confidence to assert that he is capable of leading a staff -- even as he expresses his deference and hope that he will instead get to be Lester's teammate rather than his eventual replacement.
"Absolutely. If I didn't have that confidence [about being a front-of-the-rotation starter], I wouldn't be here today. I wouldn't be pitching every day and coming to the ball field trying to get better," Owens said on Sunday, prior to the Futures Game. "But at the same time, no one knows. I've never pitched in the big leagues. Lester's been a veteran for how many years now? He's been an ace for how many years now? He's great. It's fun to watch him play. I have a hunch the Red Sox are going to do the right thing and keep him latched on. He deserves to retire a Red Sox."
Yet with Lester's future unsettled, Owens' future will assume an increasingly prominent place in the spotlight.
But what is that future?
IGNORING THE MOLD
One of these things was not like the other.
The All-Star Futures Game typically features a run of pitchers who seem as if they came off the same assembly line. Inning by inning, there usually is a display of high-90s velocity accompanied by a knee-buckling breaking ball as part of a showcase event that's all about power.
Owens was aware of that fact, and aware of the fact that he didn't conform to that mold. And so, as he rode with teammate Sean Coyle to Target Field for a workout on Saturday, Owens had few expectations for what his role might be.
"I was joking with Coyle yesterday, saying I'd probably throw eighth or ninth because I don't throw 100," Owens said.
As it turned out, Owens' dominant performance to date in Double-A Portland -- he is 12-3 (tied for the minor league lead in wins) with a 2.21 ERA (14th in the minors), 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings and 3.4 walks per nine, and has averaged more than six innings an outing while holding opponents to a .183 average (third lowest in the minors) -- earned him the honor of starting the showcase event.
Owens suggested that the opportunity to take the ball first in such an event was deeply meaningful, yet he had no plans to alter who he was as a pitcher in order to try to conform with more typical expectations of Futures Game participants.
"I'm going to throw fastballs and slow changeups and try to make my fastball look faster than it really is," said Owens. "I'll probably reach back on an 0-2, ahead of the count, flash the radar gun for entertainment purposes, people who watch the game and appreciate velocity over pitching."
Owens meant the statement in jest, but the outlook said a lot about who he is as a pitcher. The 6-foot-7 giant with size 17 feet and hands that are roughly the size of a seal's flippers presents a distinctive look, yet he's extremely comfortable in his own skin on the mound.
He is aware of those who look at his stuff -- particularly the lack of crazy fastball velocity (though he'll top out at 93 or 94, Owens typically works at 89-92 mph) and the suggestions that his curveball is a work in progress -- and wonder about where in a rotation he projects. Yet the 21-year-old, described by Coyle as a "big goofball -- he's big and he's a goofball," seems to enjoy such dings on his scouting report. He discusses them candidly with both a smile and a hint of an edge as he assesses his progress in 2014.
His changeup is not a question. It's always been his signature pitch, a devastating offering that yielded both of his swings and misses in a scoreless, one-hit, 19-pitch inning of work on Sunday that was punctuated by a swinging strikeout of cleanup hitter Kennys Vargas.
The other two pitches have progressed in meaningful ways this year, more frequently finding the strike zone and thus allowing Owens to show the ability to build his workload despite remaining within the strictures of a roughly 100-pitch limit in outings.
"Fastball command is everything. My curveball, I've always believed in. I don't know if someone else didn't. I mean, I get it -- I throw a lot of changeups -- but my curveball, I'm kind of overusing it in my starts now, trying to prove a point," said Owens. "[The point is being made for] anyone who doesn't think I have one, anyone who just thinks I have a changeup and a fastball. … [The curveball] was there last year. It was there the year before that. But I just didn't throw it a lot. So I'm throwing it more, incorporating it more."
Owens underscored that point on Sunday, opening the game with a 70 mph curveball that served as a reminder to the scouting world that packed the event -- it's a pitch he's comfortable with, and unafraid to use in any situation. (Of course, the fact that he missed high with the pitch dulled the punctuation mark.)
