It was the sort of game that might have served as a fascinating setting for Michael Kopech.
Thursday’s imitation of an exhibition game between the Red Sox and the Team USA squad that will take part in the World Baseball Classic was an odd affair. With the US pitchers saving their work for the tournament, Red Sox upper levels minor leaguers handled all of the innings for both sides – a rare showcase in such a prominent setting for several developing young pitchers.
Lefthander Jalen Beeks, a 2014 12th-rounder, made the most of it, tossing a pair of scoreless innings with a fastball that touched 92-94 miles per hour and a changeup that elicited some swings and misses. Other, more prominent names from recent Red Sox drafts – Trey Ball (2013 first round – two shutout innings but with three walks and no strikeouts), Teddy Stankiewicz (2013 second round – two innings, one run on a hit and two walks), and Ty Buttrey (2012 fourth round – two innings, two runs, two strikeouts) – had uneven performances.
There was no “wow” performance. There was no firebreathing Kopech monster pumping 100 m.p.h. gas, as the righthander is now with the White Sox after being dealt as part of the package for perennial Cy Young candidate Chris Sale.
It marked the second straight day that offered a sort of reflection on the state of the Red Sox’ homegrown pitching. On Wednesday, in a game that served as a footnote to the spring training debut of Tim Tebow, the Red Sox received a reminder of the contrast between their imported rotation and the very homegrown pool of starters possessed by the Mets, as Tim Britton of the Providence Journal observes.
New York featured Noah Syndergaard on the mound. Like every other projected member of New York’s rotation – and indeed, like the top seven starting pitching options that the Mets possess (Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Robert Gsellman, Zack Wheeler, Seth Lugo) – Syndergaard came through the Mets’ minor league system before emerging as a staple of an elite group. While both Syndergaard (who was drafted by the Blue Jays) and Wheeler (Giants) came to the Mets in trades, they did so at early stages in their professional careers. The Mets put the finishing touches on their development and saw them flourish.
The contrast with the Red Sox was hard to ignore. While the Sox feature what is, on paper, one of the best rotations in the majors, every one of their primary six starting options – Rick Porcello, David Price, Chris Sale, Drew Pomeranz, Steven Wright, Eduardo Rodriguez – was acquired from outside the organization. Of those, only Wright and Rodriguez – both in Double A at the time that the Sox traded for them – spent meaningful time in the Red Sox farm system.
*Number in parentheses excludes Daisuke Matsuzaka
The Sox are hopeful that some of their drafted-and-developed pitchers – most notably, Brian Johnson or Henry Owens – might be able to contribute as depth starters this year. Nonetheless, the hope for contributions around the margins of the pitching staff is very different than what the Mets feature. At least by design, there’s a very good chance that the Red Sox could get their fewest starts by a homegrown pitcher since Jon Lester broke into the big leagues in 2006 and Clay Buchholz followed him one year later.
But does it matter? Back in October, I looked at whether homegrown rotations are a staple of championship teams.
The clear majority of championship teams in recent years have featured, at a minimum, two homegrown starters. But that default setting is not universally employed.
The Cubs won the World Series while receiving exactly one start from a pitcher who’d spent his entire professional career in their organization. The Cleveland team they beat was anchored by pitchers like Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer – all buy-low options acquired in opportunistic trades who supplemented other homegrown options (Danny Salazar and Josh Tomlin).
The Red Sox – like the Cubs and Cleveland – have excelled at building a homegrown core of position players while going outside the organization to build their pitching staff. There are literal, considerable costs to such a strategy, whether a $217 million bet on David Price, or an organization’s worth of elite prospects for Sale and Pomeranz. The cost of not developing frontline starters for a team hoping to contend easily can reach into assets (whether money or prospects) worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Still, it’s possible to build a rotation that fuels championship ambitions even without a steady pipeline of homegrown starters. Before he joined the Red Sox as president of baseball operations, Dave Dombrowski built a Tigers rotation as impressive as any in the majors. While Detroit draftee Justin Verlander fronted the group and Porcello was likewise a Tigers drafted-and-developed pitcher, they were flanked at different intervals by Max Scherzer, Price, Doug Fister, and Anibal Sanchez, all of whom came to Detroit in trades.
“Once we were competing for the pennant every year, competing for our division, we ended up trading some of our guys,” said former Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones, who was in Fort Myers as Team USA’s pitching coach on Thursday. “You have to do that in order to make sure you make the postseason and you can go deep in the postseason. An organization’s goal is always to bring homegrown guys up. But we were in the thick of it for about five or six years, so we ended up trading some of the guys who might have made it to the big leagues with us. You’d always rather have your guys in the big leagues, but sometimes you have to go out and get other pieces to make it work.
“[Dombrowski] has made some tremendous baseball moves over the year. He’s probably, one of, if not the best baseball guy I’ve ever been around. I have so much respect for what he does. … Dave is probably the best baseball executive I’ve ever been around knowledge-wise and having a great feel for what a team needs.
It really depends on the organization. Everybody, when they set out, they want their guys to be in the big leagues – the guys that they know and that they’ve groomed to be in the big leagues, but there’s always going to be exceptions to all of that.”
The Red Sox are hoping to be one of those exceptions in 2017, a departure from 11 straight years in which they had a rotation built around at least one drafted-and-developed starter.