Heading into the 2011 season, I lauded the Red Sox minor league system for its depth. But as the season has progressed, it became apparent there was an absolute dearth of depth of starting pitching at the upper levels of the minor leagues.
Over the past few months, the club has been presented with several opportunities for a young starting pitcher to take the reins, help the club in the race for the wild card spot, and potentially earn a spot in Boston’s rotation for 2012. The best -- and only -- option the front office has been able to put on the mound is former third-round pick Kyle Weiland. In 6 major league appearances, the 25-year-old right-hander is 0-3 with a 7.99 ERA.
This isn’t a referendum on Weiland or his future, as he’s posted a 3.51 ERA at four levels of the system since 2008, and has shown the potential to have three major league pitches with continued refinement. Over time, he could certainly develop into a very good late-inning reliever and perhaps even a decent spot starter at the major league level. But the fact that he’s been the only go-to option from the minor leagues for the big club down the stretch speaks to the lack of depth of starting pitching at the upper levels of the system.
As an aside, the club did enter the season with significant depth in the rotation. In addition to Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka, there was Tim Wakefield, Alfredo Aceves, Andrew Miller, Felix Doubront, and Weiland to rely on as depth. Typically, having 10 starters will allow a team to make it through a season in good shape. But not in 2011. Long-term injuries to Buchholz and Matsuzaka forced Wakefield and Miller into the rotation. An injury to Bobby Jenks prompted the Red Sox to move Aceves to the bullpen bridge role, a spot where he’s flourished. Doubront struggled through numerous injuries throughout the season, which were reportedly the result of showing up to spring training out of shape. Then the Red Sox acquired Erik Bedard at the trading deadline, but he has also struggled through injuries.
That being said, with the resources that Boston possesses, the minor league system should be stocked for instances just like these, particularly when several of those pitchers have had a history of injury problems. However, at the close of the Triple-A season, Pawtucket’s rotation was primarily stocked with minor league retreads whom the front office has evidently determined could do no better than a 7.99 ERA in the majors. In fact, four of the five starters in Pawtucket had been let go by other clubs over the last year.
Matt Fox, who was named an International League All-Star this year and pitched Game 1 of the playoffs for the PawSox, was waived by Minnesota in September 2010. After putting up a 10.80 ERA in three games with Boston in late 2010, the 28-year-old righty spent the entire 2011 season in Pawtucket, posting a 10-4 record with a 3.96 ERA. While he managed to have a few extended periods of dominance against Triple-A batters this season, he also had bouts of control problems and typically showed below-average stuff. It’s also questionable whether his 88-92 mph fastball and mid-80s slider would play up in a major league pennant race, and those are the likely reasons why Boston has opted for Weiland over Fox this September.
As recently as 2009, Tony Pena, Jr. was a light-hitting shortstop for Kansas City. Unable to cut it as a hitter at the major league level, Pena signed a minor league deal with San Francisco prior to the 2010 season and converted to pitching. He went on to post a 4.13 ERA in 2010 between stops in Double-A Richmond and Triple-A Fresno. San Francisco let him walk in free agency following the 2010 season, and the 30-year-old righty signed a minor league deal with Boston this past January. He ended the season starting the second game of the playoffs for Pawtucket, allowing 2 earned runs on 6 hits and 3 walks in 4 2/3 innings. While he managed to put up a 3.56 ERA as a swingman with the PawSox in 2011, he relies far too heavily on his fastball, and is therefore more suited for a relief role if he ever makes it back to the majors.
Knuckleballer Charlie Haeger, 28, was released by Seattle on July 15, 2011, after he posted a 7.74 ERA in 9 starts with Triple-A Tacoma. He signed a minor league deal with Boston on July 23 and was assigned to Double-A Portland. He went 4-1 with a 3.24 ERA in 8 starts with the Sea Dogs, received a promotion to Pawtucket after the regular season, and then was slated as the PawSox's fourth starter for the playoffs. However, Pawtucket was swept in three games in the first round of the postseason, thus Haeger did not end up throwing a pitch for the PawSox. Ultimately, considering that Haeger struggled mightily in Triple-A as recently as July, it’s not surprising that he’s not being utilized in the majors this September.
