Buc to the Bump
More than four years after drafting Clay Buchholz out of Angelina County Junior College in the supplemental round of the 2005 Amateur Draft, the Boston Red Sox will send the 24-year old righty to the mound on Friday night for his 19th career Major League start. He will face the Toronto Blue Jays, a team rumored to be shopping their best player, Roy Halladay. Whether he is being "showcased" or given a shot to stick remains to be seen, but let's take a look at Buchholz's roller coaster professional career to see how we got to this point.
When the Red Sox drafted him, the only questions about Buchholz seemed to center on his makeup. Here is Baseball America, recapping the Boston draft pick:
While Buchholz hoped to become a regular shortstop, Angelina coaches saw him pitch at 88-89 mph at a tryout camp and thought he had upside on the mound if he could make mechanical adjustments. They were right. Buchholz' fastball sat at 92 mph and touched 97 this spring. When he's on, his slider grades as a 65 and his curveball as a 55 on the 20-80 scouting scale. Buchholz still needs to improve the consistency of his breaking pitches and his changeup, but it's hard to argue with his pure stuff. He went 11-1, 1.19 with 112 strikeouts in 76 innings as the ace of a prospect-laden pitching staff ...The biggest concern is his makeup, stemming from an incident in high school that has some clubs avoiding him entirely.
Here is Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, recapping the 2005 draft for the Sox.
With their next pick, the 42d, the Sox took Angelina (Texas) Junior College righthander Clay Buchholz, Stanford second baseman Jed Lowrie at No. 45, Waubonise Valley (Ill.) High School righthander Michael Bowden at No. 47, and Cross Creek (Ga.) high school catcher Jonathan Egan at No. 57.
Buchholz had two arrests to his name, one for theft and another for breaking and entering, but the Sox came away convinced that both incidents amounted to little more than youthful hijinks and were not indicative of the type of kid he was. It seems they were both right and wrong, to the extent that one can connect behavioral dots throughout different points in an individual's life. When Buchholz would eventually reach the Big Leagues, let's just say he would enjoy himself and did not always display the kind of maturity and professionalism his teammates, manager and front office personnel would have liked to have seen from him.
On the field, Buchholz dominated pro ball from the moment he took to the mound. He was excellent in short-season ball in the New York/Penn League in the summer of 2005, he tore through the Sally and Carolina Leagues in 2006 and then the Eastern and International Leagues in 2007, earning a late-season call-up from the eventual World Series champion Red Sox that year. Here is how he had fared throughout his Minor League career to that point.
IP K/9 K/BB WHIP ERA 2005 41.1 9.8 2.00 1.04 2.61 2006 119.0 10.6 4.24 1.02 2.42 2007 125.1 9.4 4.89 0.97 2.44
He would make his debut on August 14th, 2007, three days before his 23rd birthday. In three starts and one relief appearance, he was excellent - everything the Sox could have hoped for and more. There was, of course, this, a no-hitter in just his second career Major League start. While Boston management determined there was no need for Buchholz on the Red Sox post-season roster, he had secured his future. He would begin the 2008 season in the Boston rotation.
Unfortunately, he would also struggle mightily. Here is how he fared in his two Big League seasons. Note the contrast between 2007 and 2008.
IP K/9 K/BB WHIP ERA 2007 22.2 8.7 2.20 1.06 1.59 2008 76.0 8.5 1.76 1.76 6.75
His command and seemingly his focus were off in 2008. The word that is tossed around in interviews with club personnel is "maturity". A consensus seemed to emerge that Buchholz lacked it both on and off the field between the time he threw the no-hitter and the time he landed back in the Minor Leagues for good in August of 2008. He was a known partier - no major black mark given his age, level of fame and good looks in a baseball-crazed town. On the mound he would try to strike too many guys out or fail to consider the situation or shake off the captain Jason Varitek. Add it all up and he left a little bit of a bad taste in the mouths of some key Red Sox.
He has returned to dominance since his demotion. Here are his Minor League stats in 2008 and 2009.
