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Red Sox need to commit to developing pitching

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Manager John Farrell removed Eduardo Rodriguez in the third inning Monday night.Chris O'Meara

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — By the end of an eight-out, nine-run atrocity, there was no hiding the fact. Eduardo Rodriguez is not a big league-caliber starting pitcher right now.

The 23-year-old lefthander has been largely reduced to a fastball-changeup pitcher in the absence of the slider he featured a year ago, making it virtually impossible for him to get through a lineup three times even on nights when he can command his fastball. And Monday against the Rays, he had neither the life nor command on his fastball that he'd demonstrated in his previous start. The result was the first yield of nine or more runs in fewer than three innings by a Sox starter since Aug. 10, 2010, when Jon Lester got thusly hammered.


Yet while the decision to option Rodriguez back to the minors seemed all but inevitable around the time he walked off the mound in the third inning of a bullpen-annihilating start, it shouldn't distract from the bigger picture: The Red Sox need Rodriguez to become the pitcher they hope he can be.

The Red Sox are in a years-long cycle of failure when it comes to developing starters, one that has thrown them time and again into the free agent market where risk is enormous, yet still comes at a considerable cost. At some point, if the Red Sox want to position themselves to fulfill their ambitions of sustainable success, they need to become an organization that cultivates young pitchers, develops them through the minors, and graduates them to the big leagues to stay.

That doesn't mean that the progression needs to be a straight line. Roy Halladay, for example, got tagged in the big leagues and required a return to the minors for the better part of a year before becoming one of the best pitchers in the game.


Chris Carpenter needed more time to develop after reaching the big leagues. More recently, pitchers such as Jake Arrieta, Danny Salazar, and Carlos Carrasco required time to re-establish themselves in the minors before they were able to emerge as elite pitchers.

In retrospect, it appears the Red Sox were so eager to get Rodriguez in their leaking rotation that they rushed him back after he suffered a subluxation of his right kneecap before he was ready. He came back at a time when he was experimenting with his delivery in an effort to reclaim missing power. He was left to try to find solutions on the fly in the big leagues, an imposing — and sometimes impossible — task for a pitcher with limited big league experience.

Fairly or not, Rodriguez is now at something of a fork in the road, and the Sox are next to him at that same crossroads. He is the most promising young Sox starting pitcher to arrive in the big leagues since Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz almost a decade ago.

Given the team's desperation to stabilize its struggling rotation, the temptation may be to view Rodriguez as a trade chip for a veteran who can provide more. Yet if the Sox want to create a pitching culture that offers the potential for long-term stability, they need to commit to developing starters through their struggles.

That means a commitment either to clinging to their potential front-of-the-rotation starters (most notably Rodriguez and Anderson Espinoza) or to acquiring young starters whose development they can finish, as Dave Dombrowski did in Detroit with a young Max Scherzer.


Yes, there's a chance that the Red Sox will get burned. The team failed to sell high in recent years on pitchers such as Allen Webster, Henry Owens (whose career arc is still taking shape), Michael Bowden, and Matt Barnes (at a time when he might have been viewed as a starter). But at a certain point, the Red Sox need the solution to be not "selling high" but instead assisting those young pitchers across the developmental finish line at the game's highest level.

"Everybody finishes their development in the big leagues. That's the bottom line. There are a lot of indicators, but until they're up, you don't know [what a young pitcher will become]," said one NL evaluator. "I can give you an educated guess. That's all I can do."

So, there's risk in committing to young pitchers. But there are organizations that navigate those risks and figure out how to graduate young pitchers to the point where they can help a big league team.

"Within the industry you commonly hear things like, 'The Cardinals are always good at developing pitching.' Or, 'The Rays always have a good bullpen,' " Sox director of pitching analysis and development Brian Bannister said during the offseason. "You hear things like that when you're out scouting. Those are common sentiments. My goal is to work with everyone so that the Red Sox, hopefully sooner than later, are shared in that conversation . . . I want to build a winning culture and have the Red Sox be a consistent place where pitching is developed."


Rodriguez is now a litmus test for that organizational ambition.

Alex Speier can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @alexspeier.