At the beginning of last season the Red Sox felt their starting rotation was, if not the strength of the team, than a strength. Many, maybe like myself, felt the team had one of the better starting staffs in baseball. But the way the season played out for the rotation was much less than that. Two Tommy John surgeries for John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka, and a serious back injury* to Clay Buchholz turned a strength into a profound and ultimately fatal weakness.
* It's like a sad version of The 12 Days of Christmas: "And a seer-y-u-us baaack in-jur-ee!"
The Red Sox cycled through ten different starting pitchers last season, and of the five replacements none was able to contribute more than mediocrity. It wasn't supposed to be that way. Ideally the minor league system should have guys ready to step in and contribute at the big league level when injuries happen. In fact, there was one guy who was supposed to step into the rotation and provide good innings. Felix Doubront was that guy, only it didn't work out that way.
As a 22 year old in 2010, Doubront started the year at AA Portland. He was called up to AAA Pawtucket after starting eight games with a 2.51 ERA and a 2.24 K/BB ratio. Shortly after appearing at AAA, the Red Sox called him up to Boston. He stepped in and threw 25 innings of 4.32 ball. He struck out 23 in those innings. He was sent back to AAA after that, but in those innings he showed the promise of a capable big league pitcher.
Bigger things were expected of him in 2011, but Doubront showed up to camp out of shape. He started with the big league club but after just three games he was sent back to AAA. His 6.75 ERA in just 2.2 innings gives a good indication as to why. Further, all of the games he entered were under blowout or near-blowout conditions. Plainly, he wasn't good and he wasn't trusted.
In 2011, Felix Doubront's role within the Red Sox organization should have been the first one off the bench. He was the axe in the glass case with the words "break in case of emergency" on the outside. He was the young up-and-comer, the hard throwing lefty who had a future in the Red Sox rotation. But then he was none of those things. What he was was out of shape and lousy, and he let the team down in the process. Instead of Doubront filling in, the Red Sox were forced to burn starts on Andrew Miller and Kyle Weiland, and burn them they did. Weiland started five games, lasted just over four innings per start, and gave up about a run an inning. I know, it felt like much, much more. Miller started twelve games for the Red Sox, somehow managed his way to a 5.55 ERA, and was the cause of an heretofore unseen rash of sharp objects finding their way into retinas all around the NESN viewing area.
If it seems like I'm harping on last year and the role Doubront could have played had he taken care of himself and taken his job and his role on the team seriously, it's because I am. I'm a big believer in talent, but you gotta want it too and last year Doubront just didn't.
But, and here's the good news, Doubront still has the talent that made people think he could sit at the back end of the Sox rotation and give the team a chance to win every time out. That's still there, even after last season. Doubront is still left handed, he can still dial it up to 93, and he still has effective off-speed pitches that should allow him to make it through a batting order more than once. In short, the tools to be a major league starting pitcher and a credit to the Red Sox minor league system are still there.
You can't plug him into the rotation now because of that whole last year thing, but there is a non-zero possibility that two things occur: 1) Doubront gets significant innings as a starter this season and, here's the shocker, 2) that we're not upset about it after it happens.
There are very real questions about Felix Doubront, and that is the reason nobody is counting on him to be the fourth or fifth starter despite the fact that he has the skills to do so. Doubront is out of options, so if he isn't on the major league roster coming out of camp, he'll be exposed to waivers. This will likely incentivize the Sox to give him another shot in the majors out of camp, whether they like to or not.
If last year can be chalked up to an innocent mistake, a young man's folly, then there is a very real possibility that Doubront can make a positive impact on the 2012 Red Sox, as opposed to what he made last year. He can be the guy who steps in and saves us from injuries and twelve more starts of Andrew Miller. For that alone, don't sleep on him.