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The Red Sox’ inherent pitching development problem and its impact right now

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Pitching depth has become the most detrimental aspect of the Red Sox organization. And it doesn’t appear likely to change any time soon.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Oakland Athletics Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

On paper, this Red Sox rotation was built to be the backbone of the team. It had nearly every element you could want from a rotation — a bonafide ace (Sale), two upper-echelon innings-eaters (Porcello, Price), two younger guys with All-Star upside (Rodriguez, Pomeranz), and Steven Wright to round it out. The rotation, as constructed, would help mitigate the inevitable drop-off in the lineup with the retirement of David Ortiz.

What Dombrowski didn’t (and couldn’t) account for when he built the starting rotation was depth. Consistent pitching depth comes from a nurtured developmental program throughout the minor leagues, and is perhaps the most crucial organizational flaw plaguing the Red Sox today and going forward. That becomes exposed when, say, David Price and Steven Wright come down with injuries, forcing the Red Sox to go to the minor league pitching well that is barrenly dry.

Suffering through starts from Brian Johnson, Hector Velazquez, Roenis Elias, or (insert any other Red Sox minor league depth starter) has become an unbearable chore. And that necessity — that inability to find a major league-quality, homegrown pitcher to aid an ailing rotation even for a couple weeks — is the single most problematic trend throughout in the organization.

This is nothing new. This inability to develop major-league pitching talent is a problem that has been building for over a decade, and has forced the front office to pursue avenues outside the organization to acquire pitching. It’s one of the reasons I was less critical of the Espinoza trade than others, less wary of including Kopech in the Sale deal, and still in favor of the Price signing. When you can’t develop your own pitching, you have to acquire it externally. While that may not be a healthy organizational philosophy in the long term, it’s a necessity when trying to compete year-in, year-out.

Below is a list of all pitchers ranked in the top 10 prospects in the last 10 years, according to SoxProspects.com, and their career wins above replacement (WAR):

Player WAR

  • Jason Groome N/A
  • Roniel Raudes N/A
  • Anderson Espinoza N/A
  • Michael Kopech N/A
  • Brian Johnson -0.2
  • Travis Lakins N/A
  • Henry Owens 0.1
  • Eduardo Rodriguez 4.1
  • Matt Barnes 0.3
  • Allen Webster -2.3
  • Anthony Ranaudo -1.5
  • Brandon Workman -1.1
  • Rubby De La Rosa 1.2
  • Trey Ball N/A
  • Drake Britton 0.5
  • Stolmy Pimentel -0.2
  • Felix Doubront -0.4
  • Kyle Weiland -0.9
  • Carson Kelly -1.5
  • Michael Bowden 0.8
  • Daniel Bard 4.3
  • Junichi Tazawa 3.9
  • Nick Hagadone -0.2
  • Clay Buchholz 15.5
  • Justin Masterson 9.3

That’s good for a total of 31.7 WAR from a list of 25 players, with half of that coming from one player.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Toronto Blue Jays
Clay Buchholz is the most successful homegrown Red Sox pitcher in the last decade. And maybe the only.
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody can expect to hit on all of their prospects. You would be considered wildly successful if half of your top-10 prospects live up to expectations. But this is a list of 25 pitchers, none of whom (arguably) exceeded the expectations that their talent levels placed on them. The most successful player in the group — according to career WAR — is Clay Buchholz, who everyone tried to chase out of town for several years. The only hope of helping the team presently is Eduardo Rodriguez, who spent less than a year in the Red Sox’ minor league system and threw less than 40 innings below Pawtucket; it’d be generous to count him as a Red Sox developmental project.

In the long term this is troubling because of the constant need to acquire pitching, and the price that will continue to cost. It also breeds a lack of trust when pitching talent comes into the organization. Can we count on Jason Groome to become what it looks like he’ll become? Is there any chance somebody like Raudes or Lakins can become valuable starting pitching depth, or are they both destined for a spot in the bullpen? The only reason this strategy is even viable is because of the vast success the organization has had developing position players — and their insistence on keeping those players at their cheap costs. But those young players are going to get paid and they won’t be able to afford to expend their resources exclusively on pitching.

But, for now, those issues can be pushed down the road.

In the short term, the lack of depth is killing this team. In games started by someone other than Sale, Porcello, or Rodriguez, the team has a 7.28 earned-run average. It’s why David Price needing even one more start feels like a punch in the gut; it’s why the team has to finagle the rotation — skip turns, move things around, etc. — just to make it to his return; it’s a large reason why this otherwise talented team is sitting at .500.

This may not matter in the grand scheme of the season. If the team can make the postseason and have Price, Porcello, and Sale healthy then depth is relatively unnecessary. But that kind of mindset ignores the importance of fostering a healthy developmental system to produce the depth you need in the course of a 162-game season. If things continue to go down this path we will face the same issues in the years going forward.

And we could all go without seeing more of Henry Owens, Roenis Elias, Sean O’Sullivan, Hector Velazquez, or other Quad-A starters. It’s a systemic problem, and, if ignored, it will continue to rear its ugly head down the road.