Henry Owens

A Brief History of the Red Sox’s Struggle for Starters

It was evident a month ago – maybe even longer than that – that the Red Sox have a major flaw that might be visible from space. The Red Sox were able to circumvent it for several years, but with the lack of trade targets and the coming free agency period lacking many good starting pitchers, they may not be able to mask it anymore.

As of now, they have three competent starters in David Price, Steven Wright and Rick Porcello. See a common thread here? None of them were homegrown. Price was a big FA acquisition, and Wright and Porcello were obtained in trades with AL Central teams. That leaves two rotation spots for the other starters to fill, and, well, they haven’t been anything close to competent. The melting pot of Clay Buchholz, Roenis Elias, Eduardo Rodriguez, Joe Kelly and Henry Owens has made a really unappetizing stew.

But hey, there’s some slack to cut. Elias, Rodriguez, and Kelly weren’t brought up through the Red Sox’s farm system, and Buchholz has been good in the past. Problem is, he isn’t good anymore. Neither is Henry Owens. And therein lies the core of the issue. The Red Sox, as an organization, simply cannot produce starting pitchers.

When’s the last time you can remember the Red Sox churning out a starter that could cut it in the majors? Buchholz did well for a while, but his trademark erraticism has torpedoed any hope that he could be that good again. So let’s go with Jon Lester. He debuted in 2006, and became a full-time starter in 2008. He is, by far, the best pitcher they’ve developed in recent years, and I’m really straining the definition of the word “recent” here.

There’s been flareups from guys like Justin Masterson and his really good four months in 2009, and Felix Doubront and his strangely decent 2013 season. Other than those 10 months of good pitching, everything has been terrible. That’s not an exaggeration. It’s been so bad that Brad Penny – you know, the dude who could only manage five innings of four-run ball per start in 2009 – has been more valuable in 131 innings than the vast majority of Red Sox-developed starters in the last several years. David Price has already blown past them all as well. Even Eduardo Rodriguez, who we can all agree has been objectively horrifying to watch pitch this year, is worth more than many Sox starters.

So, as a benchmark, let’s use Lester’s promotion to a full-time starter in 2008 as a starting point here. What other monstrosities have the Red Sox minors unleashed upon the major league team? Remember, they’ve had to come up solely through the Red Sox’s system. Also, Brian Johnson is currently exempt, as he’s been snakebitten with injuries, and is being treated for anxiety.

  • For starters – pun intended – there’s Charlie Zink. He was a knuckleballer who made a single disastrous start in 2008 and was never heard from again. Think of how a knuckleballer can go bad, and then make it three times worse. Yeah. That’s Zink.
  • Michael Bowden probably didn’t get very much of a chance in the majors in the late 2000s, but he was still pretty nondescript in the minors. He was used primarily as a reliever, but the strange, arm-twisting throwing motion of his tended to give away his pitch a lot, and made him very vulnerable to the running game. Never really started again after 2010, and no team took a chance on him.
  • Junichi Tazawa actually came into the majors in 2009 as a starter, and unsurprisingly, gave up 23 runs in 25.1 innings. Now you see why he’s a reliever. To his credit, he did have one good start against the Yankees while the entire team imploded around him that year.
  • If you can recall specific details from the September collapse in 2011, you probably remember Kyle Weiland. He was so bad in his major league stint that a Terry Francona press conference is all I could find for highlights of him. He added to the collapse by giving up five home runs in 24 innings, and was sent to Houston to fade away that winter.
  • Daniel Bard, the starter. You’re sad, I’m sad, so let’s just move on.
  • Brandon Workman’s been middling, to put it kindly. A terrible 2014 wiped out whatever good vibes lasted from his 2013 campaign. Then came the Tommy John surgery. He’s slated to be a reliever now as well.
  • Hey, remember Anthony Ranaudo? The guy who couldn’t strike anyone out, walked boatloads of batters, and gave up a ton of fly balls? He’s what rock bottom looks like for Red Sox starters. You have to try real hard to get a 6.89 FIP in 39 innings, but Ranaudo put that work in.
  • Henry Owens has 13 walks in 12 innings this year. Somehow, the Red Sox won every start he’s made. Sure, there’s hope, but he gave up 7 runs on three separate occasions last year, and the walks aren’t going away.

I’d rather not go on. You’ve seen this story play out over and over again. The Red Sox aren’t developing starting pitchers, and that list doesn’t even include starters acquired from other teams, like Zach Stewart. They even hired Brian Bannister to bolster their pitching corps, and so far, the results still aren’t there. This isn’t Bannister’s fault, but the organization’s as a whole.

Going forward, it doesn’t look much better. Anderson Espinosa is someone to get excited about, yes, and Michael Kopech is also quite good. But it says a lot about the state of Red Sox pitching if their third-best prospect might end up being Jason Groome, the Red Sox’s 2016 first round selection who might opt for junior college to raise his draft stock. That’s not a good situation.

This forces the Red Sox to overpay for starters. Just look at Price’s contract. Or the price tag for someone like Julio Teheran, who would be a mediocre fit in Fenway Park, but would be a much better option than whomever the Red Sox cough up for those last two spots in the rotation. It’s not an enviable position, and if Dombrowski decides to deal, it could quickly deplete a farm system with a big gap between its top four prospects and everyone else.

Look, I realize the Red Sox aren’t the Mets. They won’t churn out a top-flight starter every 12 months. Hell, they can’t even produce a major-league starter in three times that. But it’s rapidly become a chronic issue, especially as the team searches for solutions. At this point, they can’t look internally for help for much longer. The players they need just aren’t there, and it’s been that way for a long, long time.

Photo by Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports Images

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