By Jeff Louderback
A lack of effective starting pitching has plagued the Boston Red Sox over the last three seasons. It is no coincidence that the club has not reached the playoffs during these years. There is encouraging news for 2013, though, since Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have top of the rotation stuff and are poised for rebound seasons, and the club has rotation depth at the Major League and high minor league levels.
Though the Red Sox farm system has yielded an array of core players over the last decade – including Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Will Middlebrooks, Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard; and even traded prospects like Hanley Ramirez, David Murphy and Anthony Rizzo – it has produced just three quality starting pitchers in Lester, Buchholz and Justin Masterson (who was traded to Cleveland in the Victor Martinez deal). That track record is likely to change in 2013 and 2014.
Regarded as having one of the top farm systems in baseball, the Red Sox boast a plethora of intriguing starting pitching prospects.
Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster, right-handed starters who Boston acquired from the Dodgers last summer, are projected to join knuckleballer Steven Wright (who is reminiscent of R.A. Dickey, but 10 years younger) and 24-year-old left-hander Chris Hernandez (a seventh round pick out of the University of Miami in 2010) in the Pawtucket rotation.
At Double-A Portland, 2011 first rounder Matt Barnes will top a rotation that is also expected to include promising 23-year-old left-hander Drake Britton and a pair of 2010 draft picks – Anthony Ranaudo (first round out of LSU) and Brandon Workman (second round out of the University of Texas).
Though Ranaudo struggled through an injury-plagued 2012 season, he still has a high ceiling and is expected to rebound in 2013. The 24-year-old Workman is underrated and has a chance to make his Major League debut in the second half of 2013 if his swift development continues.
Arguably, the best starting pitching prospect in the Red Sox system is slated to open 2013 at advanced Single-A Salem (Va.). Power left-hander Henry Owens, who was a supplemental first rounder out of high school in 2011, struck out 130 batters and allowed 100 hits in 101.2 innings at Single-A Greenville, which was an advanced pro debut assignment for someone who was 19 at the time. Now 20, Owens needs to work on his command – he walked 47 and posted a 1.45 WHIP – but his fast ball and curve ball are plus pitches and he has top of the rotation potential.
Though there are detractors who are not impressed with the Red Sox rotation as it currently stands for 2013, the team of Lester, Buchholz, Felix Doubront, Ryan Dempster and John Lackey have a solid chance to pleasantly surprise Red Sox fan and baseball pundits. Franklin Morales and Alfredo Aceves offer rotation depth at the Major League level, but when the club needs to summon a a starter from the minors, there will be an assortment of options this year.
Wright and Hernandez are especially intriguing. Mentored by Tom Candiotti when he was converted from a traditional pitcher to a knuckleballer a few years ago, the 28-year-old Wright has a low 90s fast ball and an effective curve ball. His knuckler reaches the low-80s.
Wright fully committed to the knuckler (which he throws around 70 percent of the time) in 2011 and had ups and downs while mastering the pitch, posting a 4.58 ERA and 1.61 WHIP at four minor league levels (all the way to Triple-A). Last season, the second round pick out of the University of Hawaii in 2006 logged a 2.54 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP at Double-A and Triple-A, allowing 110 hits in 141.2 innings.
Because of his respectable fast ball and his hard knuckler, Wright has a promising Major League future that will likely begin sometime in 2013.
As for Hernandez, the former ace of the Miami Hurricanes is not spectacular. His fast ball tops out at 87, and he also features a low 80s cutter, a curve ball and a change-up. He has climbed the Red Sox farm system by showcasing solid command and mixing his pitches to keep hitters off balance.
At the least, he projects as a situational left-handed reliever, but Hernandez has posted a 3.23 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP while allowing 257 hits over 275.1 innings in three minor league seasons and has yet to struggle, even in his Triple-A debut after a late-season promotion last year.