FORT MYERS, Fla.—Even after a year in which he struggled desperately at the major-league level for the Red Sox, Clay Buchholz is considered an elite talent, and would slide into most big-league rotations. Likewise, 22-year-old Michael Bowden, who has excelled at every level of the minors and won his big-league debut last August, would be a major-league starter for many clubs.
But the Red Sox are different. The line to the rotation is long and daunting for young pitchers, occupied by pitchers whose resumes feature recent performances at or near a Cy Young-caliber level. With the offseason additions of starters Brad Penny and John Smoltz, the path to a job as a big-league starter is anything but obvious for Boston’s top pitching prospects.
Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Penny have all finished in the top three in Cy Young voting in the past two seasons. Jon Lester was the ace of the Red Sox staff a year ago, and was so impressive that newcomer John Smoltz said that his mouth was hanging open watching the young lefty pitch last October.
Smoltz, a former Cy Young winner who is expected to be ready around early June as he recovers from shoulder surgery, is no slouch himself, having amassed a Hall of Fame resume. And Tim Wakefield has been a constant of the Red Sox rotation under G.M. Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona, a pitcher who reliably offers innings and keeps his team in the game.
What does that wealth of six veteran starters mean for the pitchers who have their sights set on a job as big-league starters, but aren’t yet established in that role?
Clearly, nothing will be handed to the young pitchers in Boston’s farm system. Talent and potential will not be sufficient to land a job in the majors. Buchholz and Bowden both recognize that, and realize the depth of their challenge if they want to establish themselves in the Red Sox rotation this year.
“Last year was different. They actually had me slotted at No. 5. Coming into spring training, I kind of took it for granted a little bit. That’s where I think I messed up,” Buchholz acknowledged of a year where he went 2-9 with a 6.75 ERA. “This year, knowing that I’m No. 7 or maybe 8 in line will just make me push harder and work harder to get to that point.”
So long as the group of Beckett, Lester, Matsuzaka, Wakefield and Penny emerges from spring training in good health, it seems difficult to imagine an open rotation spot for a prospect.
But what if Buchholz or Bowden dominates their opposition, either in spring training or in the early paces of the season for Triple-A Pawtucket should they end up there? At a certain point, if one of those pitchers proves beyond shadow of a doubt his ability to compete at the major-league level, the Sox insist that they will not stifle their development by keeping them buried in the minors.
“We have a high standard for when young players are ready. They have to be ready from a physical, mental and fundamental standpoint,” said Epstein. “They have to prove themselves throughout the minor leagues through performance. But once they’re really ready to contribute and we’re all in agreement about that, we’ve shown we’ll clear a spot and give them some trust.”
The G.M. cited an example following the 2006 campaign. Second baseman Mark Loretta, who had been named an All-Star in a season when he hit .285 with a .345 OBP, found his year as a Red Sox sufficiently compelling that he offered to return for roughly $1 million in 2007.
But the Sox believed that Dustin Pedroia, based on his rise through the minor-league ranks, was ready to assume the role of everyday second baseman. Though Pedroia had hit just .191 with a .258 OBP in his big-league cameo at the end of ’06, the Sox believed he was ready, and did not want to put an obstacle in his path. So the team did not re-sign Loretta at a steep discount.
Likewise, Epstein said, the team has created room for young pitchers over the past few seasons, and this offseason, the team traded Coco Crisp to ensure that Jacoby Ellsbury would have complete claim to the job of everyday center fielder. The Sox try to make sure that a player is major-league ready before they are summoned, but if they achieve that high standard, the organization insists that its prospects will get jobs at the big-league level.
“We’re pretty honest with (young players) about that. It may not be on their timetable, but if they can help us win, they’ll get their chance,” said Francona. “Theo and his guys have done a great job of not letting us get old. It is something you worry about. You love having those veteran guys who know how to play, but if you go too far, it doesn’t work.”
An offseason in which they failed to land the big free-agent fish (Mark Teixeira) merely underscored that belief about the key to the Red Sox’ success. The team remains committed to the notion that the production of the farm system, rather than the open market, will determine its performance.
“The way we’ve had success and the way we’ll continue, I hope, to have success is by bringing young players up through the system, having them become important parts of the big-league team,” said Epstein. “That’s the foundation for sustained success.”
BUCHHOLZ AND BOWDEN
With that organizational commitment, the Sox suggest that they will create a path to the majors for their young players if they have earned one. But this year, clearly, performance rather than potential will be needed for the team to create such an avenue.
And Buchholz and Bowden, the pitchers in question, are both well aware of that fact.
“This year I have to work a little bit harder. We’ve got a couple of new guys in. It’s going to be a battle but that’s baseball,” said Buchholz. “If I’m starting in Pawtucket that’s the way it goes, if I’m starting on the big team, that’s my goal.”
Bowden, who is 20-13 with a 3.15 ERA in the minors and won his big-league debut last August, likewise understands the steep climb that will be needed to get to the majors. While he acknowledges that the arrivals of Smoltz and Penny in the offseason made it all the more challenging for him to reach the majors, he welcomes the additions.
“That’s the way this organization is. It’s been a world-class organization, so they’re going to bring in the best starting rotation that they can. I can’t do anything about it, but I’m happy with the way the team turned out this year,” said Bowden. “It’s pretty crazy just to fathom the rotation they have and all the experience they have in there.
“I might not be in it anytime soon,” he conceded, “but just being in spring training with them, trying to drain as much knowledge as I can from them to try to make myself better, just being around them, trying to learn by example, it’s going to be fun.”
All things considered, if Buchholz and Bowden both prove that they are ready to perform at baseball’s highest level, the Sox would welcome the development. They are more than willing to face a decision about how to clear a spot in the majors for a worthy prospect.
After all, if the Sox feel compelled to do so – particularly given the current group of starters – the team would be in an enviable position.
“It’s a good problem,” said Epstein, “if you have too much talent to fit onto your major-league roster.”