Felix Doubront’s intentions were clear as he walked toward the mound at Lowell's LeLacheur Park late in 2007. He wasn’t supposed to be there — not with all of his potential and expectations for success — and he was determined to prove it.
“I am going to kill this league and then go up again,” he vowed to himself.
He could do it, he believed. Losing was not an option.
Doubront had been demoted from Single-A Greenville to short-season Lowell of the New York-Penn League in the summer of 2007. The pitching prospect from Venezuela had fallen to 3-7 with an 8.93 ERA before being assigned to the Spinners, the team for whom he finished the 2006 season.
Doubront, who was 19 at the time, was so affected by the designation that he was brought to tears when he arrived back in Lowell. While he didn’t fear the end of his career, he felt like he had just been released.
This was his chance for redemption. He knew a few good showings with the Spinners could put him back on track in the Red Sox system. But like so much that happened in 2007, his first outing was a disappointment. The rest of the season in Lowell wasn’t much better.
“My first game, I gave up eight runs. Tell me how that feels,” Doubront, now 22, recalled. “I was thinking that night, ‘I said I’m going to kill this league but I really can’t.’ If I can throw here, I can throw anywhere, but in that moment I felt really bad. I felt like I can’t go anymore. I’m going to stay here. That’s it.”
So, how did the teenager who questioned his place in short season Single-A ball end up in the Red Sox clubhouse just three years later?
A VENEZUELAN DISCOVERY
The road to Boston began in Carabobo, Venezuela. It was there that a four-year-old Doubront began playing baseball with the encouragement of his mother, Nancy. It took him a while to realize his level of talent surpassed other kids his age, but by the time he was 14, he sought out a trainer to begin pursuing a major league career.
Doubront trained in Valencia and was advised to forego playing outfield and first base to focus primarily on pitching. The transition paid off.
By the time he was 15, Doubront was being showcased to major league organizations as a left-handed pitcher. Although he was too young to sign, he was attracting attention. He spent the next year training, working on his mechanics, and overcoming a bout of carpal tunnel syndrome in his left hand. When he became eligible at 16, the suitors were waiting.
The A’s and Cubs expressed interest. The Mariners, Phillies and Yankees offered contracts. Doubront turned them all down. The teenager, looking toward financial security in his future, wanted more money.
When he met Miguel Garcia, he got more than that. The Red Sox scout told Doubront he liked his potential. And unlike other organizations, the Red Sox were not deep with lefties.
“Boston talked to me and told me, ‘We don’t really care about how hard you’re throwing now, just your future,’” Doubront said. “I liked that. I started talking with my agent and he told me they don’t have really good left-handed pitchers in that moment. The Mariners had an old team, a lot of left-handed pitchers. So I started going toward Boston, [thinking], ‘It’s good for me. It’s going to be good for me.’ ”
The Red Sox signed Doubront for a bonus of about $150,000 in July 2004. And like that, the 16-year-old who once watched Carlos Zambrano make his way from Carabobo to the Majors was on the same path.
Doubront pitched — and struggled — that year in the Parallel League (Venezuela’s winter minor league). He quickly discovered the reality of being a teenager among men, and he sought the advice of his mother.
“I talked with my mom and said, ‘All my life, that’s what I wanted, to get into the big leagues. I know I can do it. I know I can,’ ” he remembered. “I said to my mother, ‘You know, I’m a warrior. I know I can be someone in the big leagues.’ She said to me slowly, ‘You know what you are doing. Get strong.’ It was a long, long talk with my mom.”
Doubront went to Fort Myers for spring training in 2005. He noticed one field filled with minor leaguers, but there was another with a different group of players. He eyed the Red Sox and thought, “I want to be up there.”
Doubront returned to Venezuela for summer league. Those who hadn’t heard of him before did that year. He went 7-1 with a 0.97 ERA in 60-plus innings. He told himself that if he pitched that well every year, he could make it to the majors by the time he was 20, like Felix Hernandez.
His progress went according to plan in 2006. He performed well in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, earning a call-up to Lowell, where he won both of his starts at the end of he season.
A DREAM DEFERRED
But Doubront developed an umbilical hernia that year, and in an effort to stay on track for the following season, elected for surgery in November in Venezuela. The recovery did not go as smoothly as he hoped.
“That started the worst year I had in baseball,” he said.
The 2007 campaign was not a year of progress for Doubront. Rather, it was a year of setbacks. He had gone to Fort Myers confident that he would make the Greenville squad but instead remained in extended spring training, rehabbing for what seemed like an eternity.
In addition to the hernia, Doubront recalled dealing with injuries to his knee and Achilles tendon, along with a staph infection, during his time in extended spring training. The more pain he endured, the more he felt his dreams slipping away. But rehabbing in Fort Myers was necessary for his future in the majors.
