Despite never throwing an inning in the professional ranks, 21-year-old Anthony Ranaudo is widely considered the top pitching prospect in the Red Sox system. An imposing mound presence at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, one can see the big righthander’s vast potential from merely watching him pitch a bullpen session -- the size, the stuff, and the presence of an ace pitcher are all there. But getting to this point has not been easy for Ranaudo, as his young career has already been a roller-coaster ride of extraordinary success and well-publicized struggles on the mound.
His rise to prominence began at St. Rose High School in Belmar, N.J., where he posted a 21-4 record with a 1.44 ERA, 240 strikeouts, and three no-hitters. He also took home a state championship and All-American honors in the process, while grabbing the attention of college coaches and professional scouts alike.
"After my junior year of high school, I started talking to a bunch of schools,” said Ranaudo. “After the summer, I had it narrowed down to Alabama, Virginia, LSU and Vanderbilt. I visited all of them except Vanderbilt, because once I went to LSU, I committed right away. I just loved it. They had a new stadium on the way, new coaches, all new recruits, so I was going to be part of the next wave -- a new generation at LSU. All that really appealed to me. We had such a great team coming up, and I felt like it would be fun to play a part in turning that team around.”
Following his senior year in high school, during which he received constant attention from professional scouts, Ranaudo was drafted by Texas in the 11th round of the MLB Draft, but when faced with the decision of honoring his commitment to LSU or joining the professional ranks at the age of 17, he did not take long to make up his mind.
“It was an interesting spring with all of the scouts following me," he said. "It gave me some good experience, but in the end I was dedicated to LSU, and it wasn’t a tough decision to go to school.”
In his freshman season, Ranaudo pitched just 12 innings over seven relief appearances and one start due to elbow tendinitis and a cautious approach by the LSU staff. In those few innings, he didn’t allow an earned run, striking out 13 batters and allowing only 5 hits. He also worked a scoreless inning in the opening round of the College World Series, but the team bowed out in the second round against North Carolina.
Ultimately, it was Ranaudo’s sophomore campaign that made him one of the top professional prospects in collegiate baseball. Despite having only 12 innings under his belt, the righthander went into the 2008-2009 school year with aspirations of being the team’s Friday night starter -- the ace of the staff.
“Since we lost all of our weekend starters, I wanted to be the Friday guy.” said Ranaudo. “I worked really hard, had a good fall, and a good preseason, and wound up getting the job.”
At the age of 19, he spent the entire season as LSU’s No. 1 starter, with good reason. He had a 12-3 record with a 3.04 ERA in 124.1 innings over 19 starts, striking out 159 batters -- third-best in the nation. Due largely to the contributions of Ranaudo and starter Louis Coleman, LSU earned the No. 3 seed in the 2009 College World Series. The two pitchers pushed LSU through an impressive postseason run to Omaha, where, in the national semifinals, Ranaudo held Arkansas to 0 runs, 0 walks, and only 4 hits in 6.0 innings, leading LSU to a 14-6 victory and entry into the best-of-three final round against Texas.
In the finals, Texas and LSU split the first two games, setting Ranaudo up to start the winner-take-all Game 3. While Ranaudo’s performance in the rubber match was less-than-brilliant, allowing 4 runs on 8 hits and 5 walks over 5.1 innings, it was enough to earn the win, with the Tigers posting an 11-4 victory to take home the National Championship. Ironically, his fellow 2010 Red Sox draftee Brandon Workman took the loss for Texas in the game.
Following his 2009 season, Ranaudo was labeled as a can’t-miss prospect, and by nearly all accounts was projected as a top-two pick in the 2010 draft, behind only uber-prospect Bryce Harper, who was indeed later selected by the Nationals with the No. 1 overall pick. Heading into 2010, Ranaudo earned preseason All-American honors, but his junior season failed to meet expectations due to a combination of issues.
“Everything was good until the week before the season started, when I had a little bit of tightness in my elbow,” said Ranaudo, who managed to start the Feb. 19 season opener that season against Centenary. “After that, they took some precautionary measures and sat me out.”
After a five-week hiatus, Ranaudo returned to the mound on March 27 at Tennessee.
