When Ben Crockett got his start with the Red Sox as a video advance scout in 2007, it was a team that had emerged as a factory of young pitching. Jonathan Papelbon was one of the dominant forces in the game, and Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz looked like potential rotation mainstays, with the Sox believing there were more frontline starters behind them.
Crockett transitioned into player development in 2009. At that time, did he anticipate an assembly line of pitchers who would serve as the foundation of years of contention?
“I don’t know that I was that zoomed out when I was grinding on advance scouting,” Crockett, now a senior vice president of baseball operations, mused. “But certainly that was a different time in development.”
In more than a decade since, the Sox have had occasional developmental successes. Felix Doubront was part of a 2013 championship rotation. Eduardo Rodriguez, acquired from the Orioles while in Double A in 2014, developed into a solid (at times elite) rotation member for several seasons.
Still, the emergence of Brayan Bello, signed out of the Dominican Republic for $28,000 in 2017, represents something different. Bello has arrived in the big leagues as a true homegrown pitcher with an electrifying mix and moxie, along with tremendous intellect. He is a pitcher for whom it requires little daydreaming to see a mid-rotation or better staple of the staff for years to come.
“This kid’s special and coming fast,” said Triple A Worcester pitching coach Paul Abbott. “I don’t even think his changeup [in the big leagues] has been as good as it was when he was here. I think he’s going to be better [than what he’s already shown]. He’s a good one.”
Perhaps, then, Bello will emerge as the long-awaited successor to Lester and Buchholz as a homegrown anchor. Yet for the Sox, a vision of sustainable contention relies not just on one standout homegrown starter but on a steady supply of arms capable of graduating from the minors.
Is Bello a one-off or part of a wave? The Sox are optimistic that there are signs of the latter.
“There’s ebbs and flows within systems,” said Crockett. “But I think we’re really excited about the group of pitchers that we have in Double A, Triple A, and the big leagues this year.”
Bello, Josh Winckowski, Kutter Crawford, and Connor Seabold have all made at least four starts, the first time since 1980 that the Red Sox have had four rookies do so. In Bello, there is the potential for a standout. Crawford looked the part of a pitcher with a No. 4 or No. 5 starter’s ceiling (though perhaps his future will end up being in a multi-innings relief role). Winckowski and Seabold have looked more like depth options.
In Triple A, Bryan Mata easily has the highest ceiling. In his return from Tommy John surgery, the 23-year-old righthander (7-3, 2.32) is showing a fastball that sits at 97 miles per hour and has topped out in triple digits, a sinker with nasty arm-side run, a slider that will sometimes dive under bats, and a changeup that has the shape of an excellent offering.
“They’re all above-average [pitches] if not better,” said Abbott.
Whereas Bello is a reliable strike thrower, Mata’s hold on the zone can prove sporadic, as evidenced by his 13.2 percent walk rate across four levels this year. That makes it fair to wonder whether he’ll be able to secure a future in the rotation or emerge as a late-innings arm.
But for the Sox, the significance of helping a starter hit on his potential rather than taking the more direct bullpen path could transform the organization. The Dodgers are dominant because they keep developing top-end starters. The Sox are hoping to follow suit.
“He’s got an overpowering four-seamer and a two-seamer. His two-seamer moves a ton. Harnessing that two-seamer is going to take a little more time just because it’s got so much movement,” said Abbott of Mata. “[But] he’s got big league stuff across the board. You can take a guy and put him in the pen any time. But I think you have to exhaust [starting] with a talent like him.”
Among other upper levels Red Sox starters, lefthander Brandon Walter probably has the highest ceiling, with a wipeout slider along with a nasty sinker and changeup from the low arm slot to give hitters fits. But health — after he missed the last 3½ months with a bulging cervical disk — creates some question about whether he’ll reach that ceiling.
Walter dominated in Double A this year (2.88 ERA, 68-to-3 (not a misprint) strikeout-to-walk ratio in 50 innings) when his fastball was down to 90-92 m.p.h. from 93-95 in 2021. If his velocity had been limited by a health issue that can be resolved, the 26-year-old could be a mid-rotation starter. At lower velocity, he still has back-of-the-rotation potential.
Lefthander Chris Murphy, 24, excelled in Double A (2.58 ERA, 29.8 percent strikeout rate) before struggling in Triple A (5.60 ERA, 16.0 percent strikeout rate), with his stuff ticking down as the season progressed. But he shows a 92-94-mp.h. fastball that gets up to 96 and can beat hitters as the anchor of a four-pitch mix that has the makings of a starter.
Righthander Thaddeus Ward, 25, has performed well in his return from Tommy John surgery, forging a 2.28 ERA with a 31.0 percent strikeout rate in 51⅓ innings while working his way up to Double A. He’ll pitch in the Arizona Fall League, where the Sox hope he’ll develop into a back-end starter.
There’s enough to give the Sox hope that they have the makings of viable starting depth, with the possibility of Bello, maybe Mata (perhaps Garrett Whitlock) being potential impact starters.
The team has been similarly optimistic in the past, whether with the Rodriguez/Henry Owens/Brian Johnson wave of 2014-15 or with Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo, and Drake Britton in 2012-13. Both groups yielded considerable big league impact, but not as much as the team had hoped.
“I think [the current pitchers are] a talented group. I think our pitching development program has done a really good job helping guys maximize their strengths and really understand who they are,” said Crockett. “These are challenging jumps to the big leagues. But I think we feel good about the talent level and the personal qualities of some of these guys that will ultimately help them to have sustained major league careers.”