Here's the thing no one likes to talk about when it comes to prospects: a lot of them are going to fail. It's exciting to imagine a future in which all of a team's prospects hit exactly how you envision them to, but that's so rarely the case: instead, you usually end up with a few playing just like you hoped, a few under-performing or completely busting, or hey, if you're lucky, a couple you counted out turn into productive big-leaguers.
So, knowing that not every prospect is going to return a profit, the best you can hope for in terms of preparation is to stock up on lottery tickets -- the more prospects you can throw at the wall, in theory, the more of them will stick. Plus, you can always deal off some of the "excess" to fill other holes on the roster, giving your prospects value beyond just their contributions on your own field.
Nearly through the 2013 season, with most of the year's minor-league development out of the way and the draft now two months behind us, the Red Sox are overflowing with said lottery tickets in the form of starting pitching prospects. It's going to be almost impossible to hold on to all of them, as there just isn't room on the roster to accommodate them all, but between the general rule about prospect failure mentioned, as well as trades, the Sox are well positioned to capitalize on their overflowing
Sox Prospects lists 14 starting pitching prospects in their top-40 for the Red Sox -- this doesn't include arms like Drake Britton or Pat Light, who are destined to be big-league relievers but are (or were recently) still in a starting role. While some of these pitchers are so young and inexperienced that they could very well fall off in the next year or two, there's also the flip side of that: they haven't risen high enough in the system to merit a higher ranking, and could very well be part of the next wave of legitimate, high-end Red Sox prospects.
We'll break this down by proximity to the majors, so as to get a sense of the waves of pitching talent on their way to Boston in the next few years.
The Red Sox have one of their potential starters of the future already in Boston, with Brandon Workman splitting time between the rotation and the bullpen in his brief time in the bigs. Workman might end up in relief in the long run, but it's not necessarily for a lack of talent: there are simply other options who are considered better than he is, and it could mean the Sox will put him in the pen as a power right-hander in order to fill a hole they currently have on their roster thanks to the absence of the injured Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan.
If a situation arises where he sticks as a starter, though, it's likely because he reached his mid-rotation potential as a guy who can throw 200 above-average innings per season. There's huge, huge value in that, especially for a cost-controlled arm like Workman's -- it cost the Red Sox over $12 million per year on free agency for the chance to get that out of Ryan Dempster.
Another arm in the bigs at present is Rubby De La Rosa. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2011 that ruined his entire development cycle for a time, as it caused him to miss nearly all of 2012, leaving 2013 as the season to rebuild his arm strength and stamina. As the finish line for the minor-league season approached, he started to pitch like someone who was running out of gas, leading him to the majors and the bullpen where he can still get his work in, but do so in a situation that better fits his arm's status.
By next year, though, De La Rosa should be all set in that department, and ready to handle a full season's workload as a starter. Given the Sox have six starters under contract for 2014 before even considering Workman, there won't be much of a rush to get De La Rosa to the majors in a permanent starter role, giving him plenty of time to work out the remaining kinks at Triple-A.
Allen Webster has already shown some promise in the majors, but he's also been a disaster: it all depends on what day you turned in to watch. He deserves some slack cut his way, though, as Webster is just 23, and in his first year in Triple-A: he was brought up more out of necessity than his readiness level, and once the Sox had another option available in Workman, they sent Webster back to the level he needs to be at for this point in his development. While his ultimate role is unclear, Webster's impressive repertoire could result in anything from a #2 starter in the majors to a shutdown, late-inning reliever. It all comes down to refining his command: when he's hitting his spots, he's absolutely dominant, but he needs to do it more consistently.
Then there is Anthony Ranaudo, whose primary concern at this point is his health. When he's on the mound, he's generally great, as the 2.80 ERA he's put up between Double- and Triple-A this year suggests. He's a little behind on his development thanks to a 2012 injury, however, so, like Webster and presumably De La Rosa, he'll likely spend 2014 at the level once more in order to build up his innings and polish off the last of what he can learn in the minors. He too has a mid-rotation ceiling, and while his health and the inconsistencies that stem from it might eventually force him into a relief role, he's managed to stay on the mound in 2013 and show off what he's capable of.
