Jonathan Papelbon signaled the start of the oil strike just over a decade ago. The eventual closer’s arrival in the big leagues kicked off a period during which the Red Sox became as successful in producing impact homegrown pitching as any team in the game.
Papelbon’s debut in 2005 was followed the next year by Jon Lester’s. In 2007, Clay Buchholz wasted little time before making his mark with a no-hitter in his second big league start. In 2008, Justin Masterson joined the conga line, the fourth straight year in which an eventual All-Star graduated from the Red Sox farm system. In many ways, the Red Sox represented a model organization in terms of their homegrown pitching pipeline, which supplemented an elite core of championship-caliber talent.
“It was a rare combination,” recalled manager John Farrell. “We had guys who were All-Star players in their primes . . . And then you look at what was coming from within. It was firing on all cylinders.”
But what seemed for a team like a renewable resource instead became exhausted. Masterson, taken in the second round of the 2006 draft, was the last player the Red Sox either drafted or signed as an international amateur to make as many as 20 big league starts for any major league team(s).
“To say that there’s a void, obviously there has been,” said Farrell.
Red Sox officials note that part of that void has been a reflection of trades, starting with the decision to send Masterson to Cleveland as part of the return for Victor Martinez in 2009, and continuing with deals involving Casey Kelly, Kyle Weiland, Frankie Montas, and others.
“Part of the pipeline has been dismantled,” noted Red Sox GM Mike Hazen.
Nonetheless, it’s also been the case that for lengthy stretches there hasn’t been an impactful section of the pipeline to dismantle – even in simply rounding out the back of the rotation. The pitchers acquired by the Sox through the draft or international amateur free agency since 2007 have made just 80 combined big league starts (regardless of team) — pitching more than 2,100 fewer innings as big league starters than players signed by the Blue Jays in that time and nearly 1,800 fewer innings than Rays draftees and international amateur signees have logged as starters.
Though they’ve traded away their best young arms (while seeing several others get derailed by injuries), the Orioles have identified impact young talent — drafting Jake Arrieta and signing Eduardo Rodriguez as a 16-year-old. The Sox haven’t had an Arrieta or Rodriguez to trade away.
Though the Yankees and Red Sox are in a similar financial class, New York has turned pitchers like David Phelps and Adam Warren from amateurs into back-of-the-rotation stabilizers. Save for Brandon Workman in 2013, who made three starts before his move to the bullpen, the Sox haven’t had internal rotation options contribute in the middle of pennant races.
A conversation with David Price, Brian Bannister, Alex Speier, and Peter Abraham:
The record-setting $217 million contract conferred upon David Price offers some indication of the cost of not having a homegrown pipeline, as does the $95 million committed to Rick Porcello over five years (his $12.5 million salary in 2015 followed by the four-year, $82.5 million extension that starts this season) with the expectation that he represented a likely No. 3 or 4 starter.
The standings, too, give some sense of the dimensions of the problems the Red Sox have encountered. A shortage of rotation depth contributed to the meltdown in 2011 along with last-place finishes in 2012 and 2015.
All of that raises the questions: What’s happened? And has anything changed?
View from scouting, player development
When a team struggles to develop prospects, there’s a necessary nature vs. nurture curiosity. Is a talent deficiency the product of missed evaluations on the amateur scouting side or minor league coaching missteps that led to a failure to push players across the big league threshold?
“There’s probably a little bit of everything,” said Red Sox VP of amateur and international scouting Amiel Sawdaye. “I’m sure we misevaluated some guys. I’m sure there are some guys who didn’t follow the right track.”
Part of that relates to the nature of talent identification. Terms such as “inexact science” and “crapshoot” flow freely in describing the draft, with the latter a particularly apt means of describing the Red Sox, whose run of sevens a decade ago gave way to a series of snake-eyes.
That may seem like a copout, but even teams with excellent reputations for talent evaluation have experienced years-long runs without establishing a true homegrown big league starter. Since drafting David Price and Matt Moore nine years ago, for instance, most of the Rays’ pitching pipeline has come through trades for prospects and younger pitchers such as Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi.
Still, the Sox admit a degree of surprise that none of their top picks over a span of several years — a group that includes Nick Hagadone (2007 supplemental first-rounder), Kelly (2008 first-rounder), Stephen Fife (2008 third-rounder), Weiland (2008 third-rounder), Anthony Ranaudo (2010 supplemental first-rounder), or Workman (2010 third-rounder) — managed to establish themselves as a big league starter.
“The bottom line is that we’ve had a few of the higher-profile guys that we have not been able to get over that hump, and that haven’t had that kind of cleaner trajectory path that, say, a Buchholz had,” said Sox farm director Ben Crockett. “We have had some guys do pretty well, make progress, and then stall out at that upper level. It’s definitely something we spend time on.”