“When I came back, everything started off OK from a success standpoint, but I probably wasn’t in as good of shape as I should have been,” he said. “Maybe it was a mechanical thing, I don’t know -- it seemed like I was messing up with my pitches. My breaking ball was not nearly as sharp as it had been. I was healthy, and my arm felt great -- there was nothing wrong with my arm. It was all either in my head or mechanical. But the facts are facts. I got hit around, I missed my spots, I walked people, I didn’t have my best stuff, and it seems like every weekend they took advantage of it.”
He ended the season with a 5-3 record, 7.32 ERA, and 27 walks in 51.2 innings, not the numbers that a team picking second overall in the draft wants to see. However, Ranaudo did finish the season with some success, earning two wins in the SEC Tournament, including an impressive three-inning, no-hit relief appearance in the SEC Championship game.
“I certainly went through some struggles, but it’s all part of the game,” Ranaudo said. “It’s that adversity, which I think I overcame, and it made me a better pitcher in the long run. And it’s all in the past now.”
Despite Ranaudo’s relatively poor results compared with preseason expectations, nearly every major league club continued to scout the LSU righty during the team’s postseason run, which ended when the Tigers were defeated by UC-Irvine in the NCAA Regionals.
“Everything stayed the same the whole year as far as scouting goes. I didn’t hear until a couple weeks before the draft that I was falling on draft boards. Everything seemed normal,” he admitted. “My velocity was the same, so I thought everything was going to be fine, but I guess when you go out there and put up a 7-something ERA, you can fall down some draft boards.”
On the morning of draft day, Ranaudo tried not to have any expectations, but he admits that, naturally, he knew he would be let down if he fell out of the first round. Even as the first round unfolded, he was unsure where he might end up.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen in the first-round area. Then my advisor [Scott Boras] called me and said ‘it looks like the Sox might pick you in the supplemental round.’ I was in an airport, coming back from Regionals, and I was actually on the plane when I got picked,” he remembered. “After we landed, I actually tried to turn my phone on when we were taxiing on the runway, but one of my teammates in front of me got his phone on first, and he turned around and said, ‘Congrats, you just got picked by the Sox at number 39.’ That’s how I found out that the Red Sox picked me.”
Despite that he indeed fell seven picks out of the first round at number 39 overall, Ranaudo reiterated on multiple occasions how grateful he was to have been selected by Boston.
“When the day was over, and I put my head on the pillow, I was just happy to be drafted, realizing that not everybody gets this opportunity. I was ecstatic and excited to see what was going to happen that summer and to see if I could come to terms with the Sox.”
Ranaudo had from June 7, when he was drafted, to the Aug. 16 draft signing deadline to show the Red Sox that he was worth the kind of money a high-first-round draft pick -- the kind of player teams saw him as at the outset of the 2010 season -- would receive.
He made the decision to join the Brewster Whitecaps of the Cape Cod Baseball League for the months of June and July, for two reasons: “The first reason was I got hurt during the season, and I only pitched about 55 innings at LSU. So I wanted to keep my arm in shape, to go there and get at least 30 innings, so I could maybe get up to 85-90 innings for the year. That way, if I did go back to LSU, I would have that many innings under my belt and I’d be in good shape for fall ball,” he said. “And the second reason, obviously, was to go up there and showcase myself to the Red Sox a little bit more, so they could get a good look at me, focus in and watch my routine in their own backyard.”
Before he got to Massachusetts, Ranaudo took a long, hard look at his situation and resolved to work past the issues he experienced during his junior year.
“I remember I was driving from Louisiana to New Jersey, by myself in my car for a 20-hour drive, thinking about a ton of things. One of those things was thinking that the Cape League experience could either make or break me as a pitcher,” he said. “I could go there, and keep all the stuff that happened last year in my mind, and maybe go down the drain as a pitcher, or I could look myself in the mirror and just say ‘you’re a lot better than that, you can overcome the adversity, make yourself into a better pitcher, and really dedicate yourself.’”
