FORT MYERS, Fla. — Clay Buchholz is a pretty wealthy young man already. He’ll earn $7.7 million this year and then can anticipate salaries of $12 million, $13 million, and $13.5 million the next three years after that, with the final two seasons team options.
He warrants those numbers because he is the most talented pitcher the Red Sox have.
It almost becomes imperative now that Buchholz starts to assume the responsibilities of ace and leader. After all, nobody knows how the Jon Lester contract negotiations are going to turn out over the next couple of weeks.
Buchholz has ace stuff but doesn’t have Lester’s durability, something he hopes to change starting this season.
We know Buchholz’s 2013 story very well. He was having a Max Scherzer year even before Max Scherzer, who went on to win the American League Cy Young Award. Buchholz stopped after a 9-0 start, with a 1.71 ERA, to take care of shoulder/neck issues that cost him three months of the season.
Dr. James Andrews, who diagnosed the ailments, told him he would get better with rest. So he rested. He was never going to be 100 percent, but the Red Sox were hoping he’d be able to help them in the postseason.
“I didn’t have a choice at that point,” he said about making the start in Game 4 of the World Series. “I remember telling John Farrell I’m not 100 percent, but playing baseball and getting to that point to a World Series, you never know how many times you’re going to get there. Even me being at 80 percent, I felt I could help the team win.”
And while Buchholz had doubts, he proved something to himself, throwing a fastball at times 7-8 miles per hour less than his usual velocity but getting Cardinals batters out. He went four innings, allowing three hits and three walks in what ended up a 4-2 Red Sox win.
“Yeah I did [have doubts],” Buchholz said. “The day before it was a struggle getting out there and getting things rolling. But the atmosphere of the game and being in a World Series, that was going to help out, and it did. There was never a point where I told myself you can’t throw that pitch again. I could have thrown 92-93 with max effort, but what I was doing was working.”
And he proved to himself what Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux always knew — you don’t have to be 100 percent to get the hitters out. There are days you’re going to feel awful. There are times you have to play hurt. He understood after that start that he doesn’t have to go all-out to win a game.
“I was 85-90 [m.p.h.] in that start,” Buchholz said. “The way the ball was moving, that just tells me I don’t always have to throw 94 to have success, and that’s against one of the better teams in baseball.”
With his command of six pitches, he doesn’t have to worry about velocity. He finally started to use his split-fingered pitch against power-hitting lefthanded batters. He also has a two-seam fastball, a four-seam fastball, a cutter, a curve, and a changeup.
“Sounds like Daisuke,” Buchholz kidded in reference to Daisuke Matsuzaka. “I don’t throw a gyroball.”
There were always questions about Buchholz’s physical stature. He’s not the biggest guy in the world. So did his workout routine have to be changed over the winter? Did he need more bulking up? With Buchholz still trying to heal his shoulder, the medical staff thought he should curtail rather than add.
“Usually coming into camp I’ve thrown four or five bullpens and am ready to go," he said. “This year I didn’t throw any bullpens. So this year I’m using spring training for the purpose of spring training, that’s to get ready for the season.”
He took a month off after the season. He didn’t pick up a baseball until December.
When he started throwing, there was no pain.
“That’s what Dr. Andrews told me the day I went and saw him,” Buchholz said. “He said it’s all rest. It’s like picking a scab, if you just try and keep throwing and fighting through it. So I took a full month off of not picking up a ball and not doing anything. Right when I started working out again I didn’t feel anything.
“This offseason has been a little bit different than in the past, not having the mound time. In recent years I’ve gotten to spring training being basically in midseason form as far as being off the mound. Speaking with the training staff, I needed to take a step back from that and make sure everything was fully recovered, not to push anything too far, too soon. It’s a different route than I’ve gone the last four or five years coming into camp, just playing catch and long-toss. But I feel a lot better with it by doing that rather than just jumping into the throwing program when I normally would do it.”
Buchholz kept saying, “I feel good.” He didn’t gain any weight, and said, “I’ve stayed the same. I feel better on my feet at this weight. A couple of years ago I came in heavier and it didn’t feel right. I’m about 180, and that’s what I was all of last year.”
Buchholz will be one of six veteran starters in camp. Add Brandon Workman and Allen Webster and the Sox are well-stocked. Lefty Henry Owens isn’t far away.
“Having too much pitching is never a problem,” Buchholz said. “I think that’s the point we’re at right now. We have six guys for five spots. We’ll see what happens. I would definitely love for everybody to stay with us and if their role brings them to the bullpen or somewhere else then that’s just the case at hand. Other than that, I think our staff is going to be really well-prepared, obviously wanting to repeat.”
As the future ace, Buchholz knows he needs to string together some 30-start/200-inning seasons. The key to that is health.
“Goal No. 1 is to stay healthy and everything else will fall into place,” Buchholz said.
“When everything clicks on all cylinders and I can locate, I know I can be successful,” he added. “It’s all about command of each pitch and throwing pitches off your fastball. The stuff is there and hopefully I could put together some great seasons. For this team to be as team-oriented as it is, you also have to look at things individually. We all have to do our part.”
It’s Buchholz’s time. The World Series game was an education, an eye-opener. He’s important. Very important to the present and future.
And finally, it seems he’s figuring that out.