Had Pawtucket proceeded to a fifth game in the playoffs, 27-year-old Greg Smith would have taken the mound as the starter. Released by the Yankees’ organization on Aug. 15, 2011, Boston picked up Smith four days later and assigned him to Pawtucket. A crafty lefty with fringy stuff and 40 major league starts under his belt, Smith went 2-1 with a 4.84 ERA in 4 games with Pawtucket. That Smith has walked 111 batters in 229 innings over his major league career -- and most recently posted a 6.23 ERA with Colorado in 2010 -- has likely kept Smith off of Boston’s radar as a starting pitching option this month.
All four of Fox, Pena, Haeger, and Smith are eligible for minor league free agency this offseason, as is the case with 35-year-old righty Brandon Duckworth, who went 8-6 with a 3.97 ERA in 21 starts for Pawtucket in 2011, but ended the season out of the rotation after spending the last three weeks of the season on the disabled list with an elbow strain. On top of that, Doubront will be out of options in 2012, meaning he’ll likely begin next season in Boston’s bullpen, unable to serve as minor league starting depth.
The one pitcher who ended the season in Pawtucket’s rotation who should return in 2012 is 24-year-old right-hander Alex Wilson. A second round pick in 2009, Wilson was recently named the organization’s Minor Leaguer Pitcher of the Year, after he went 9-4 with a 3.05 ERA for Double-A Portland, and then 1-0 with a 3.43 ERA in 4 starts with Pawtucket following a late-season promotion to Triple-A. Still somewhat on the raw side, the front office likely determined not to rush Wilson to the majors, especially as the club is not required to add him to the 40-man roster this offseason. He’ll probably see time with Boston in 2012, perhaps even as an emergency starter. Over the long-term, however, Wilson projects to be better suited for a bullpen role, given that his fastball plays up better in shorter stints and his slider is his only other major league pitch at this stage. More than likely, Wilson will open the 2012 season as Pawtucket’s No. 2 starter behind Weiland.
Among the players at Triple-A who are under Red Sox control in 2012, the only other pitcher with potential to provide major league starting depth is right-hander Junichi Tazawa. At this point, it’s unclear whether Boston intends to utilize Tazawa as a starter or as a reliever going forward. He started the first 7 games he pitched this season in his return from April 2010 Tommy John surgery, but averaged less than 3 innings per start in that 7-game stretch. He was than used as a reliever for the remainder of the season, which may be a telltale sign of how the front office intends to use Tazawa in 2012, but it could also have been just to limit his innings for the season. Either way, he has not built back the strength to be under consideration for starter’s innings at the major league level this September.
Beyond that, the unfortunate news is that there also aren’t many starters at the middle levels of the system that project to be major league ready in 2012. Anthony Ranaudo, the top pitching prospect in the organization, may start next season in Portland, but he still needs refinement in multiple areas in order to be major league ready, and thus may not see big league action until 2013.
Righty Chris Balcom-Miller and left-hander Chris Hernandez will likely round out the next slots in the rotation at Double-A next season. Both had decent seasons in 2011: Balcom-Miller posted a 4.08 ERA and struck out 112 batters in 117 innings with Portland and High-A Salem, while Hernandez went 10-7 with a 3.18 ERA for Salem. But both also have fringy major league stuff, and may struggle as they advance up to the higher levels of the system. Two highly-regarded pitching prospects, Stolmy Pimentel and Drake Britton, took big steps back in 2011, with Pimentel posting a 6.79 ERA and a 1.61 WHIP for Portland and Salem, and Britton going 1-13 with a 6.91 ERA for Salem. Both are candidates for bounce-back seasons in 2012, but certainly can’t be relied upon as major league depth at this stage. A handful of pitchers had solid showings with Low-A Greenville in 2011, including right-handers Brandon Workman, Keith Couch, Miguel Celestino, and Kyle Stroup and left-hander Manny Rivera, but none project to be even close to major league ready in 2012.
With all of that in mind, it won't be surprising to see the Boston front office bring in a lot of new blood this offseason to revamp the starting pitching depth at the higher levels of the system. The club will undoubtedly be active in searching minor league free agency, waivers, the international market, and even the trade market to fill the voids in Pawtucket’s rotation and perhaps to bring in a starter or two to Portland. We could probably also expect to see more expensive “projects” next season, as was the case with Andrew Miller this year. After all, if you’re going to have a major league payroll in the $160 range, what’s another $1-2 million to earmark as starting pitching insurance?