If getting past those struggles was his goal, it certainly seems that he accomplished that on the Cape. In five starts and 29.2 innings, Ranaudo went 3-0, didn’t allow an earned run, posted a 0.61 WHIP, and struck out 31 batters. He featured his entire arsenal, including a downhill 91-95-mph fastball, a hard power curveball with plus potential, and a developing changeup, all of which he threw with tremendous feel and excellent control.
“I feel like I had great focus up there. I also had really good teammates and coaches that allowed me to do what I wanted to do,” he said. “Everything just kind of came into place. My arm felt good, my stuff was working. My team was rated as the number one summer team in the country at one point. It was just a really great summer, that five to six weeks I spent up there.”
Incredibly, while representatives from the Red Sox front office were present at all of Ranaudo’s starts on the Cape, the player and the club had no contract discussions whatsoever from the time he made his initial bonus demand on draft day until there were only five minutes left before the signing deadline at midnight on Aug. 16. In the end, he signed for a $2.55 million signing bonus at the deadline, foregoing his final year at LSU.
“They knew what I wanted, and that whole time in Cape Cod was an evaluation period, to see if they thought I was worth what I thought I was worth,” he said. “From there, everything happened in the last five minutes, that’s the 100-percent truth. At 11:55 [on Aug. 16], I got a phone call, saying $2.55 million is the offer. That’s where I saw myself. I had told [LSU] Coach [Paul] Mainieri a few days before that, ‘If I get the bonus I want, I’m going to sign, but if I get a penny less than what I want, I’m going to come back to LSU.’ ”
Following the lightning-fast “negotiation,” the Red Sox sent Ranaudo to join Short-Season-A Lowell for the final two weeks of the New York-Penn League season, but opted not to have him pitch.
“They just wanted to get me in the routine,” said Ranaudo. “I spent a little over two weeks there and finished the year with them. It was good to get my feet wet and see how everything works, and to meet some of the players and coaches.”
From there, he went directly to the Fall Instructional League in Fort Myers, Fla., where he also did not pitch, but he did get more acclimation to the organization.
“I went to Instructs for a little over two weeks, to do the strength and conditioning program. I got to sit with the older guys and pick their brains. I also got to meet a bunch of the front-office people, and a lot of the on-field coaches. It was just a matter of learning how things work in the system.”
Over the winter, Ranaudo followed the Red Sox throwing and lifting program, and combined that with regular workouts at the Boras Sports Training Institute in California. He then made his way back to Fort Myers in February.
At this point in the spring, Ranaudo has been assigned to participate in exhibition action with the spring training High-A squad, a sign that he is likely to break camp with High-A Salem in early April. Going into the season, it appears that the club will not make any changes to the righthander’s arsenal or mechanics, in the hopes that he has overcome his struggles and will return to his 2009 form.
“At this point, it’s not any different. The Red Sox are just letting me keep everything the same,” he said. “I’m just working on being more consistent with my fastball, being able to locate and really establish that pitch. I’d also like to be able to work off of [my fastball] and continue the development of my changeup. I feel like I have a pretty good feel for my curveball, so I just want to make sure to stay consistent with that. With the development of my changeup, I feel like I can have three true pitches and attack hitters with that arsenal.”
He brushed off the idea that some pressure might come with being labeled the new top pitching prospect in the Red Sox organization following the trade of Casey Kelly to San Diego in the Adrian Gonzalez deal.
“I don’t feel any pressure at this point,” he said. “If people consider me that, that’s great. If not, I haven’t even thrown an inning yet -- or even one pitch -- as a Red Sox [player]. Right now I’m just trying to go out there and get better, to develop myself into the pitcher I think I can be. If I can go out there and get better every day, and just work hard, wherever that takes me is great. I really just want to go out and compete right now.”
Over the long term, Ranaudo says, his goal is to be a “front-line starter at the major league level,” a lofty goal that is likely well within his grasp. If he can ride the momentum of his dominant summer and prove himself once again worthy of the high expectations that followed his sophomore year, the Red Sox could have a major draft steal on their hands, as well as the next big-name pitcher to grace the mound at Fenway Park.
Mike Andrews is the Executive Editor of SoxProspects.com and a special contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Chris Hatfield of SoxProspects.com contributed to this column.