With the uncertain status of Clay Buchholz’ option, it’s worth remembering that he is currently the last of an endangered species. It’s been over nine years now since Buchholz first made his way up from the farm system, and since then, the Red Sox farm system has produced zero starting pitchers who have lasted to this day in the majors.
The list of attempts is not small, and not completely without success. Fair play to Justin Masterson, he did have a career. Felix Doubront made legitimate contributions to a team that won the world series. But that’s about as good as it gets. After them? Michael Bowden, Casey Kelly, Kyle Weiland, Anthony Ranaudo...It’s not terribly pretty.
The most recent crop to get a shot at it have come up awfully short in the last year-and-a-half, but they are still around, and not quite dead yet. Henry Owens has yet to show the ability to command his pitches to the point of major league viability, but his failures in 2016 were perhaps exaggerated — his early performances in Pawtucket suggest this was more than simply his usual wildness, with his late-season performances trending upwards. He even looked passable in a September outing against the Yankees. There is yet some hope there, if less than there might have been a year or two ago, and he still has time to make good on it in Boston, with two options left.
For Brian Johnson? It’s really hard to say at this point. He always seemed like the safe bet. Even if he was never going to be truly great, there’s a lot to be said for a guy who can throw a bunch of different pitches for strikes. But after missing a good chunk of 2016 to deal with anxiety issues that safe designation is in serious question. And with just one option year left, it’s kind of do-or-die time for him, at least in Boston.
What’s most striking about this is just how huge the gap is between the team’s ability to produce pitchers and the ability to produce position players. Consider the fact that this could well be the Red Sox lineup in some National League park this season:
C: Blake Swihart
1B: Hanley Ramirez
2B: Dustin Pedroia
3B: Yoan Moncada
SS: Xander Bogaerts
LF: Andrew Benintendi
CF: Jackie Bradley Jr.
RF: Mookie Betts
SP: Clay Buchholz
Every single player on that list spent their minor league career with the Red Sox right up through their MLB debut. You can even switch in Christian Vazquez or Travis Shaw. Sure, those two, Moncada, Swihart, and Benintendi aren’t entirely proven yet. And it’s unlikely all five (probably even four) end up being long-term major league players. But that’s still quite the collection, while guys like Josh Reddick, Anthony Rizzo, Jose Iglesias, and perhaps Jed Lowrie (2016 was very unkind to him) have been productive elsewhere.
The Red Sox have found ways to compensate, to their credit. Their rotation, for all that their draftees and international signings have come up short, features three players who are still in their first six years of team control. But both Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright arrived in Boston having already pitched a decent amount in Double-A, and Drew Pomeranz was obviously an established MLB pitcher. Trading Anderson Espinoza may have stung, but the team’s track record with building up arms that young would suggest that he’s more likely to flourish in the Padres’ system than Boston’s.
Still, with the price of pitching headed ever higher, and the Sox hoping not to be in the selling situation that netted them Rodriguez anytime soon, the Sox would certainly hope that their long drought ends soon. And, again to their credit, they don’t seem blind to this issue. The mystique around Brian Bannister has risen to somewhat ridiculous levels in some corners of Red Sox nation, but even if he does not live up to the miracle worker expectations some hold, he certainly seems to be a valuable asset who knows what he’s doing and can hopefully give some of Boston’s young pitching prospects the help they need to succeed where those before them have failed.
There’s also the fairly large wrench of Amiel Sawdaye’s departure. The player development arm of the Red Sox is certainly not the work of just one man, but if any single departure could change the entire makeup of that department, it’s Sawdaye. His successor has massive shoes to fill, and the Sox would consider themselves awfully lucky if he comes close to matching Sawdaye’s productivity, but it’s possible wherever the next head of player development lands, their results will at least be more balanced between pitching and hitting. That’s one part of the problem with organizational upheaval, though: you no longer even know where your strengths and weaknesses lie.
The effects of these organizational losses, however, will not be felt for a while yet. For now, the Sox can only turn to the last great hope that Sawdaye has left behind for the post-Bannister development crew to guide along. If all these years will produce even one big arm for the Red Sox, Michael Kopech might well be the one. Off-the-field issues (banned substances and a fist fight) have limited his time on the mound while in the Red Sox organization. But when he has pitched, it’s been electric. We’ve heard tales of 105 MPH fastballs, and even if that figure seems like it has to be incorrect, he’s been focusing on secondary offerings in the Arizona Fall League, where his results against the most talented and developed competition he’s faced yet have earned him an All-Star nod.
I (and I imagine most others) would like to think Kopech (or Owens, or Johnson) will end that drought. That the Sox will finally show that they can produce pitchers as they once produced the likes of Jon Lester. But at the same time, it feels like we’re in TINSTAAPP territory by now. No matter how many positives things we might find to say about Kopech, it feels like we’ve said them before about one of the other guys who graced top prospect rankings both locally and nationally only to flare out or fade away.
Well, maybe not “105 MPH fastball.”
That one, at least, is new.