Felix Doubront is the lone Red Sox starter to pitch poorly in 2013. He's been worse to start this season than he was in 2012, in what was considered a year for mistakes and learning from them for a lefty in his first full big-league campaign. He's missing bats, because that's a thing Felix Doubront does. However, he's also missing the strike zone, failing to find the sixth inning often enough, and is about 26 percent worse than average by ERA despite the fact that opponents aren't even hitting home runs off of him... yet.
Allen Webster has made four starts for the PawSox, and owns a 2.70 ERA with 26 strikeouts in 20 innings. If not for a rainout, things could look even better, as he struck out four in two frames in a game that no longer counts towards his record. He's walking just 2.7 per nine, and while it's far too early to know if that's going to be how Webster's control looks going forward, mechanical changes made specifically to improve his command and control seem to be working out for him. He's already made one start in the majors this year, striking out five in six innings while scoring a quality start in his major-league debut against the Royals. Baseball America considered him the #49 prospect in baseball even before he was limiting walks and punching out International League batters.
With the Red Sox competing, there is a legitimate discussion to be had: should Allen Webster be in Boston's rotation instead of Felix Doubront? Discussion is the key word here, though: there are a whole lot of factors to consider.
Doubront just hasn't performed to begin the year, and while that alone isn't huge, we've also got a full season's work of work from him to look at between 2012 and the first month-plus of the new year. In 34 starts, Doubront has thrown 188 innings, in part due to caution from overexerting a 24-year-old starter, but more because his acceptable pitch count had already been surpassed before the seventh inning came around. In that time, he's posted an ERA of 4.98 and an ERA+ of 86, both well below-average, with the latter accounting for park difficulty. He's struck out more than enough hitters, but strikeouts aren't everything: he's allowed hits at an above-average rate, and gives up roughly 1.5 baserunners per inning thanks to that combined with his lofty walk rate.
Photo credit: Ronald Martinez
With Webster around in Triple-A, why would you stick with a pitcher who hasn't done well for over a year now? Doubront has potential to be more than he's been, and if he can become more efficient, might even be a league-average pitcher -- that's no small thing, and shouldn't just be cast aside. When Boston's rotation empties out in a couple of years due to contracts ending, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront, and a mid-30s John Lackey might be the only starters left. In a best-case scenario world, Matt Barnes, Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, and maybe even Anthony Ranaudo are all ready for productive big-league action at the moment those spots open up, but none of them are a guarantee, never mind all of them. Doubront's 2013 is the next step in finding out if he can handle a major-league rotation workload, and if there's something here besides just a fifth starter who occasionally flashes more, as knowing he can be relied on takes one variable out of an unsolved equation loaded with them.
Whether that's more important than winning now is essentially what's up for debate.
The Red Sox don't have to use Doubront as a starter going forward in order to get use out of him, though. They think he's got real potential as a big-league arm, but efficiency has been a problem (and could be the problem going forward) -- given that, the bullpen seems like the perfect place for him. Doubront strikes out over a batter per inning as a starter, doesn't feature enormous handedness splits, and has had trouble staying healthy enough to make 200 innings a realistic possibility both with his minor-league work and that in the majors: that screams reliever for a team blessed with enough pitching depth to make such a move.
He might not have a role at all for a time if it turns out he's hurt, though. Doubront's velocity is down to begin the season. He averaged just under 93 miles per hour on his four-seam fastball in 2012, but he's just over 90 mph this season. His curveball and change-up have also seen a few ticks come off, and his sinker has similarly dipped. Velocity down across the board is a problem, and given that he dealt with shoulder fatigue in spring training and in August of last year, brings concerns that there is something wrong with him physically causing this.
This, in conjunction with Webster's early dominance at Pawtucket, could mean Webster gets a chance to pick up a few starts while Doubront rests his shoulder -- or whatever the potential underlying cause of his issues is -- on the disabled list. If Webster handles that workload as well as his debut start, then it's time to consider keeping him in the rotation while pushing Doubront in the bullpen. It wouldn't interfere with Boston's starting pitching depth -- Doubront is already stretched out as a starter, and you know he can deliver a tolerable, if not solid, outing if thrown into one. Webster hasn't spent a ton of time at Triple-A, but between his strong spring, early season results, and the expectations for what kind of arm he would be if he could get his arsenal under control, it's very likely he's ready for the majors now in a way that Doubront still might not be despite his advantage in experience.
Shifting Doubront to the pen wouldn't be giving up on him as a useful major-league arm. Things have changed in terms of Boston's future a bit since last year when Doubront won a job in the rotation -- Barnes jumped all the way to Double-A after a strong debut campaign, the Sox traded for Webster and De La Rosa, Brandon Workman continues to thrive, Anthony Ranaudo is starting to look good again -- and the necessity of him as a starter, while still existing, isn't quite what it was at this time last year when he and Bard were considered a possible future. Given all the injuries the bullpen has already been dealing with, having another arm in there -- one that can miss bats and could throw a couple of innings at a time -- wouldn't be a bad thing, either. If the rotation could improve in conjunction by promoting Webster, then the answer as to what to do about these two becomes clear in a hurry.
Doubront doesn't have to be pushed out of the rotation forever -- maybe, like Wade Davis with his cutter and command, Boston's left-hander figures something out in his new role that allows him a return to where he was always meant to be. But he could have value in the bullpen in the present, while Boston's rotation sees a few questions answered in the same time frame, and maybe their future, too. That, even without the velocity dip from Doubront in mind, is a tempting path for the Red Sox to take.
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