Dozens of ballplayers who were in the process of reshaping their careers had that work put on hold last week when Major League Baseball shut down spring training.
Ryan Weber, a 29-year-old righthander in Red Sox camp, was one of them.
Weber had started three spring games and did not allow an earned run over nine innings. Opponents were 6 for 33 (.182) with 11 strikeouts against him. Before the coronavirus interfered in everybody’s life, Weber was on the verge of earning a spot in the Boston rotation.
Now, with Chris Sale needing season-ending Tommy John surgery, Weber is lined up to be the No. 4 starter, according to manager Ron Roenicke.
Weber has 42 games of major league experience with the Braves, Mariners, Rays, and Red Sox since 2015, but has yet to make an Opening Day roster.
For many players, that is the ultimate sign of acceptance, and Weber was headed in that direction.
In what proved to be his final start in spring training, on March 9 against the Atlanta Braves in North Port, Fla., Weber pitched four scoreless innings and struck out four against a lineup that included Ender Inciarte, Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman, Marcell Ozuna, and Nick Markakis.
Weber used his fastball to both sides of the plate and consistently got ahead in the count. On a night Felix Hernandez pitched well for the Braves, Weber had the better outing.
“You have to be sharp against a team like that," Weber said. "You can’t take a pitch off. You have to command all your pitches. From pitch one, I had to home in.”
Roenicke said after the game that Weber was making it an easy decision for the Sox.
“He’s done everything we wanted and more,” the manager said. “Ryan has put himself in a good position. The results show it.”
After David Price was traded to the Dodgers and Sale was shut down, the Sox badly needed one of their depth pitchers to show he was a viable candidate for the rotation. Weber did that.
“Having a couple of good outings and [Roenicke] trusting me to start, that has really upped my confidence,” Weber said. “All of my pitches feel sharp.”
For the moment, baseball is hoping to start up again in May. Some kind of abbreviated spring training will be needed before the regular season starts. In the interim, the Red Sox have advised their starters to stay in shape as best they can by throwing two-inning simulated games every five days.
“The longer it goes on, the pitchers are more of a concern than the [position players],” Roenicke said.
The Red Sox are operating under the assumption that teams will have three or four weeks to prepare for the season.
“Up to this point, I’ve controlled what I needed to control,” Weber said. “They make the decisions and I can only do what I do.”
That Weber is even positioned to get this chance is unexpected.
The Red Sox did a thorough house-cleaning of the pitching staff during a four-month span that started in October and ended in March. Seven pitchers who were on the 40-man roster last season were taken off to make room for other players deemed more useful.
It started when righthander Steven Wright was released. Lefthanders Brian Johnson and Bobby Poyner and righthander Denyi Reyes were outrighted off the roster and sent to Triple A Pawtucket.
Lefthander Trevor Kelley was put on waivers and claimed by the Phillies. Righthander Travis Lakins was designated for assignment, then traded to the Cubs.
Righthander Hector Velazquez was designated for assignment, then claimed by the Orioles.
Through it all, Weber survived.
On the surface, it didn’t make much sense. Weber was 2-4 with a 5.09 earned run average over 18 games and 40⅔ innings last season.
Weber has bounced around since he was drafted in 2009 and has a 5.04 ERA overall with all but 11 of his appearances coming in relief.
‘He done everything we wanted and more. Ryan has put himself in a good position. The results show it.’
Ron Roenicke on Ryan Weber
But the Red Sox saw something in Weber they felt they could work with, particularly if he threw more cut fastballs. They felt that would make his sinker, curveball, and changeup more effective.
The coaches also have worked with Weber on better understanding his mechanics so he can repeat them consistently. Because he tops out at 90 miles per hour, precision is required.
“That’s batting practice for these guys if I’m not on my mechanics to make all of my pitches sharp,” he said.
Weber arrived at camp ready to compete, a necessity for any pitcher in his position.
“Every year it’s like that,” he said. “I have to earn a job, and from the very first pitch of spring training, they all matter to me.”
Weber accomplished that by starting his offseason routine early and throwing off a mound with intensity before he arrived in Fort Myers.
“You act like there’s a batter in the box," he said. “Throw one or two innings with actual game-speed pitches.”
Pitching coach Dave Bush noticed right away that Weber was ready.
“He was sharp in the bullpen the first few days,” Bush said. “The more he pitched, the better we felt about him and how he could help us.”
Now the trick will be maintaining that sharpness over the uncertain weeks ahead. Once baseball resumes, Weber is somebody the Red Sox will need.