The Sox haven’t had a pitcher come through their system with front-of-the-rotation stuff since Buchholz. Still, they’ve proven unable to help pitchers with mid- to back-of-the-rotation potential nudge past their developmental finishing line.
Because the team hasn’t been in a definitive rebuild mode, there’s typically an inclination to entrust rotation opportunities to more polished veterans who offer a better chance of winning immediately than pitchers who need to struggle in the big leagues before emerging as finished products.
“It’s harder to be patient with guys if they’re not coming up and performing right away,” said Crockett. “I think it’s harder for us generally to break in a middle- or back-of-the-rotation guy because most guys aren’t ultimately going to be [that] in their first year in the big leagues.”
That, in turn, raises questions about whether the team is letting pitching prospects wither on the vine in Triple A rather than learning the lessons at the highest level that would yield eventual big league starters. There’s a chicken/egg issue — it’s hard to give big league opportunities to pitchers who remain in apprenticeship mode, but without doing so, those pitchers won’t establish their big league credentials.
The dilemma is particularly acute in the AL East. It’s worth noting that the Rays — the one team in the division that’s been consistently successful breaking in young pitchers — play in the division’s most forgiving ballpark. Mistakes that clank off walls and clear fences in Baltimore, Boston, New York, and Toronto don’t result in the same sort of pinball games in Tampa Bay — or in games played on the West Coast, the two Central divisions, or the NL East.
“Young guys, if they don’t consistently command their fastball, those more forgiving ballparks allow them to build confidence,” said Farrell. “I don’t want to attribute it all to the ballpark. But [the AL East] presents a more challenging [circumstance]. What it forces young pitchers to do who come up in our division, they must pitch inside.”
That message was one that the Sox delivered to considerable effect upon Eduardo Rodriguez after acquiring him from the Orioles. Of course, the fact that pitchers such as Rodriguez and Toronto’s Marcus Stroman are realizing early-career success in the AL East suggests that the division and its bandboxes are not insurmountable obstacles.
“It’s a tough division to pitch in with offensive environments. But it’s still Major League Baseball,” said Hazen. “Over the long haul, if we’re doing things the right way, we’ll be able to develop homegrown pitchers, too.”
Of course, more scouting success stories likewise would help that cause. Toward that end, the Sox have tweaked some of the processes they use for assessing amateurs.
For instance, the team focused its early-round picks for years on mound giants. Although the Sox liked smaller pitchers such as Sonny Gray (drafted one slot before Matt Barnes in 2011) and Stroman (taken two spots ahead of the Sox’ top 2012 pick, Deven Marrero), virtually all of the team’s early-round pitching selections were at least 6 feet 3 inches.
The team now acknowledges that the bias had some limitations.
“In the past we might have shied away from some guys,” said Sawdaye. “We’re more open-minded, as much as we ever have been. You realize there are pitchers who come in all shapes and sizes.”
“When you turn on a TV and watch big league games, you see all kinds of guys who are very successful — arm actions like Madison Bumgarner, guys with deliveries like Tim Lincecum, guys who are smaller like Sonny Gray or Marcus Stroman,” added Sox amateur scouting director Mike Rikard. “When you look back at those certain types of guys, you can learn great lessons from all of them. There will be another Tim Lincecum that comes along at some point. We’re trying to have a better way of assessing them.”
Toward that end, the team has added to its scouting staff the role of a national pitching cross-checker, filled by former area scout Chris Mears, to give focused apples-to-apples assessments of different young pitchers from around the country. The team also now employs former big league pitcher Brian Bannister as a pitching analyst who can employ data on elements such as spin rate, arm slot, pitch movement, and release point to help paint a more comprehensive portrait of young pitchers.
Members of the Red Sox note that the characterization of the gap in the team’s pitching pipeline should not overlook what is to come — both in the near-term with knocking-on-the-door options such as Henry Owens (2011 supplemental first round) and Brian Johnson (2012 first round), along with potential frontline starters who are at least two or three years away in Michael Kopech (2014 first round) and especially Anderson Espinoza (2014 international free agent).
“I don’t think the book is written on a lot of these guys,” said Sawdaye.
Still, it’s clear that an organization that talks constantly about its ambitions for sustainable success needs to reopen the valve on the sort of young pitching pipeline that played such a central role in fueling title runs in 2007 and 2013.
“Talking about some of the challenges we’ve faced doesn’t mean that we’ve been perfect in the execution of it,” said Hazen. “Certainly, whether it’s on the scouting side, the development side, the progression side in the major leagues, we haven’t developed as many starting pitchers as we’ve wanted. We need to work harder at bringing more guys through the system to complement our major league club and develop those homegrown starting pitchers. It’s a challenging process but we have really good scouts who work their butt off. I believe we’re going to refill that pipeline, year over year.”