Matt Barnes has been progressing slowly at Double-A, but he's still been progressing, and that's what's important. Sure, he has a 4.40 ERA at the level, but he's also punched out 11.5 batters per nine and owns 3.2 times as many punch outs as walks, so there's plenty of good going on. It's only his second professional season, and he's still learning to consistently utilize his secondary stuff: a plus fastball is a blessing in the low minors, but it can also be a curse since it's about all you need to dispose of the opposition. The quality of competition in the Eastern League is forcing Barnes to adjust, and while there's work to be done, he's still doing well for himself. When he returns to the level in 2014, as Ranaudo did this year, it might not be for long if things click in the same way.
Then there's Henry Owens, who just got here after tossing over 19 consecutive no-hit innings for High-A Salem -- there's not much left to learn at a level when you can do that, especially when it's at the tail end of a season that features a 2.92 ERA. Owens is only 20 years old, and struck out 11 batters in his first six innings of Double-A ball. There's an argument to be made that he's the best pitching prospect the Red Sox have, and while it might not end up being truth, the fact he's in the discussion with the rest of these names is something on its own.
The Lower Levels
The rest of the pitchers are part of that next-next-wave, the ones who won't be where the upper level arms are for a few more years yet, either in terms of recognition or proximity. They're scattered between short-season ball and Low-A Greenville at the moment, with High-A Salem the only level bereft of a significant starting pitching prospect now that Owens has made his way up the ladder.
There's three from last year's draft class in Brian Johnson, Ty Buttrey, and Jamie Callahan who are all worth paying attention to. Johnson is something of a forgotten man thanks to a liner that hit him in the head in 2012 and ended his season after just 10 innings, as well as an injury that interrupted his 2013. However, he's supposed to be a fast track kind of guy who can move through the system quickly, so long as he doesn't get hurt again: he could finish up at High-A, be in Double-A in 2014, and be right back on track. He's a back-end lefty, but that's a pitcher with value as a cost-controlled asset.
As for Buttrey, he's 20 years old, and in his first pro season. He's been succeeding without his stuff completely working for him at short-season Lowell, and might end up being the top player the Red Sox drafted in 2012 when all is said and done. He's joined by another righty in Lowell, Callahan, who is just 18 years old, and has dominated the opposition of late, twirling 12 innings with just one baserunner allowed against 17 strikeouts in his last two appearances. Again, he's 18, and in a league where your average player is three years his elder.
From this summer's class, you've got Trey Ball, who has been likened to Henry Owens in terms of projection and was the top left-handed pitcher from the pool of available picks this June. Teddy Stankiewicz doesn't have the same ceiling, but he's 19 years old and in the New York-Penn League, and has a mid-rotation ceiling of his own.
There is more than an entire rotation's worth of believable starting pitching prospects with upside in the lower levels of the system here, and while it's unlikely they all become exactly what they're ceilings look like, there are enough tickets here for the Sox to come out looking good.
There are a few more arms to pay attention to as well, scattered throughout the system. Daniel McGrath just joined Lowell, and was an international free agent signing from Australia. He's "a tall lefty with a projectable frame" according to Sox Prospects, and has an impressive fastball with downhill movement. There's Jose Almonte, who is 17 years old and in the Dominican Summer League, also signed in 2012. Cody Kukuk is a left-hander who is just starting to come into his own in his first full professional season -- he's just 20, and has 86 strikeouts in 83 innings at Low-A, along with a 2.58 ERA over his last 10 starts.
The Red Sox have pitching depth in the majors, with plenty lined up behind it in their bullpen and at Triple-A, but there's even more where that came from. It's hard to remember the last time there were so many options in the system for the present and future, and while they won't all make it to the majors intact, Boston has done their best to make sure enough do for their purposes.
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