For a night, Tanner Houck offered the Red Sox visions of a cresting wave.
The righthander’s brilliant debut — five shutout innings with seven strikeouts in a 2-0 win in Miami — served as the first sign of what the team hopes is a coming group of starting pitching prospects. The outing represented a night of possibility for an organization that has endured years of disappointment with its development of starters.
Hard to believe, but true: Not long ago, the strength of the Red Sox' farm system appeared to be its collection of young pitchers. An emerging wave suggested young and/or homegrown starters for years to come.
At various points from 2013-15, while Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. resided at the top of prospect rankings — and while the Feats of Mookie became the out-of-nowhere stuff of legend — the team’s future seemed to be taking shape thanks to Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Anthony Ranaudo, Eduardo Rodriguez, Brian Johnson, and Trey Ball.
Eventually, all except Rodriguez fizzled as starters. Barnes and Workman became impact late-innings contributors. Owens, Webster, De La Rosa, Ranaudo, Johnson, and Ball are now out of organized baseball.
Ralph Treuel — now in his 25th season in the Red Sox organization, with most of that time coming as a roving pitching coordinator in the minors — remembers what he and others in the Sox organization thought that group would become, and acknowledges the disappointment in what it did not yield.
"I always felt like, ‘Why didn’t we get more out of them?’ " said Treuel. "It still sticks in my craw that we haven’t had a [homegrown] starting pitcher. You’d like to see all homegrown talent in the big leagues. We’ve done a great job on our position players. I feel like it was a good class [of pitchers] that came through but it should have been better.”
There are reasons for the struggles of all. But those who were in the Red Sox organization at the time generally concur with Treuel’s assessment: The Red Sox should have gotten more out of a group of young talents.
Now, the team hopes to avoid a repeat of those regrets. Houck seems likely to be joined in the big leagues by righthander Nick Pivetta, whom the Sox acquired in their trade of Workman and Heath Hembree to the Phillies. In 2021, three more pitchers who are currently at the alternate site — Bryan Mata, Jay Groome, and Connor Seabold — could follow.
Is there reason to believe that a more promising outcome awaits the Houck-led group? The eventual answer will be a reflection of both the pitchers' talent and the developmental infrastructure surrounding them.
First, based on recent conversations with a handful of evaluators, it’s worth taking stock of the young pitchers who have a chance to join the Red Sox rotation by the end of next year:
▪ Houck — The 24-year-old righthander has been a work-in-progress since the Red Sox took him in the first round of the 2017 draft. He’s tinkered with his arm slot, his pitch mix, his direction to the plate, and the overall effort of his delivery in search of the right formula. A pitcher who leaned chiefly on a two-seamer and slider in college can still dominate righties with those two pitches, but he’s worked on commanding a four-seamer in on lefties while developing a splitter to have a pitch that runs away from them.
Though his future may well be in the bullpen, he has a ceiling of an innings-eating back-of-the-rotation starter.
▪ Pivetta — He has the build and pitch mix of a mid-rotation starter, but has never been able to achieve sustained big league success. His potential is undeniable, but evaluators have little consensus about whether he’s a future rotation building block, a bullpen contributor, or none of the above.
▪ Mata — Though currently working his way back from a hamstring cramp, Mata has shown an eye-popping pitch mix in Pawtucket. A mid- to upper-90s two-seam fastball anchors his arsenal, which also includes a four-seamer, a slider, a changeup, and occasional curveball.
“For me, [he’s] probably the most exciting guy we have in our organization, and he’s probably one of the most exciting guys in baseball, period,” said Pawtucket pitching coach Paul Abbott. “He’s 21 years old. He touches 99 [miles per hour], sits about 97, and just about everything he throws is top shelf.”
His ability to work in the strike zone is erratic, but multiple evaluators see him as having a mix of at least a mid-rotation starter with one rival American League evaluator describing him as a potential top-of-the-rotation pitcher, if he can develop command.
▪ Seabold — Acquired with Pivetta in the Phillies deal, Seabold has advanced command of a fastball and a very good changeup, as well as a slider with the potential to be a solid offering. His stuff suggests a ceiling as a fifth starter, though some believe his feel for pitching could allow him to exceed that outlook.
▪ Groome — Now finally healthy, the 2016 first-rounder has been impressive in Pawtucket, dominating against older competition. He’s been getting a ton of swings and misses on his low- to mid-90s fastball, while also showing a quality changeup that he sells well. If his curveball returns to pre-Tommy John form and if he can stay healthy, a cross-section of evaluators see him as a No. 3 or No. 4 starter; some still believe his potential exceeds that.
Based on lack of professional experience, he’s the least likely of the group to reach the big leagues in 2021.
Those five pitchers have rotation potential. Will any of them reach it?
The Sox believe they are in a better place now than five years ago, in terms of the coaching they provide — Treuel noted that the organization now has four roving pitching coordinators — as well as the data that they use to identify strengths and weaknesses in their young pitchers' pitches, deliveries, and sequences.
But, for now, those improvements and possibilities remain theoretical. The fact remains that no one since Rodriguez has come through the system to establish himself as a starter, and no true homegrown starter has done so since Felix Doubront, who debuted in 2010.
The burden of proof is thus on the Red Sox to show that they can successfully groom and graduate a big league starting pitcher. With Houck up, their attempt to do so is now underway.