The Pawtucket Red Sox won the International League championship in 2012 with a pitching staff that was older than many major league teams.
Of the nine pitchers who made at least 10 starts that season, seven were at least 29 years old. Nelson Figueroa, who won the league championship game against Charlotte, was 38.
None were prospects and, as such, none remain in the Red Sox organization.
Two years later, Pawtucket’s pitching staff will resemble a preschool team compared with that bunch. In Drake Britton, Matt Barnes, Rubby De La Rosa, Anthony Ranaudo, and Allen Webster, the Red Sox have five potential Triple A starters all 25 or younger.
Double A Portland will feature 21-year-old lefthander Henry Owens, the best pitching prospect in the organization.
The Red Sox also have 25-year-old Brandon Workman, who has worked in relief for the major league team but could return to starting once a spot in the rotation opens up.
Britton, Barnes, De La Rosa, Owens, Ranaudo, Webster and Workman were all on the spring training roster this season.
The lower levels of the minors include 2013 first-round pick Trey Ball, a 19-year-old lefthander, and second-round pick Teddy Stankiewicz, a 20-year-old righthander.
Lefthander Brian Johnson and righthanders Jamie Callahan and Simon Mercedes could force their way into the prospect picture this season.
The failure rate for young pitchers is high and this lengthy list will surely look different in six months. Injuries, trades, and performance will trim what is a promising group. But the Red Sox guarded against that with an offseason determination not to trade from that group.
“I never want to say anybody was off-limits,’’ Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “But we didn’t want to consider a move involving our young pitching. We know the cost in a trade and the cost to develop is a high one, too. The more that we can build from within that area, I think it gives us potential for long-term success.
“When you look at the number of arms and then the quality of the stuff, we’re in a healthy place as far as young players go.”
For the Red Sox, the faith in their young pitching was put on display last July when, in a span of five days, Workman and Britton were called to the majors for the first time. Britton remained with the team through the end of the regular season, as did Workman, with the exception of a four-day trip back to Pawtucket necessitated by a roster jam.
Instead of trading for a veteran at the deadline to help a bullpen in a pennant race, the Red Sox turned to players with only a handful of games of experience beyond Double A.
“You start thinking about it more when you’re comparing it to having to give up an asset for a guy that might not be any better,” Red Sox assistant general manager Mike Hazen said. “Then it becomes a lot easier to give that young guy a chance. I mean, it’s certainly easier for me to do that than make a trade and give up something, especially if you’re not certain that what you’re getting is better than what we have internally.”
Britton appeared in 18 games and Workman 20. Workman stuck with the team for the postseason and pitched 8⅔ innings without giving up an earned run. He appeared in three World Series games, including the clinching Game 6.
“I just pitched and didn’t think too much about what was going on,” said Workman, a second-round draft pick in 2010 from the University of Texas. “I never expected when the season started that I’d be in the World Series.”
Said Britton: “I was home in Texas watching him and cheering like crazy.”
Farrell was one of the voices in the organization that encouraged the idea of using the young pitchers during an important time.
“We made a little bit of a shift last year with Britton and Workman where the cost to acquire a reliever through trade was so high,” the manager said. “We said, ‘Let’s take a look at what we have internally first.’
“I think the one thing that we went away from is the idea that if you’re going to take a starter in the minor leagues and put him in the bullpen, you give him a certain number of appearances in the minor leagues.
“We just threw them in the fire because of what we felt like they were as a person and the ability to handle that emotion inside of a game. Fortunately in both cases, they performed very well.”
Workman, Britton, and Ranaudo shared an apartment in Portland to start the season. For Ranaudo, watching his two roommates make it to Boston was a thrill.
“It’s motivation,” he said. “We were all there together and those two guys kept pushing. It makes you think that you can do the same thing.”
Barnes, Britton, Ranaudo, Webster and Workman have grown close over the last few years, the result of shared experiences, similar goals, and long bus rides between minor league cities. Their lockers were in the same row in the spring training clubhouse at JetBlue Park.
“Those guys look like a college basketball team,” catcher David Ross said. “They’re all so tall. Our scouts and minor league people did a great job with that group. It’s impressive to have that many good, young pitchers.”
For Britton, friendship mattered most last season during a time of need. He was arrested for driving under the influence and reckless driving during spring training and none of the Portland-area families who host Red Sox prospects were willing to take him in.
But Ranaudo and Workman invited him into their small apartment. Britton took the couch and was never more comfortable.
“I was literally staying in a motel down the road from the park. They came to me one day and said, ‘Dude, come stay with us.’ We were friends before that. Once I lived with them and stayed on their couch, we became boys. That meant a lot to me.”
Owens, an imposing presence at 6 feet 7 inches, had David Ortiz and other big leaguers marveling at his pitches in spring training. Owens throws in the low-to-mid 90s with a major-league ready changeup and had a streak of 19⅓ consecutive no-hit innings with Single A Salem last season.
Being invited to camp was a taste of the future. “It was a great opportunity for me,” Owens said before being sent to minor league camp. “I tried to learn as much as I could and to learn about what the coaches want. I want to be ready when I come back, whenever that is.”
Britton said the volume of pitching prospects makes for competition.
“We push each other every day no matter what we’re doing. We’re always competing but it’s good competition,” he said. “When we’re hanging out, five or six of us talking, we want to be like [Jon] Lester and [Clay] Buchholz and [John] Lackey and be in the majors at the same time, we want to have that and I think we’re on the right track. Our main goal is to take care of our stuff now and make it up here together.”
Britton and De La Rosa may profile best as late-inning relievers. For now, the Red Sox want to give them every opportunity to start.
“It is an organizational philosophy that you take your best arms and you start them. That gives them ample workdays in between starts, all the things that go into a starter’s routine,” Farrell said. “But where we stand today and what that snapshot might look like in two to three years from now, we don’t know.
“Pitching, as we know, is a game of attrition so there’s the likelihood of some injury, some performance that’s going to funnel one guy or another into a specific role.”
As the players mature, the Red Sox could follow models from other teams. The Tampa Bay Rays trend toward giving starters a full season in Triple A to refine their skills and build arm strength before they are called up. The St. Louis Cardinals have broken young pitchers into the majors through the bullpen.
“The more that we can build up a pitcher’s inning workload in the minor leagues so that when they do come to the major leagues, you’re not dealing with innings restrictions or possibly shutting someone down in September,” Farrell said.
Barnes, Owens, and Ranaudo were sent to minor league camp March 13, well before the regular season. Webster’s turn followed a few days after that, then De La Rosa followed.
The lockers that his friends had were cleaned out quickly. But Workman is looking forward to the day when that changes.
“This is a special group of guys,” he said. “It was my turn last season and I had a blast. But those guys are all going to get their chance. It’s just a matter of time.”