Matt Barnes may or may not be on the Red Sox' Opening Day roster. But at the least, there's a chance he could head north from Fort Myers to Philadelphia, and in that sense, this offseason and spring already represent a sizable step forward from a year ago.
Barnes was one of the team's non-roster invitees to big league camp heading into 2014. Team officials put him on the short list of players with a chance to make a midyear impact for the club, with the possibility that a strong showing in front of the big league staff could win him early consideration for a call-up.
Instead, his spring went off the rails before it ever got on track. He experienced some shoulder stiffness after an inning of work against Boston College and never got to face big league-caliber opponents before his reassignment to minor league camp. It was only at the end of the year, when the Sox were looking at prospect after prospect in September, that Barnes had his first chance to pitch in front of manager John Farrell, pitching coach Juan Nieves, and the rest of the staff.
"It was obviously frustrating. Nobody wants to be hurt. But I think the training staff and coaching staff made me feel comfortable [with how to handle the issue]," Barnes said. "It was more about being in the big leagues at the end of the year than it was in April. If that means missing a little bit of spring training, then I was OK with that. Obviously I don't like that, but it was definitely frustrating. Everybody wants to come in, be healthy, make an impression – especially in their first camp. When you're not able to do that, it kind of sucks. But I learned from that and moved on, used that this offseason to make sure it didn't happen again."
Barnes, who had also been held back for a few days at one point in his first spring training in 2012, decided that it was time to alter his offseason program. Rather than work with a strength trainer with little baseball-specific activity in mind, his program was run under the oversight of his strength coach last year in Triple A Pawtucket, Kyle Marandino.
Barnes started throwing in mid-November rather than December, addressing what seemed to be a rushed build-up to game readiness in 2014. His workouts were focused on his on-field movements rather than just general strength training.
"I wanted to make sure I got all my work in and did it the right way so that I was healthy, so I took a little bit of a different approach," said Barnes. "I think it was a learning process last year, and I took what I learned, used it this offseason to make sure that I came in in good shape."
To date, it's worked. Barnes has health. And with health, he's getting that chance to make the impression that he never did get to forge last spring. But this year, he's poised to make that impression not just through his physical stuff but also through his understanding of what he does with it.
Barnes describes the 2014 season as his foremost learning season, a year when he recovered from a poor start (4.81 ERA through 17 starts) to post a 2.38 ERA while averaging 6 2/3 innings per start, 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings, and 2.5 walks per nine in his final seven starts with the Pawtucket Red Sox, positioning him for a September call-up in the bullpen. The difference in the tale of two halves was not stuff but execution.
"In the middle of the year, I had what I thought was really good stuff but I was still getting hit. To me, those two things don't go together. If I have stuff like I had, I shouldn't be getting hit," said Barnes. "It wasn't about how I felt or the stuff. It was about how I was using it as a pitcher. So I kind of took a step back. It was like OK, I need to do this, this, and this to make my stuff play to the best of its ability. Once I figured out that gameplan going forward, that's when I started to see more success in the second half."
Barnes said that he stopped trying to be too precise with his fastball, working to halves of the plate rather than thirds – but putting greater emphasis on working down with his fastball. He used an early-count changeup (his second-best pitch) to seek bad contact. Then, he started employing his curveball – which started to become a more consistent weapon late last year – when looking to punctuate strikeouts.
Between those realizations about what to do on the mound and how to prepare for games – both as a starter in Pawtucket and as a reliever in the big leagues – Barnes had plenty of lessons that have put him in what manager called "legitimate competition" for a season-opening roster spot.
The struggles of a year ago have been the platform for an early spring that has seen him claim nine punchouts in seven innings (albeit with five runs, six hits, and three walks). The explosive life on his fastball (clocked in the mid-90s up to 97) down through the zone – a rare fastball with the power and movement to get swings and misses while in the strike zone – suggest someone with high octane stuff who can impact games, whether as a starter (where his improved curveball could give him a chance of sticking) or perhaps in the late innings, where his potentially Papelbon-ish fastball can play.
"I think I have a better understanding of who I am as a pitcher and what I'm trying to accomplish every time I'm taking the mound," said Barnes. "Starting, relieving, doing both last year gave me a clear perspective on how to kind of go about that. I think I learned a lot. Last year was probably my biggest learning experience I've had in baseball in a while, and I think it really helped in coming into this year."
So, too, has the lesson of how to get healthy – a lesson that has Barnes making one of the more powerful statements in Red Sox camp this spring.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.