While dominating in Double-A Portland, Owens has used his pitches to increasingly dominant effect. The curveball -- a pitch his father wouldn't allow him to throw until high school, thus relegating Owens to a fastball/change/knuckleball mix in Little League -- has been a more frequent, and more reliable, weapon for him as the season has progressed. And whereas he had some issues with fastball control early in the year, Owens has been pouring strikes with the pitch for roughly the last seven weeks, a stretch in which he's worked at least into the seventh inning in six of nine outings.
Owens has been nothing short of dominant in Double-A, yet some scouts don't necessarily come away wowed. They wonder how, with his velocity, he gets the frequency of swings and misses that he does with his fastball; they still wonder whether the curveball will be consistent enough to be an effective weapon, or if it will be more of a show-me pitch in the big leagues that lags behind his other offerings.
THE PRESENT VS. POSSIBILITY
The range of scouting opinions on him is thus wide -- one scout pegged him as a likely No. 4 with the ceiling of a No. 3 starter and a floor of a two-pitch bullpen guy; another viewed him as a pitcher with three solid to above-average pitches who projects as a future No. 2 type.
But, of course, it is one thing to view Owens through the prism of present stuff -- and another to view him through the lens of development and aptitude. When the Red Sox took Owens with the No. 36 pick in the 2011 draft, their third selection in what could prove a franchise-changing haul, it was with an eye toward the upside that was as big as the pitcher himself.
Southern California area scout Tom Battista saw Owens employing a fastball that would get up to 89-90 mph (but on which Owens was comfortable adding and subtracting velocity -- "It wasn't a radar contest to him," noted Battista), a very good changeup and "a 12-to-6, Aaron Sele-type curveball." Yet as Battista returned to see Owens, he also saw variations in what the young pitcher was doing, such as employing a three-quarters curve that he would throw with more power and break.
It was as if Owens was conducting an ongoing pitching experiment, the lone high schooler working diligently in the mound laboratory. This was evidence of uncommon mound self-awareness and aptitude.
"At the time, he was kind of blowing my mind, like, 'Wow, this guy is changing right before my eyes,' " said Battista. "The trend was always going up."
Owens possessed what Battista viewed as three average pitches (fastball, change, curve) in high school, with the possibility of considerable upside depending on what might happen with further strength gains, particularly given what Battista saw of Owens' commitment to maximizing his ability and refining his craft.
The pitcher presented the scout "at least a middle-of-the-rotation projection. If he fills out all of his projection and oversees expectations, he could be a front-line guy," Battista concluded. "When you go along with all the tools he has on the mound and you mix in his character and makeup, it kind of takes him to another level. Nobody is a perfect player out there, but he is as close to the ideal guy as you hope for.
"All things considered, the mental side is a lot bigger than people seem to believe. If you have the ability to fail and get back out there and succeed the next day or the next inning, and he has that. He's got a very fun-loving, carefree personality. He gets on the mound and turns that hat around on game day and he turns into an animal."
Now, three years later, similar traits remain on display. Owens continues to grow, to improve steadily in his execution and his craft. And he's still a week shy of turning 22.
Though Owens continues to add strength and fill out his frame, there's a good chance that he won't be the prototypical ace who lives in the mid-90s with his fastball. As such, few will project him as an ace or an obvious heir apparent to Lester.
Instead, his execution and results will have to challenge any doubts about his stuff. To date, it has done just that -- he's been markedly better than his older competition in both High-A Salem and Double-A Portland over the last two years. And he's consistently shown improvement, in part because he's been determined to improve.
"You can always do something every single day to get a little bit better," said Owens. "I literally will have trouble sleeping at night if I feel like I took a step back, if I had a rough outing or if I had a rough side."
How his stuff and ability translates to Triple-A and the majors remains something of an unknown -- and something of great importance for the Red Sox, whose future will be shaped in no small part by what path Owens follows.