There was nothing to celebrate about during Felix Doubront's last outing. The struggling Red Sox southpaw raised his ERA to 5.12 on the season by allowing five runs over four innings, including two home runs. His control was poor and his velocity was down. He ended up exiting the game in the fifth with arm pain. While the injury is certainly nothing to be happy about, things could have been much worse for the Red Sox and Doburont. These days, when a pitcher is as diminished as Doubront was in his last start, we expect far worse than a mysterious case of dead arm brought on by a poorly executed exit from the car. In fact, because the injury is relatively minor and Doubront and several other starters have been struggling, this DL assignment could turn out to be a watershed moment in the 2014 season.
As Ben Buchanan pointed out earlier this week, the Red Sox have had a bit of an issue in starts made by people who don't have the initials J.L. Jon Lester has been the top of the rotation arm the Red Sox need and expect him to be and John Lackey has been nearly as good despite a much higher ERA. Felix Doubront and Clay Buchoholz have been cringe-worthy, however, and Jake Peavy has been shown a disturbing lack of command thus far. Ben argued that it is now time to tap the depth stashed away on the farm and the injury to Doubront gives the Red Sox the perfect excuse to do just that. They won't have to deal with benchings or demotions now, even though such measures might be justified. They won't have to go through all sorts of roster contortions to find a solution without shorting the bench or the bullpen. With Doubront on the shelf temporarily, they can fix the rotation with far fewer unwanted effects rippling through the clubhouse.
Since the Red Sox are generally quite conservative when it comes to calling up prospects,we might expect the team to insert Chris Capuano into Doubront's place, with Brandon Workman then getting the call to replace Cappy as the long man in the Sox bullpen. Speaking with Alex Speier of WEEI, John Farrell seemed to contradict that theory, stating:
"We've got some candidates at Pawtucket that are ready to step in. [There are] guys that have been throwing the ball well - Brandon Workman is one and Allen Webster is another."
A decision is still probably a few days away, but it hardly surprising that Brandon Workman and Allen Webster are the top candidates. Capuano threw 37 pitches in two innings of work on Thursday, perhaps signalling that he is going to stay as the the long man. In that role, he has emerged as a key contributor in the bullpen this year and he is second in innings out the pen so far, trailing Burke Badenhop by just two frames. His case for the rotation is not without merit, however. Like Doubont, he is left-handed, a trait that none of the options in Pawtucket can boast. He has a strong major-league track record as a starter (at least when healthy). He has also done everything that he could reasonably be expected to do to earn the first shot in the rotation. He has a 2.22 ERA over 24 1/3 frames in relief, and while hoping that he can translate his career-high 8.5 K/9 rate to a starting role is probably too optimistic, he has enough upside to be better than Doubront has been this year, at least
Capuano might offer a different look for hitters and a solid track record as a starter, but even before Farrell's comment, Workman and Webster would have been the safe bets for a spot start or two. There are plenty of experts who believe that Workman's future likes in the late-innings and he played that role well on the biggest stage last October, but to this point, he has had more success as a starter in the majors and Boston remains committed to giving him every opportunity to stick in that role. He was the Red Sox pick for spot start work last season and at 25, he ties with Rubby De La Rosa as the senior man in the Pawtucket rotation. He has struggled with home runs with Pawtucket so far this season, leading to an ugly 5.12 ERA, but he is still the best strike-thrower of the bunch, leading the PawSox rotation with a 3.4 K/BB. Despite his ERA, that could sway the Sox brass to give him another shot in Doubront's absence.
Allen Webster has ridden his ground ball stuff to the best ERA among PawSox starters, but that 2.47 ERA is saddled with some less-than-stellar peripherals. He has struck out just 6.4 hitters per nine innings and that rate is made even worse by the fact that he has walked 3.8. Control was an issue in his brief exposure to the majors last season and I would expect the team to push him to improve those numbers before giving him another shot -- to Webster's credit, he has been much better of late after a swing-and-miss-less start to the year. Other options pose a similar dilemma. Anthony Ranaudo has a 3.27 ERA, but his 4.8 BB/9 is a concern and Rubby De La Rosa has been essentially the same player as Ranaudo with a 3.42 ERA and just slightly better peripherals. Matt Barnes has seen the least amount of work at Triple-A, but he has also flashed good results on top of shaky peripherals. Regardless of which option the Red Sox ultimately employ, there is a good mix of upside and risk.
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To this point, this choice of who will fill in for Doubront generally seems to be focused on the short-term reality that he has been placed on the 15-day DL and will miss two starts. However, given just how dramatic the drop in velocity was -- he lost three miles per hour on his fastball between the two starts and was hitting just 85 mph at the time he was removed -- a lengthier stint is a strong possibility. Coupled with the lack of off-days in the schedule and the issues with Buchholz (who was shelled again on Wednesday) and Peavy, it becomes clear that the solution doesn't necessarily have to be limited to just Capuano, Workman, or Webster making a couple of starts. The Red Sox will not have a day off until June 5 and their next off day is after that is June 26. The rotation is limping along. Clay Buchholz looks like he needs rest or even a DL trip of his own. Jake Peavy needs to find his command. No one wants to see the dynamic duo of Lester and Lackey slip.
Apart from Doubont, it is a veteran group of arms and even if things were going perfectly, the team would need to give these guys extra rest here and there. Now, not only do the Red Sox have room to slip one pitcher into Doubront's place, they also have the need of a spot start or two over the next month. That should provide a number of opportunities for these candidates to show the team they belong in the rotation. If Workman or Webster or anyone else steps up, the team might find a long-term replacement for at least one struggling arm and still insure themselves against further injuries. At the very least, they should be able to get the rest of the rotation a little extra rest during the audition process.
The Red Sox starting pitching depth was one of the big separators for them when looking at the division race, but despite some early struggles, they have not played that trump card yet. Service time and the lack of options among their starters are factors, of course, but I would guess that the main reason the Red Sox have not called on any of the young arms to this point is the hope that Doubront, Buchholz and Peavy would shake off the early rust and regain their 2013 form. That could still happen, but with each poor start the clock on these players runs down a little more. If an extra day of rest can help, now is the time for that rest. If it can't, now is the time for a close look at the alternatives.
The hope here is mainly that someone will step up and show the team that they belong in the majors on semi-permanent basis, but also that the process of finding that player will help the team get the other arms back on track. If one of those two things happens, Doubront's injury will be blessing in disguise. If both happen, it could be the transformative moment of the Red Sox 2014 season.