No one likes to convert a starting pitching prospect to the bullpen. It's seen as a defeat, an admission that someone isn't quite good enough, akin to moving a young position player to the designated hitter spot because there's an undeniable deficiency in their game.
It doesn't always work that way, though. Sometimes, there just isn't any room for another starter, but there's a pressing need in pen -- that's how Red Sox prospect Brandon Workman made the shift from starting to relief once Boston acquired Jake Peavy from the White Sox. Sometimes, it's because, in the long run, that was going to be the role a pitcher was in anyway -- southpaw Drake Britton falls into this bucket, and the switch to relief pushed him to the majors faster than continuing to start would have.
Sometimes, a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B happen at once, and a team can afford to take an asset that could be useful as a starter, but use them in a relief capacity because it's the best thing for the team and the roster as constructed, as well as for getting said asset out of the minors. That's the potential case for 24-year-old Rubby De La Rosa as of today.
De La Rosa has already found some success as a starter in the majors, and his ceiling is that of a mid-rotation starter, if not more. That's where that "admission of defeat" in his development comes in, where it just doesn't feel like he should be a reliever. The thing is, though, that De La Rosa has always had a significant gap between his floor and his ceiling, and the lost years of normal development caused by a late-season Tommy John surgery only served to exacerbate that gap. In a system lacking in pitchers and pitching prospects, De La Rosa could absolutely stick in the rotation until he proves he cannot. Boston, though, might be better off making the switch, because they certainly do not lack in arms at any level.
When Clay Buchholz returns next week, the Red Sox will have six starters for the big-league rotation. Ryan Dempster, a free agent making $12.5 million both this year and next, will be pushed to the bullpen for September and, if necessary, the postseason, with a move to deal at least one starting pitcher likely this off-season. There is obviously no room for De La Rosa in the Red Sox' rotation at the moment, and there is unlikely to be space in 2014, either.
At Triple-A Pawtucket, the PawSox will have Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes, and De La Rosa, as well as one or both of Steven Wright and Workman, depending on Boston's spring plans for him -- they could stretch him out in spring training and then stick him in the big-league bullpen, or leave him at Pawtucket as the first line of defense should there be a need for a spot starter or injury replacement in the majors. That's six starters, and while Wright has the least potential of the group, he's already shown himself to be a useful piece with options who can be placed in whatever role or level the Red Sox need. He, along with Webster and Workman, represent immediate 2014 rotation depth that can be shuttled back-and-forth as necessary.
Behind this group is Henry Owens, arguably the best pitching prospect the Red Sox have: a 20-year-old lefty who has obliterated Double-A competition in his short time as one of the Eastern League's youngest arms. He might need a place in Pawtucket sooner than later, so add him to the list of roadblocks.
It's obvious there's a logjam, both in the majors and the minors, and that the answer is to either trade some of this pitching, or to convert some of it to relief. The former might present itself this off-season, but all of that depends entirely on the kind of return available. The thing the Red Sox have complete control over is sending one of these young arms to the bullpen: the question shouldn't so much be "should they" as it is "who?"
De La Rosa makes the most sense. Brandon Workman is in relief now, and could end up there in the future, too, but he has the large body and the development curve that makes it look like he's a possible workhorse in his prime. Even if Workman is "only" an average starter in terms of ERA, if he can approach or surpass 200 innings while on a cost-controlled contract, that's huge value for the Red Sox. It's worth seeing if he can hit that ceiling while the opportunity is there at Triple-A. Webster, Barnes, and Ranaudo are all superior pitching prospects with higher floors and equivalent ceilings to De La Rosa, and they are also all younger: there's more time for them to raise that floor even higher, or continue to push up their ceiling, with their performances at Triple-A. Wright isn't the prospect of any of these pitchers, but that's only because of the unpredictable nature of his pitch, the knuckler: he has a chance to be a productive big-league (rubber) arm, and he has two options remaining, meaning the Sox can bounce him back-and-forth as necessary for quite some time yet.
Then there's De La Rosa, who will be 25 next season, and has missed significant development time thanks to Tommy John surgery. He has thrown all of 80 innings for Triple-A Pawtucket, in part because of a slow increase in his innings as the year went on and he rebuilt his arm strength, but also because he averaged fewer than 4-2/3 innings per start in the 11 appearances after the Sox let him loose for five-plus frames per outing. The Sox have used him exclusively in relief in the short time he's been in the majors, and since August, that's also the role he's been in with the PawSox. It could very well be for the same reasons Workman finds himself in relief -- De La Rosa is back in Boston in a relief role now that rosters have expanded for September -- but it could also be the Red Sox transitioning him towards a more permanent role.
Seeing him there wouldn't be a total surprise -- after 2010, when De La Rosa was one of the Dodgers' top prospects, Baseball America said he could be "a No. 2 starter or a closer." Inconsistency in his secondary offerings, his arm slot, and his command were the reasons for such a significant gap, as if things came together, he could be outright dominant as a starter. It's years later, though, and he's the owner of a 4.26 ERA at Triple-A, with too many walks, not enough strikeouts to offset them, and the same issues with consistency and command.
Switching him to relief permanently, and giving him time to adjust to that role, could offset all of that, as he could turn up his fastball velocity, rely less on the inconsistent secondary stuff, and not have to worry as much about fatigue setting in. He still owns a high ceiling, but it's looking more likely to be in relief -- that's not a bad thing, especially given the costs of high-quality relievers both on the free agent market and, as Red Sox fans are well aware of, in trades.
A year ago, before Anthony Ranaudo reemerged as a serious pitching prospect, before Brandon Workman blew through Double-A and then found some success in the majors, before Allen Webster figured things out at Triple-A, before Matt Barnes pushed through the Eastern League and made his way to Pawtucket, before Henry Owens made the leap in a breakout campaign, switching De La Rosa to that relief track, as promising as it was, would have felt like a defeat. Now, though, considering all of those things have happened, it just seems like the right thing to do, both for De La Rosa's future, and for Boston's.
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