Doubront pitched his first game for Greenville on May 23, 2007. The injuries, however, lingered. By the time he had racked up an ERA of nearly nine, then-manager Gabe Kapler delivered the devastating news.
“Kapler told me, ‘I’m sad for you. I know you’re good,’ ” Doubront said. “And the pitching coach, too, they’ve known me for the past few years. They knew I could be good. He told me, ‘You’re going down, and hopefully you can do better down there.’ ”
Doubront hadn’t felt like himself at times that year, but a demotion to short-season Single-A ball? That was a feeling he had never experienced before. It was difficult to maintain confidence when he was being told he had to go to Lowell.
He spent several restless nights living in a condo by LeLacheur Park. He had goals of being in the majors by 20, not struggling with the Spinners at 19.
Doubront knew what he had to do. He became determined to regain his focus and improve his numbers (1-3, 5.66 ERA). Spring training was only a few months away, and that was his opportunity to redeem himself amidst a disappointing 2007 campaign.
A RETURN TO THE PROSPECT MAP
Doubront had mixed emotions when he reported to Fort Myers in 2008. He wanted to make the Greenville squad, but his self-assurance had suffered a blow.
“I started again like a little kid, no confidence,” he said. “I felt like the staff didn’t treat me like two years ago. I think it was in my head. I felt like they were disappointed in me. That was the sad part.”
But the Red Sox did have confidence in Doubront, and soon he did, too. He was finally healthy and able to participate in a full offseason training program. The organization noted an improvement and assigned him to Greenville to start the season.
Less than a year after being in tears over a demotion, Doubront’s confidence was at an all-time high. He went 12-8 and watched his ERA dwindle to 3.67. That season he also met his future wife, Kimberly, in Greenville, further adding to his happiness.
Doubront had wanted so badly to make it to Greenville, and at the end of the season the Red Sox wanted him to leave. Only this time it wasn’t a demotion. Doubront was called up to the High-A Lancaster JetHawks.
Clear Channel Stadium (also referred to as the “Hangar”) isn’t exactly an ideal ballpark for pitchers. It’s a place where jet streams can whisk pop-ups away into home runs, yet Doubront refused to let this opportunity out of his grasp. He tallied an ERA of just 3.86 (noteworthy given the conditions), struck out 20 and only walked four batters while also garnering praise in the postseason.
The performance helped to put him on the prospect radar, and people took notice of his short stint. Three thousand miles away from where he had hit rock bottom, Doubront’s young career was about to take off.
“That period right there was probably his most impressive performance in his entire [professional] career so far, at the end of 2008 when we sent him to Lancaster as a 20-year-old coming off a solid year in the minor leagues,” said Mike Hazen, Red Sox director of player development. “But going to Lancaster in that environment and pitching there and in the playoffs, he was pretty dominant. I think that’s when he probably opened a lot of eyes.”
Doubront returned to Venezuela and waited for the call. On Nov. 20, 2008, it came.
The Red Sox had added him to their 40-man roster.
It was an uncommon move for the team to protect a player from the Rule 5 Draft who had not played beyond A-ball. But given the fact that he was a left-handed pitcher who had shown his potential in Lancaster, they kept him in their system rather than risk losing him that winter.
“I think [the Lancaster performance] probably sealed the deal because I think what that did was give us the confidence that in 2009 we were going to start him in Double-A,” Hazen said. “I think that’s when we felt good about him getting to the big leagues without exhausting all his options.”
Doubront went 8-6 with a 3.35 ERA for the Sea Dogs last season. He began this season in Portland but quickly moved up to Pawtucket after going 4-0 with a mere 2.51 ERA. Doubront was called up to Boston and has split most of his summer between the Red Sox and PawSox.
During a recent assignment in Triple-A, he learned the Red Sox wanted to move him to the bullpen. It’s a change that fits need of the team now, but Hazen says the organization still envisions him in the starting rotation one day.
“I still think we look at a guy who has some pretty accomplished pitches, good velocity, good arm action, good delivery, repeats, holds runners really well,” Hazen said. “He’s certainly shown no fear going out into the bullpen, giving him one minor league relief appearance before thrusting him into the big leagues. But I still think that we’ve always look at him as a starter.”
Whether Doubront is starting or coming out of the bullpen, living his dream under the bright lights at Fenway Park or developing his game during an assignment in Pawtucket, he has learned to take every accomplishment, setback — and everything in between — and use it to make himself a better player.
“If you go back [to Triple-A], you have to keep throwing, you have to pitch, you have to keep throwing because one day when you make the big leagues, you won’t want to go back,” he said. “Here it’s different because if they send you down, I’m OK, but you really want to be here, 15 years, 20 years. That’s the thing. I’m here and I hope to stay next year and the next year and the next year. But it’s something you have to do, you have to keep working, you have to show the team.”
It wasn’t long ago that a downtrodden teenager vowed to himself that he would kill Single-A ball. Three years later, that 22-year-old has the opportunity to do the same in the majors.