IP K/9 K/BB WHIP ERA 2008 58.2 9.4 3.39 1.04 2.30 2009 99.0 8.1 2.97 0.98 2.36
All of this brings us to Friday night, when Buchholz will make his first Major League start of 2009. Why Friday night? Well the Red Sox say that since Buchholz is on rest, it's an opportunity to allow them to align their rotation since they had two starting pitchers in the All-Star Game. It's one of those statements that sounds logical enough but when you apply any scrutiny at all, it just doesn't add up. Neither Josh Beckett nor Tim Wakefield actually pitched last night in St. Louis and even if they had, it would have been no more than an inning or so. Besides, why couldn't they start their three other starters and then turn to Beckett and Wake?
So then you get the other end of the spectrum. People say the reason that he is starting on Friday night, in Toronto no less where they are shopping this deadline season's prize, is that they are "showcasing" Buchholz. It's as though were it not for the sight of him on a Major League mound, teams' front office personnel might question Buchholz's very existence. That doesn't make much sense to me either. He's been an incredibly consistent and dominant Minor League pitcher and he has tossed a no-hitter in the Big Leagues. A July start in Toronto will do little to enhance or detract from his value.
That leaves two possibilities. One is that the Sox just want to give the kid a nod. He's been great all season long and deserves a chance at the Big League level - nothing more, nothing less. The other possibility is that they want to see how he performs Friday night and beyond in case they decide they want to move, say, Brad Penny. I think this is the most likely scenario. Other than Halladay, I am not sure of another player who could be available before the deadline for whom Boston would move Buchholz.
But make no mistake, the Red Sox are going to be involved in what is shaping up to be one of the most active and exciting trading seasons in recent memory. While Boston cherishes its organizational depth, it is also a team that is not afraid to go for it. As they say, "flags fly forever." They boast enough depth and possess the financial wherewithal to replenish with free agent stopgaps, that they can match just about any offer another team could without suffering too badly in the long term. And if you don't think they have the stomachs to deal with trading great talent, consider the Beckett (and Mike Lowell) for Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez trade.
On the night of September 6, 2006, Sanchez threw a no-hitter for the Florida Marlins, Ramirez was well on his way to winning the National League Rookie of the Year award while Beckett had a 5.11 ERA and Mike Lowell was plodding along with an ok, .286/.340/.474 mark. The Red Sox trailed the Yankees by 9 games in the AL East and the Minnesota Twins by 7 games in the Wild Card. Talk to the Red Sox brass about that night - it was a true low point - and yet just a year later, Lowell would win the World Series MVP with Beckett leading the way on the mound as the Red Sox won their second title in four seasons.
Now think about the 2009 Red Sox lineup and all of the question marks. Lowell's health is a major question so with Kevin Youkilis playing third base, Mark Kotsay or Jeff Bailey start regularly at first. Nick Green struggles defensively and his bat comes and goes. Julio Lugo is just awful. Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia have missed time with injuries this season. You have to figure J.D. Drew has at least one DL stint in him, no? Are you ready to conclude that David Ortiz is completely back, or could he slump badly again? Is Jason Varitek's .826 OPS likely to hold up?
Meanwhile, Boston features ten starting pitchers who I think can consistently get outs at the Major League level. There are the five starters currently in the rotation, Justin Masterson in the bullpen, Buchholz, Michael Bowden, and finally Junichi Tazawa and Felix Doubront in Portland. Every Boston reliever is worthy of high-leverage Big League work. Daniel Bard, currently Terry Francona's last option out of the bullpen, features a 10.6 K/9 and a 183 ERA+ in 2009. You get the point. A lot of these guys are worth more to other teams than they are to the Sox, while the only thing standing between the Red Sox and what could be their third title in six seasons is lineup depth.
When Buchholz takes to the hill to start the second half of the season for the Red Sox on Friday night, it will also signal the kick-off of what is sure to be the most exciting deadline for Boston since they dealt Nomar Garciaparra en route to winning the 2004 World Series (I omit last season's deadline and the Manny trade because it was an altogether different feel). They have the opportunity once again either to shore up organizational weaknesses or, if they so choose, go big and net another superstar.
Or maybe both?