When the Red Sox began their season over six months ago, there was talk of a massive stockpile of starting pitching, starting in the major leagues and going down through the Triple-A and even Double-A ranks. But now that a long 2009 season has taken its toll on the Red Sox staff, it's time to reassess.
John Smoltz is long gone. The aging righty came to the bigs for a couple months, made eight starts, then the Red Sox bid him adieu.
Brad Penny didn't last much longer.
Justin Masterson was gone by the trading deadline, shipped off to Cleveland.
Tim Wakefield should still be here — health permitting — but what if his age finally catches up to him?
And Lord knows what'll happen to Paul Byrd next season.
That's five guys — a full rotation's worth — that have come and (possibly) gone through the Red Sox staff over the past six months.
With all that the Sox staff has been through over the past year, you have to wonder what's in store for the younger pitchers in their system. Clay Buchholz, Junichi Tazawa and Michael Bowden all worked hard to prove themselves in 2009, and it might pay off in '10.
Buchholz, we can assume, has earned himself a job for good. With a superb second half of 2009 in the major leagues, he earned it — he was undefeated in eight starts between Aug. 19 and Sept. 24, putting up ace-like numbers over that stretch. He seems to have put it all together at age 25.
Along with Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka, Buchholz appears to be pretty much a lock for a rotation spot in 2010. But that's just four spots filled, and the fifth one will surely be a point of contention in Red Sox circles this winter.
If Wakefield is healthy and can still bring it, he's probably the front-runner for the job. And if the Red Sox find themselves in the market for a big name on the trading block like Felix Hernandez, then that's an option as well. But if neither of those avenues pans out as hoped, then either Tazawa or Bowden could be next in line for the fifth spot.
That wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. Both pitchers are raw and very young (Tazawa turned 23 in June; Bowden turned 23 in September), but they both have the upside to become very strong No. 5 starters in the American League right away.
Tazawa's numbers are less than dazzling, to say the least. To say the most, he's been a train wreck — his 7.46 ERA and .374 batting average against are huge warning signs to the Red Sox front office. But he's going to take some time to develop into a big-league starter. He's certainly got potential — at 21, he put up a 1.02 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 88 1/3 innings for the Japanese team Nippon Oil — but it's going to take more development time in the States.
He's a crafty pitcher with a complicated arsenal. Against any given hitter, he could come out with a fastball, curveball, slider, sinker or changeup. And managing that repertoire is a challenge not just for Tazawa, but also for his catchers and the Red Sox coaching staff. There will inevitably be a learning curve with a kid like Tazawa. But eventually, he's going to figure things out, and maybe then, he'll earn a starting job.
As for Bowden, the numbers are similarly scary — the rookie righty put up a 9.56 ERA in 16 innings in the big leagues in 2009. But he's got potential as well. With a fastball that routinely hits 92 and a constantly improving quiver of secondary stuff (have you seen that slider?), Bowden is a big-league star waiting to happen. The only question is when the Red Sox will give him that opportunity.
There's a good chance that a starting job is still far off for both Tazawa and Bowden. Neither one is looking like the team's Plan A at the moment, even for the No. 5 spot. But no matter what happens, the Red Sox should always be aware of the young talent they have buried on their depth chart.
Tim Wakefield might be ready to take the mound next April. And even if he's not, the Red Sox might be active this Hot Stove season to find someone who is. But even so, the future is bright — not just for Buchholz, but for Tazawa and Bowden as well. Eventually, their time will come.