FORT MYERS, Fla. — Allen Webster knew he wanted to play baseball after he graduated from McMichael High School in 2008. But he assumed it would be for nearby Rockingham County Community College.
A shortstop and occasional pitcher, Webster was from Madison, N.C., a small town just a few miles from the Virginia border. His high school team had a tradition of success but rarely produced any prospects.
“I don’t think we had too many Division 1 scouts at our games,” Webster said. “If we did, they sure didn’t talk to me.”
Webster had a strong arm but considered himself more of a shortstop. At McMichael, he was used to close games and for occasional starts.
“I liked to hit,” Webster said. “I wasn’t great, but I could hit a fastball. Anything with some spin on it and I had no chance.”
To Webster’s great surprise, the Los Angeles Dodgers picked him in the 18th round of the draft after his senior season. Their area scout, Lon Joyce, had gone to see another player and came away impressed with Webster’s arm and athleticism.
The Dodgers told Webster they would give him $20,000 to forget junior college and shortstop and try pitching. The negotiations didn’t last long.
“I signed that day,” Webster said. “I figured I would go play.”
Webster tells the story with all the emotion of a man about to fall asleep. To him, that’s just how it went. One day he was home and the next he was a professional baseball player.
“That’s what happened?” said Daniel Bard, who attended high school in Charlotte, N.C., and had scouts practically camped out on his front lawn before he went to the University of North Carolina. “Look at him now.”
Webster, 23, rose quickly through the Dodgers organization, established himself as one of the best prospects in the game, and last summer was one of the five players Los Angeles sent to the Red Sox for Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Nick Punto.
Now, in his first major league spring training, Webster is overwhelming hitters and showing polish that belies his modest start.
Webster struck out five Minnesota Twins Thursday, going three innings and hitting 98 miles per hour with his fastball.
In three spring appearances, he has allowed two earned runs over eight innings with one walk and 11 strikeouts. He throws a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball with darting movement, a changeup, a slider, and an occasional curveball.
“He’s been impressive, as we’ve said each time he’s walked to the mound,” manager John Farrell said.
Farrell was managing the Toronto Blue Jays last August when the Red Sox completed the trade with the Dodgers. Like others around baseball, Farrell was surprised the Red Sox were able to unload three star players and their onerous contracts.
That Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington also was able to extract Webster and righthander Rubby De La Rosa from the Dodgers
Now that Farrell has watched Webster and De La Rosa pitch in person, the true impact of the trade has become clear.
“To have [Webster and De La Rosa] come back and be able to move that amount of money is a hell of a deal,” he said.
Webster seems almost amused by all the fuss. He pitched in two games for Double A Portland after the trade, finishing off a season in which he posted a 3.86 earned run average over 130⅔ innings.
Incredibly, Webster allowed only two home runs all season.
“I kept the ball down,” he said. “They can’t hit home runs if you keep the ball down. Right?”
Pitching isn’t quite that easy. But not pitching on a regular basis in high school left Webster a blank slate for the Dodgers to work with. He reported to Rookie League ball in Florida willing to learn whatever style he was taught.
“I had to start from scratch,” Webster said. “I was really fast to the plate at first and they had to slow me down. Then I got too slow. I figured out what I had to do.”
As he became more fluid, Webster saw his velocity rise. The Dodgers had him give up his curveball and develop a slider. He learned the changeup along the way and how to command his fastball.
“I always had natural movement,” Webster said. “I was lucky that way.”
Webster was shocked when he heard he had been traded, but considered it a good opportunity. He arrived at spring training and was happy to see that his locker was in a corner of the clubhouse. When he leans his chair against the wall, he can see the whole room when he looks up from his iPad.
“I sit back and relax and watch everybody,” he said. “I don’t say much but I try to listen to what the pitchers are saying. I can learn from them. There are a lot of new names to remember, though.”
The Red Sox are planning to start Webster in the rotation at Triple A Pawtucket. When the need arises for a starter — and that is inevitable — he will be considered.
That a 23-year-old with high-ceiling talent is in that position is a positive development for the Red Sox. In Webster, De La Rosa, Matt Barnes, and other young pitchers, the organization is building depth.
“I think any time you can have that pipeline of pitching coming from within, you’re dealing from more of a position of strength,” Farrell said. “We all recognize how hard pitching is to come by and the cost of it. To be able to have it coming from within is a healthy sign.”
Webster may finally get excited the day he arrives in the majors. Or maybe not.
“I try and stay the same no matter what happens to me,” he said. “I don’t want the hitters to see how I feel. That’s just how I am.”