The Red Sox’ inability to develop a lasting homegrown starter since Clay Buchholz offers a reminder of baseball’s cyclical nature. As an industry, baseball endures periods of strength and weakness in every positional demographic. The same is true of individual teams.
A decade ago, other teams in the AL East looked at the Red Sox’ assembly line of homegrown pitchers with envy. No longer. But there’s at least some sense that the pendulum is nearing a change of directions, and that the Sox’ standout crop of young positional talent — Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Blake Swihart, Christian Vazquez, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Travis Shaw — may forecast a similar change of course on the pitching front.
“I still think there are guys that are going to have impact at the big league level,” said Red Sox VP of amateur and international scouting Amiel Sawdaye. “We had a reliance on veterans for such a long time. I think there’s a little bit of a shift now. The same shift we saw in ’07, we’re seeing again. You believe in the homegrown players — Mookie, Xander — and now you feel more comfortable filtering in more players.”
That view explains in part the Sox’ approach to their rotation. Instead of rushing to add a starter, the team wanted to create opportunities for pitchers such as Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, and Steven Wright to contribute in the big leagues. Owens and Johnson, in some ways, represent the first of what the Red Sox hope will be a coming wave of pitchers who come through the farm system to provide big league depth.
Owens, 23, showed enough in his 11 season-ending big league starts (4.57 ERA, 7.1 strikeouts per nine innings) that the team expects he’ll be positioned to contribute once he locks in his delivery after the initial month or so in Pawtucket.
The 25-year-old Johnson, meanwhile, is viewed as even more advanced than Owens, and the Sox believe once he builds up his innings for the season, he’ll represent one of the more trustworthy depth options they’ve had at least since Brandon Workman’s debut in 2013, and possibly beyond.
Owens and Johnson are both familiar, of course. Both project as lefties capable of solid, mid- to back-of-the-rotation performance. For potential glimpses of pitchers with even higher ceilings, it becomes necessary to drill down to the lower rungs of the Red Sox’ minor league ladder.
Most notably, righthander Anderson Espinoza — who turned 18 in March – is a pitching prodigy who possesses one of the most dazzling arms in the minors. With an easy delivery that allows him to attack the strike zone and creates the foundation for command, he throws 94-100 miles per hour with a changeup that has the potential to drop off the table and the ability to spin (but not yet command) a major league-caliber curveball.
Red Sox Latin American pitching coordinator Goose Gregson recently suggested that, in delivery and maturity at a very young age, Espinoza reminds him of what it was like to work with Pedro Martinez as a 16-year-old in the Dodgers’ Dominican academy. Virtually every talent evaluator who gets a glimpse of Espinoza emerges with a shake of the head, marveling at a pitcher who exhibits such remarkable gifts at such a young age.
“I look at a guy who looks like he’s 15 years old in the face, but when you hear people talking, you read reports on him, it’s kind of mind-boggling to think what he potentially could be,” said Sox manager John Farrell. “The raw capability is there.”
A conversation with David Price, Brian Bannister, Alex Speier, and Peter Abraham:
“He was a pretty polished kid when he came into the organization,” noted Sox farm director Ben Crockett. “The things that he does at that age, you don’t see a whole lot of. There’s command involved, the ability to throw all three pitches at different times and move the fastball around. It’s a pretty unique mix, not one you usually see at that age and you don’t really see too often in the course of the minor leagues. That’s really what has made him unique.”
Few in the minors so clearly show the potential components of a No. 1 starter as Espinoza. That’s far from a guarantee of what his future holds, particularly given the natural health risks associated with throwing a baseball, but he has obvious front-of-the-rotation possibility.
Espinoza will start the year in Single A Greenville — one level below where righthander Michael Kopech was expected to start before a broken bone in his pitching hand (incurred in a fight with a teammate) delayed the start of his season into May. Although Kopech now has two costly off-field missteps on his résumé (with the broken hand following a positive test for a banned stimulant last year), the Sox see in the 19-year-old a mid-90s to 100-m.p.h. fastball, a swing-and-miss power curve, and the makings of a changeup that could round him into a potential No. 2 starter or late-innings reliever.
Beyond Kopech, the names become less familiar, but there are some pitchers with relatively limited track records who nonetheless have shown impact potential. Most notably, despite the fact he threw just two innings in Lowell after the Sox took him in the sixth round last year, 21-year-old righthander Travis Lakins showed an impressive four-pitch mix in both fall instructional league and more recently in spring training.
The 6-foot-1-inch righthander has a smaller build but shows both athleticism and a lively arm, sitting at 92-93 m.p.h. with his fastball but capable of a couple of extra ticks. His secondary arsenal grades as plus, as he combines a sharp curveball with a diving changeup and a cutter to miss barrels. He is in consideration for a season-opening assignment in High A Salem.
Even farther down, 18-year-old Roniel Raudes – a skinny righty out of Nicaragua whose frame and loose arm bear some similarities to a young Clay Buchholz — showed the ability to throw strikes and miss bats with a three-pitch mix at a young age. He proved relentless in attacking the strike zone in the Dominican Summer League and Rookie Level Gulf Coast League in 2015, striking out 79 and walking nine in 73⅔ innings.
“He’s really, really aggressive, really confident, no fear in his game. His fastball is probably his biggest weapon even though the velocity doesn’t read what [Espinoza’s and Kopech’s] does,” said Crockett. “He’s got a projectable body. He does a really great job with his fastball, getting life on the fastball for swing-and-miss potential. He’s got a good breaking ball, and his changeup has shown promise.”
For the Red Sox, there’s an interesting depth of talent at the lowest rungs of the minor league ladder that suggests the possibility of impact down the road. Of course, the fact their starters with the greatest long-term potential will be three, four, or even five rungs away from the big leagues at the start of 2016 explains why the team will leave its chickens uncounted.
“Pitchers throw one pitch and they’re out. Pitchers get hurt at a higher rate than position players. That adds instability,” said Sox farm director Mike Hazen. “I think pitching is naturally more volatile than position players, so I don’t think you ever get a comfort level of what you’re doing developmentally.”