Evidently, Henry Owens felt ready for the next level.
The 22-year-old delivered that message in blaring fashion in his Triple-A debut on Monday night. A pitcher who'd looked for a month or more like someone who was ready to graduate from Double-A made the point in no uncertain terms in his first outing with Pawtucket.
Owens, the Sox' top pitching prospect, took a no-hitter into the sixth inning en route to 6 2/3 shutout frames in which he allowed two hits (both singles), walked three and hit a batter while punching out nine. He pounded the strike zone (70 of 100 pitches) with a three-pitch mix that revealed not only the ability to get swings and misses with his fastball (89-93 mph) and changeup but also a curveball -- typically viewed as Owens' third-best pitch -- with tremendous break that either paralyzed hitters when in the strike zone or had them chasing when it dove out of it.
He elicited a swing and miss on roughly one out of every five pitches he threw, with each of the three elements in his repertoire eliciting plenty of miserable flails on the part of Cleveland's Triple-A team. He showed the stuff not just of a Triple-A pitcher but of a future big leaguer.
But when might he get the opportunity to compete at the highest level?
Short answer: Almost certainly not either this year or at the start of 2015.
"I think Henry has a chance next year at some point to come up and pitch for us, definitely," Red Sox assistant GM Mike Hazen said on WEEI's Dennis & Callahan show on Friday. "I think it's a little premature to say that he's going to break with the club next year and be in the rotation."
If the Sox had been planning on having Owens in the big leagues this year or even at the beginning of next year, he'd have been in Triple-A before August. He'd shown progress in virtually every area that the Sox had outlined for his needed improvement in Double-A, whether ability to repeat his delivery and throw strikes, curveball usage and execution, holding runners ...
Over a two-month span from May 24 through July 23, Owens won all nine of his starts, going 9-0 with a 1.46 ERA with 8.8 strikeouts and 2.0 walks per nine while holding opponents to a .195 average. Even with a crowded PawSox rotation, the team could have forced his promotion to Triple-A if it had wanted to get a true sense of his major league readiness for the start of 2015. Didn't happen.
Why not? Or, considered in a different vein, why does it look like he's unlikely to be considered for the Opening Day rotation next year? A few reasons:
1. There is something to be said for having players show they can compete at the highest levels of the minors -- not just on a limited basis but over a sustained one.
The Rays, for instance, have enjoyed striking success in transitioning their top pitching prospects into quality major leaguers who experience no more than limited hiccups. Aside from David Price (who, as the first overall pick in the 2007 draft, was basically big league-ready when he left college) and Matt Moore (pressed to the big leagues late in 2011 by Tampa Bay's desperate push to get past the Red Sox), virtually all of the top Rays pitching prospects have spent at least 20 starts in Triple-A before moving up to the big leagues.
It's not by accident.
The ability to compete against big leaguers is distinct from readiness to succeed against them. As this season has underscored for the Red Sox, there is value in minimizing the transition from the minors to the big leagues. Owens showed the ability to make good use of his time in Double-A. He seems almost certain to make productive use of his time in Pawtucket as well, in a fashion that may help ease his transition to the highest level.
2. What would justify fast-tracking Owens' development? The absence of other alternatives who would give him time to develop in the minors. The Sox have those alternatives, even after the deals that shipped out Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront in a six-day span.
The need to permit a pitcher like Owens time to grow in the minors is part of the reason why the team needed to acquire a pitcher like Joe Kelly who is a somewhat known commodity, ready to offer a degree of reliability at the big league level. The experience and ages of Brandon Workman and Rubby De La Rosa suggest pitchers ready to compete in the big leagues, and whose performances can be judged on their own merits rather than against the context of whether they've had enough experience in Triple-A. Allen Webster and Anthony Ranaudo now have enough time with Pawtucket that they can be evaluated on the basis of their big league performances without too much concern for the brevity of their time competing against players with big league experience.
