We know what the 2015 Red Sox rotation is going to look like. They might add another arm between now and Opening Day, shuffling Joe Kelly off to the bullpen as insurance, but otherwise, Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Justin Masterson, and Kelly are a set bunch. They won't be that way for long, however, as all but Kelly and Miley could be gone after 2015, opening up three holes in the rotation next offseason. Filling those holes might not be as hectic a process as it was this winter, however, but that all depends on the development of Boston's pitching prospects at Triple-A.
Let's rewind to last year for a moment. It was a similar situation, with the Red Sox hoping two of Allen Webster, Brandon Workman, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes, and Rubby De La Rosa could prove themselves worthy of a rotation spot for 2015, or pitch well enough that they could be trade pieces to find someone who was capable of that. The least amount of pressure was on Barnes, as he had just arrived in Pawtucket, but the other four were maybe seeing their last chance to prove they were worthwhile starters. De La Rosa was the only one to pass the test, so rather than fill the holes opened up by the various trades and departures of 2014 with internal candidates, the Sox dealt Rubby and Webster to the Diamondbacks for Miley, traded Yoenis Cespedes for Porcello, and signed Masterson to a make-good one-year deal. Workman and Ranaudo are, barring the unlikely introduction of a quality third pitch, future relievers, while Barnes is now in their position from a year ago as a 25-year-old trying to stick as a starter at Triple-A.
That entire group of Webster, Workman, Ranaudo, and De La Rosa had the same weaknesses and therefore the same potential future: they could be useful big-league starters if their command tightened up and they developed a consistent third pitch, but the chances of that happening for all of them were low -- innumerable pitchers in baseball's history have had the same "If only!" dream, and almost as many have failed to realize it.
This would be a depressing end were this all the Red Sox had for pitching prospects, but it's not. Henry Owens and Eduardo Rodriguez don't carry that same weakness, and are both prospects who are more highly regarded and more likely to stick as starters. They're also both on track to be ready to go in 2016, just when the Red Sox might end up needing them.
Porcello and Masterson could both leave through free agency while Buchholz is bad enough that his option is declined, leaving three rotation spots wide open next winter. It's possible Buchholz, further away from 2013's health problems, rebounds enough that his option is picked up, or that the Sox manage to bring back one or both of Porcello or Masterson, but the point is that as many as three rotation spots could open up through free agency alone. Kelly could also turn out to be unfit for a starting gig over a full season in the American League, creating a fourth hole to be filled. That's where Owens and Rodriguez come in.
Photo credit: Elsa/Getty Images
Both pitchers might just be mid-rotation arms, but their ceilings are higher. There are those who believe Rodriguez -- who the Sox received from the Orioles at the trade deadline for Andrew Miller -- can lead a rotation someday, but he still has a lot to prove before that's a mainstream opinion or one to build around, and for all of Owens' success in the minors, he still doesn't have a locked-in third pitch that will be there for him 30-plus starts per season. What is known is that their chances of being in the bullpen are slim: Owens' fastball command has improved markedly in the upper levels while his change-up is a legitimate out pitch, and the Red Sox iteration of Rodriguez has shown improved fastball command of his own after some mechanics tinkering. Neither pitcher has fully escaped this potential fate, but they are in a far better position than the pitchers the Red Sox were dreaming on this time last year.
Owens and Rodriguez recently arrived in Triple-A, with Owens making six starts there totaling 38 innings and Rodriguez only coming up in time for the International League playoffs. They'll both be in their age-22 seasons in 2015, so the same rush for them to be ready for another promotion isn't there for the sake of their own careers like it was for Ranaudo and Co. As stated, though, the Red Sox could surely use them a year from now, so there is still pressure there.
They also aren't the only minor-league pitchers the Red Sox have working towards a 2016 gig in the majors. Brian Johnson finished his year with Pawtucket in the playoffs as well after posting a 1.75 ERA over 118 innings with Double-A Portland. Command is Johnson's game, and it's the reason his average repertoire has brought him the success it has: he might have a future as a mid-rotation guy, but even if he just grows up to be a back-end arm who can provide useful innings, there is value there. Matt Barnes will get another shot at starting, and he should: in his final 10 starts of 2014, he limited opponents to a .217/.262/.329 line while posting a 2.89 ERA. There are legitimate concerns that he's a reliever instead of a starter, but he would also likely thrive in a bullpen role as a high-strikeout right-hander, and as he's one of many prospects, so long as he's a major-league pitcher, it's probably a win. Edwin Escobar will be just 23, and the lefty has a potential future as a back-end starter, if the Sox don't just convert him to relief now during a time of need.
Other than that these pitching prospects are better than the ones from a year ago, there is one more major difference: this is it. The next wave of quality Red Sox pitching prospects isn't sitting at Double-A this time around, waiting for a hole to open in Pawtucket so they can earn a promotion -- it's lower in the system, and at least two years away from Boston. Owens and Rodriguez are better prospects than Webster, Ranaudo, and so on, and Brian Johnson might even be as well given his high floor, but after these guys, that's it for a while. They have a better chance of succeeding and becoming the homegrown starters the Red Sox very well may need all over their rotation in a year, but they also need to accomplish that goal more than those who came before them. Trades and the free agent market can always lend a hand, just as they did in this offseason, but given the rising cost of pitching in both of those areas, at some point, the Sox need someone from within to develop as hoped. It seems Owens and Rodriguez are up to that task, but 2015 will let us know for sure.