In a way, Matt Barnes represents an organizational litmus test.
The righthander made his first big league start on Monday in the Red Sox’ 8-2 loss to the Indians, and for three no-hit innings he showed the capacity to dominate, getting swings and misses with a three-pitch arsenal — fastball, curveball, changeup — in a way that he hadn’t while working out of the bullpen.
In the fourth, however, his stuff seemed to flatten a bit and the swings and misses were replaced by foul balls and hard contact. Perhaps that was because of fatigue for someone whose pitch count had been built only over the last couple of weeks in his move to the rotation in Pawtucket.
Barnes also was betrayed that inning in part by defense, most notably left fielder Hanley Ramirez’s inability to haul in a catchable liner that turned what should have been an out into a two-run double in a five-run fourth inning.
That led to a mixed performance in which Barnes allowed six runs in five innings while striking out seven.
Barnes, not unlike Henry Owens the night before, showed swing-and-miss stuff but still ended up allowing a large amount of runs. And unlike Owens, Barnes displayed a fastball that he could command at up to 96 miles per hour for swings and misses in different parts of the strike zone.
There was something fascinating about the fact that Barnes’s performance came against the Indians, a team that has committed itself to taking the longer view with pitchers in an attempt to capture their upside rather than opting for immediate returns. Time and again, they have taken pitchers who didn’t necessarily show a present ability to dominate in the rotation and simply stuck with them, eventually realizing considerable returns. They have taken pitchers who looked like relievers and committed to keeping them in the rotation, often with considerable payoff.
In 2009, for instance, they acquired Justin Masterson in a trade with the Red Sox, at a time when the big righthander looked likely to be a bullpen piece for the Sox. The Indians stuck Masterson in their rotation, hung with him through a 7-20 record and 4.67 ERA in 2009 and 2010, but eventually reaped the rewards of an excellent 2011 campaign (3.21 ERA) and All-Star performance in 2013 (14-10, 3.45).
“He would have never pitched in the rotation with the Red Sox,” said Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway. “We saw an opportunity to get him. His three or four years with us were pretty valuable for us as an organization.”
Cleveland rode out years of struggles with Carlos Carrasco in his efforts to start. When he finally got his first sustained taste of big league success in the bullpen last year, they moved him back to the rotation, where he’s emerging as a pitcher with electric stuff.
“Maybe the Red Sox and Yankees maybe just throw Carrasco in the pen, and he’ll maybe just have a career in the pen,” said Callaway. “We have to continue developing these guys and get the most out of them that we possibly can, because we’re not going to go out and spend $15 million a year on a pitcher. We’ve got to create our own $15 million-a-year pitchers. I think when your back’s against the wall you do special things that maybe some teams don’t have to do.”
The Indians have built the sort of young rotation with a host of strikeout-an-inning pitchers in their mid-to-late-20s that is the envy of other teams. Emulating their blueprint, however, is no small feat.
Back to Barnes. The 25-year-old has a pitch mix that permits imagination. He has a powerful fastball, and unlike teammate Joe Kelly, he’s shown the ability to get swings and misses with his heater. His curveball and changeup — along with what catcher Ryan Hanigan described as a “cutter-slider” that was seldom employed on Monday — showed promise in flashes.
“He’s going to need at least three pitches to be a starter. With his stuff, he does. He’s got them,” said Hanigan. “Whatever role they’re trying to find for him or introduce him as, he can do that.”
Will the Sox commit to taking the time to seeing what Barnes can be? With a perennial mandate to contend — and after multiple years of failing to fulfill it — do they have that luxury?
In a way, how the Sox proceed with Barnes will say as much about their organizational philosophy and approach to pitching as it does about the pitcher himself.