Unquestionably, Owens remains the organization's top pitching prospect, the one with a defined three-pitch mix of average or better offerings that suggests a floor of a No. 3 starter and a ceiling of (depending who is asked) a good No. 3 or even a No. 2 starter. But a case can be made that at this moment in time, he hasn't separated himself in terms of stuff and execution from the other pitching prospects in a fashion that would demand that he leapfrog them.
3. Owens doesn't have to be added to the 40-man roster until after the 2015 season. If the Sox call him up in September, they'd be compromising depth, losing a spot for another player on the 40-man. In an offseason where the Sox will have to add players like Sean Coyle, Matt Barnes, Travis Shaw and Blake Swihart to the 40-man if they want to avoid losing them to the Rule 5 draft, with other candidates for the 40-man like Henry Ramos and Noe Ramirez also looming, the Sox could use as much flexibility on their roster as possible. A desire to keep 40-man spots free doesn't completely rule out a call-up for Owens -- see Mookie Betts, who like Owens, didn't have to be added to the big league roster for the purposes of protecting him from the Rule 5 draft until after 2015 -- but unless the big league need is glaring (for either competitive or evaluation purposes), it matters. And there's certainly no competitive need for the Sox to call up Owens in the short term, particularly for the rest of this year.
4. The Sox *do* need to evaluate De La Rosa, Workman, Webster and, to a lesser degree, Ranaudo against big leaguers to figure out which of them represents legitimate candidates for the rotation last year. De La Rosa is out of options after this year; Webster is in his second of three option seasons.
5. Owens is at 127 2/3 innings with five starts left in Pawtucket's season (perhaps more if the PawSox make the International League playoffs), meaning that he's in line for a hefty workload boost to about 155-160 innings this year from the 135 he tallied last year. That's plenty of added exertion for a pitcher who just turned 22, putting him in line for a potential boost to about 180 innings in 2015.
6. The possibility that a number of those innings next year could come in the big leagues adds to the potential benefit of a season-opening stint in Triple-A, where the Sox can more easily regulate Owens' workload with an eye toward keeping him strong for the finishing stretch.
7. Long-term control of the pitcher. In a reprisal of the conversation that surrounded the question of whether to bring Jackie Bradley Jr. to the big leagues out of spring training in 2013, it's worth noting that the Sox capture an extra year of team control before he reaches free agency if they keep Owens in the minors through at least the first 10 days of the 2015 season. Whereas the Sox made the decision to have Bradley in the big leagues to open 2013 when he could play every day and impact a number of games, having Owens open next year in the big leagues -- rather than keeping him in the minors for a couple of games -- would influence the course of no more than one out of every five days. It's hard to justify sacrificing a year of a player's prime years in order to squeeze two extra big league starts out of him.
None of that diminishes the standing of Owens in the organization. After three years of minor league dominance, and a feel for pitching that goes beyond his years, Owens has emerged as a pitcher who likely represents a critical component of the team's future.
"Henry's a tremendously talented pitcher. He's probably one of the best in our entire system. He's got stuff. He's got feel. He's got the ability to throw a changeup. He has a big curveball. He's obviously a huge kid. And he has a great makeup," Hazen said on Dennis & Callahan. "If that's going to translate to a No. 1 starting pitcher, I think it's a bit premature to say that right now. I think he certainly has the ability to pitch at the top of a rotation."
It just may take some time before Owens gets the opportunity in the big leagues to start his attempt to navigate to such a position.
If one were to view the left-hander purely based on stuff, makeup and execution, then he might have as high as a 50-50 chance to open next year in the rotation -- particularly if other young Sox pitchers fall on their faces next spring. (It's worth stating: The Sox aren't going to enter next year with a rotation of Clay Buchholz, Kelly and three pitchers without big league track records.) In a never-say-never organization, the idea of Owens delivering a singularly dominant spring while his peers struggle can't be dismissed; if that happens, then there's at least a chance, however slight, that he opens next year in the big leagues.
But that represents the unlikely outlier possibility. Given the overall shape of the decision and the opportunity for the Sox to round out Owens' player development rather than rush it, the wait for fascinating lefty's arrival in the big leagues seems likely to last at least until next summer.