While there are not a lot of conclusions that can be drawn from a spring training game, there are certain take aways that are good indicators. If Friday's performance by Clay Buchholz was an indicator for the season to come, there is a collective sigh of relief because it would seem that Buchholz is healthy and ready for the 2012 season.
In his second start of spring training on Friday, Buchholz pitched three innings, allowing two runs on three hits, with one strikeout and zero walks. Friday's performance was focused on refining his arsenal of pitches, with a focus on his changeup, historically one of his most effective pitches. Though two of the three hits came off his changeup, Buchholz did not seem too concerned and in his interview post-game tipped his hat to Clint Barnes for picking up on the pitch for a first-inning single.
Perhaps the bright spot of Buchholz's thee inning outing remains that he pitched pain free and confidently, a relief for the pitcher who dealt with injury last season. Buchholz was placed on the 15-day disabled list on June 19th and it seemed likely that he would return to the rotation shortly after however further testing revealed that he had a stress fracture in his back which ended his season after pitching just 14 games. While back pain and injury are fickle and could potentially resurface, the progress is positive in a season where a healthy rotation is the main focus after last season's injuries.
While every member of the rotation's performance will be important in 2012, the abilities of Clay Buchholz could be the real difference maker in the Red Sox rotation this season. If he can remain healthy and pitch as well as he did in 2010, the Red Sox could really benefit from cementing a strong third starter in a rotation that could be otherwise problematic for several reasons.
There is not much concern surrounding the abilities of veterans Josh Beckett and Jon Lester at the front of the Red Sox rotation, but with Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey both in recovery from Tommy John surgery, the Red Sox have been forced to revamp the rotation for the 2012 season in creative ways, making Buchholz's spot in the rotation more integral than past seasons.
There is some concern about Daniel Bard, who will be transitioning from his position in the bullpen since 2009, to the starting rotation. Of course, Bard does have experience as a starter in both college and the minor leagues, but he has not been used as a starter in the majors. While the transition may be easy for Bard, there is also no clear candidate for the fifth rotation spot at this time.
The fifth starter has yet to be determined, which could turn into a trial and error process that is not resolved until after the season begins and the right candidate for the position emerges. Fortunately, the Red Sox do have several options for a potential fifth starter--including but not limited to Felix Doubront, Aaron Cook, Andrew Miller, Alfredo Aceves, and Vicente Padilla-- it is now a matter of sorting through the options and finding the best fit, which could take some time.
With all of these question marks at the back end of the rotation, the better Buchholz can pitch, the more tolerance he gives the Red Sox if Bard struggles, the fifth spot remains in flux, or if Matsuzaka and Lackey take longer to rehab than expected. Buchholz's ability to have a healthy and productive season is exactly what the Red Sox need to absorb the weaker starts and to ensure they remain competitive in the AL East this season.
In a season where Buchholz needs to shine, it's difficult to make predictions about what to expect from him in 2012. Though he has spent time in the majors off and on since 2007, injury and the organization's desire to protect the young pitcher have only allowed for one full season, 2010, at the major league level. His 2011 injury limited him to just 14 appearances and 82 innings. Buchholz enters the 2012 at age 27 never having pitched more than 173 innings in the majors in a season, so there could be some concern about his ability to get to the desired 200 inning mark.
However, there is a lot of upside to a pitcher like Clay Buchholz. He is young and has been largely consistent in his time in the majors. His pitch arsenal is expansive and some of his pitches are downright filthy. His fast ball and cutter combination induce a lot of weak contact and ground balls, while his changeup leads to confused batters and strikeouts.
Though Buchholz has a strong foundation for success, he is not immune to struggling, especially in 2011. Early in the season, his four seam fastball showed a drop in velocity and his command for all of his pitches was not as sharp as previous seasons. In one particularly ugly outing on April 3rd, his first of the season, Buchholz gave up four home runs to the Texas Ranger in a 5-1 loss. His next few starts were just as rocky with command issues, but his performance improved greatly by May. Once his mechanics settled, Buchholz was pitching masterfully before his injury--allowing two runs or fewer in seven of his last nine starts, with five wins.
It is impossible to predict how Buchholz will fair this season for the Red Sox, but regaining his health and using his spring outings to refine his pitches is a step in the right direction fo him to have the positive impact in the rotation this season that the Red Sox will desperately need. If Buchholz can find the same success he did in 2010 with health and quality performances, he really could be the difference maker for the 2012 season.