Rubby De La Rosa shouldn’t get too comfortable wherever he ends up to start the season. The right-hander is proving this spring that he’s big league ready, and it shouldn’t be long before he hits a major league mound near you.
De La Rosa again looked impressive on Friday night, tossing two scoreless innings as the Red Sox took care of the Pirates in Grapefruit League action. It was the second straight encouraging outing for De La Rosa, who also pitched two perfect innings against the Cardinals on Sunday, and the performance immediately raised questions about whether De La Rosa might actually earn himself a spot on Boston’s pitching staff out of camp.
Manager John Farrell was quick to end the speculation, though.
“He’ll be in the minor leagues in some place, whether that’s in Portland or in Pawtucket remains to be seen,” Farrell told reporters after Friday’s game. “I think the most important thing is he feels great physically. He’s been a student around [pitching coach Juan Nieves] and [special assistant Pedro Martinez]. He’s, as we said after the game in St. Louis, he’s a very good-looking young pitcher.”
Good-looking is an understatement. Those who have watched De La Rosa pitch this spring are probably wondering why Farrell was so quick to dismiss the idea of the 23-year-old potentially cracking the Opening Day roster. Sure, it’s been a small sample size, but De La Rosa has been as advertised.
Pedro Martinez said recently that De La Rosa’s pure stuff could put him among the game’s elite players. He tossed out names like Roger Clemens and Juan Marichal when discussing De La Rosa’s stuff, and while that seems a little far-fetched when talking about such a young pitcher, it’s getting easier to see why Martinez is so excited about the kid’s potential.
De La Rosa has shown plenty of life on his fastball this spring, approaching triple digits at times. Then, when he’s gotten ahead of hitters and has had them thinking fastball, he’s shown an ability to drop in a nasty changeup. It’s a combination that has kept hitters off balance, and in many ways, it has been Pedro-esque.
De La Rosa has also been enjoying this success against legitimate major league talent. On Friday, he retired Pittsburgh’s Garrett Jones, Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker — all respectable major leaguers — in order in the fourth inning, and then made Brandon Inge look foolish on an offspeed offering to pick up a strikeout in the fifth.
Clearly, we should pump the breaks to an extent, as getting too high or too low on spring training performances is something that should be avoided in nearly all instances. But when you consider that De La Rosa appears to be back on track after undergoing Tommy John surgery during the summer of 2011, and that he already tasted the big leagues with the Dodgers, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which he’s not pitching at the major league level at some point in 2013.
For now, the decision to start De La Rosa in the minors makes sense, as it’s mostly a reflection of the team’s decision to bring him along slowly. De La Rosa might not experience any ill effects of the serious procedure he had less than two years ago, but he’s also had a limited workload in his young career. His career-high for innings pitched since signing with the Dodgers as an amateur free agent in 2007 is 110 1/3. He reached that mark in 2010, when he made 22 appearances (13 starts) split between Single-A and Double-A.
De La Rosa has pitched two innings in each of his two spring training outings this year, and it appears the Red Sox will continue limiting the righty to two frames a game going forward. Since the Sox will not be stretching De La Rosa out this spring — again, because of the pitcher’s limited workload and the Tommy John surgery he underwent — the only realistic role he would be able to assume with the big club out of camp would be as a reliever. That’s especially clear when you consider the team’s starting rotation is pretty much in place, with Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Ryan Dempster, John Lackey and Felix Doubront likely to grab the five available spots.
With that in mind, it really becomes obvious why Farrell wants De La Rosa to head down to the farm for some more seasoning before eventually arriving in Boston. We’ve seen before that flip-flopping pitchers between starter and reliever duties can yield unsatisfactory results (just ask Daniel Bard or Joba Chamberlain), so it’s ultimately a good decision by the Red Sox to commit to one defined plan. Since top-of-the-line starting pitchers — something De La Rosa has the potential to become — hold much more value than elite relievers, bringing De La Rosa along as a starter is the right move. It’s also the move the Red Sox are leaning toward.
“We still want to start him. To put him in the bullpen, given what he’s come through.” Farrell said. “And our long-term view of him is currently as a starter. That doesn’t mean at some point in the future we wouldn’t look to make the most of the innings he’s gong to give on a given night if the need were to arise here. But our plan is to keep him at two innings through spring training and to build him up once the minor league season begins.”
As we’ve seen, especially recently, things have a tendency to change over the course of a long baseball season. De La Rosa’s role as a starter shouldn’t change, but if and when one of the Red Sox’ starters goes down, the young right-hander’s status within the organization should.
It’ll be Portland or Pawtucket to start for De La Rosa. But it could be Boston to finish.