By Jeff Louderback
Felix Doubront is frustrating.
The 25-year-old left-hander who features multiple plus pitches has the potential to proficiently fill a No. 3 spot in the Red Sox rotation for several seasons yet it remains to be seen if that happens.
Doubront was a bright spot last year in an otherwise dismal season in Boston. He was 11-10 and struck out 167 in 161 innings but posted a 4.86 ERA in 28 games (including 27 starts). The reason for his high ERA was a lack of command. Doubront often struggles to consistently throw strikes.
The 6-foot-2 Venezuelan demonstrated another flaw when he reported to spring training out of shape. Doubront did the same thing in 2010, and the Red Sox were understandably displeased when he arrived in less than desirable physical condition in February.
In the last month, Doubront showed another reason why his long-term future in Boston is uncertain. He has balked at pitching out of the bullpen, expressing his preference to start. The Red Sox are using a rotation of Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Jake Peavy in the ALDS. Veteran Ryan Dempster has embraced the opportunity to bolster the pen while Doubront has lacked enthusiasm.
On Sunday, the Red Sox owned a 5-0 lead when Doubront stepped to the mound in the fourth in relief of Allen Webster, who logged three hitless frames to open the game. After tossing a scoreless fourth, Doubront was knocked around for five runs and four hits with a walk in the fifth.
“As a reliever, I have to be more prepared for that, for those situations. As a starter, I can do everything there and help the team. I think I can do that,” Doubront told reporters after the game. “It’s not the same [relieving], man. It’s not the same. You have to warm up, you have to stretch, you have to warm up quicker, you have to be ready in 10-20 pitches.
“As a starter, you stretch, run a little bit, long toss. Relieving, the long toss is right there. I can do it. I can do it. But today was my first time, you know?,” he added. ” I have to practice that more on Tuesday, be more quick and get my arm ready. And mentally, too, you have to be prepared mentally to be relieving and get ready faster.”
The Red Sox could use another left-hander in the post-season pen. Craig Breslow, who recorded a scoreless inning on Sunday and finished the regular season with a 1.81 ERA and a .228 opponent’s batting average, is one of John Farrell’s most reliable arms. Though he surrendered a key hit in Saturday’s loss, Franklin Morales is another left-hander who is expected to get key outs in October.
If Farrell is depending on another southpaw reliever in October, the choices are not inviting. Matt Thornton allowed an inherited runner to score on Sunday and was also charged with a run. Rookie Drake Britton has been ineffective in September. And Doubront seems disinterested in pitching unless he is in the rotation.
For 2014, the Red Sox have starting rotation depth. Lester, Buchholz, Lackey and Peavy will be back. Dempster is under contract for next year. Brandon Workman has excelled as a starter, though he has struggled as a reliever. Top pitching prospects Webster, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes and Henry Owens have high ceilings and could be Major League ready at some point in the 2014 campaign.
With that depth – and Doubront’s lackluster conditioning habits and undesirable attitude – perhaps the Red Sox should consider including him in a package for an impact reliever or a useful position player. Doubront has the pitching tools to emerge as a productive Major League starter, but his fitness routine and his unwillingness to fill whatever role is needed may not be worth his presence on the roster when there are so many other top pitching prospects.