FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The last day of baseball's annual winter meetings is a jailbreak. Once the Rule 5 draft concludes, team officials pile into taxis bound for the airport. After four days under one roof, most can't escape quickly enough.
But for the Boston Red Sox, the end of the 2015 meetings meant the start of an organizational pitching summit.
Seeking to continue a conversation that began before he was hired four months earlier, team president Dave Dombrowski brought together manager John Farrell, pitching coach Carl Willis, scouts, player development staff, analytics-minded ex-pitcher Brian Bannister, former Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek and Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez. For several hours in a Nashville hotel suite, they shared opinions, debated philosophy and tried to figure out why the Red Sox haven't developed a high-impact starting pitcher in a decade.
"It's certainly an area we're focused on," farm director Ben Crockett said this week. "We know what our track record has been of late."
Jon Lester made his big league debut on June 10, 2006, 14 months before Clay Buchholz first scaled the mound at Fenway Park. Others have come and gone, but 10 years after Buchholz's arrival, he and Lester remain the only viable starters the Red Sox have developed during the 15-year stewardship of John Henry's ownership group. No other homegrown Sox starter has logged more than 450 career innings in that time span.
At a time when much of the lineup comprises players who came up through the farm system -- Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Christian Vazquez, Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi -- the Sox are expected to begin a season without a homegrown starter in the rotation for the first time since 2007.
The drought is almost impossible to fathom. It's also why Henry swallowed hard two winters ago and invested $217 million in free-agent lefty David Price, and why Dombrowski traded prized Class A pitching prospects Anderson Espinoza and Michael Kopech for Drew Pomeranz and Chris Sale in the past year.
Fifteen months after that summit meeting in Nashville, it's worth wondering whether much has changed.
Trade winds blow
There's no one way to find front-line starting pitching.
In building their uber-rotation in the 1990s, the Atlanta Braves drafted Tom Glavine, traded for John Smoltz and signed free-agent Greg Maddux. The 2011 Philadelphia Phillies drafted Cole Hamels, traded for Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt, and signed Cliff Lee. Even today's New York Mets, credited as a factory that churns out young pitching, traded for Noah Syndergaard (and dealt away Michael Fulmer) in addition to drafting and developing Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Robert Gsellman.
In other words, it isn't the end of the world that the Red Sox haven't developed an impact starter since the George W. Bush administration.
But a homegrown starter who blossoms into a top-of-the-rotation anchor is akin to a winning lottery ticket. Young players are more cost-effective than free agents, and with the price for pitching skyrocketing, it's an immeasurable advantage for the San Francisco Giants, for instance, to not have to wade into that market because they drafted and developed Madison Bumgarner.
"It's certainly an area we're focused on. ... We know what our track record has been of late."Ben Crockett, Red Sox farm director
The Red Sox have found a way around that in recent years, making several trades for established pitchers whose salaries were beginning to rise as they approached free agency. Rick Porcello, acquired in December 2014, fit that description. Pomeranz was in a similar boat with the San Diego Padres when the Red Sox traded for him last July.
Three months ago, Dombrowski struck again with a blockbuster for Sale. With the Chicago White Sox committed to rebuilding and Sale possessing a team-friendly contract, the Red Sox recognized an opportunity to obtain a 27-year-old ace who was in his prime and affordable ($12 million this year, team options for $12.5 million in 2018 and $13.5 million in 2019).
"Timing is important," Dombrowski noted.
"What organizations might be doing, as far as making a decision that they might be willing to rebuild and trade a guy," he explained, "that doesn't happen all the time."
But trading for pitching comes at a price. It took Espinoza, a 19-year-old right-hander, to procure Pomeranz. Kopech, a 20-year-old phenom who has lit up radar guns at more than 100 mph, was sacrificed to get Sale as part of a multiplayer package that also included top Boston prospect Yoan Moncada.
"Anytime you have an opportunity to acquire a front-line starter, All-Star-caliber, elite player in the game, you have to give up some pretty good talent," Crockett said. "We held those guys in really high regard. But I think ultimately we're all here for the same reason, and that's to try to win a championship in Boston."
Everyone has a theory for why the Red Sox have failed to cultivate starting pitching lately. Farrell suggested the club has prioritized drafting position players, but eight of its last 15 first- or supplemental-round picks have been pitchers, including high school lefty Trey Ball with the seventh overall pick in 2013.
Anthony Ranaudo, Brandon Workman, Henry Owens and Brian Johnson had their chances. Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa, acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers, never impressed. Matt Barnes, a first-round pick in 2011, has become a valued member of the bullpen, but only after fizzling as a starter. Ball has not yet made it out of Class A.
"High school pitchers are the riskiest demographic in the draft, and typically the top college pitchers don't get to the end of the first round, where we have picked in many years," amateur scouting director Mike Rikard said. "Pitchers also can develop later, and the notion that you can get them deeper in the draft can sometimes be true."
Rikard said the Red Sox have tended to favor taller pitchers. In 2012, for instance, five of their first seven picks were spent on mountain men: Johnson (6-foot-3, 240 pounds), Pat Light (6-5, 220), Jamie Callahan (6-3, 231), Austin Maddox (6-3, 250) and Ty Buttrey (6-6, 230). A year later, they drafted Ball, who is 6-foot-6 and skinny.
The lesson: Bigger isn't always better.
"What I think we have learned through time and experience is to be more open-minded to all types of pitchers," Rikard said. "All you have to do is watch many of the quality starters in the big leagues to see that they come in all shapes, sizes, deliveries and arm actions."
Under former general manager Ben Cherington, the Red Sox began making changes to their system of pitching development. They hired Bannister, a former big league pitcher with a mind for analytics and advanced metrics. who helped veteran lefty Rich Hill revive his career. After taking over late in the 2015 season, Dombrowski promoted amateur scout Chris Mears to a newly created role of pitching cross-checker, allowing Mears to focus his efforts solely on pitchers.
And despite concerns about maturity and makeup, the Red Sox drafted 18-year-old left-hander Jason Groome out of a New Jersey high school in the first round last June. Groome is likely at least three years away from the majors, but with Espinoza and Kopech no longer in the organization, he represents what could be the next winning lottery ticket, a potential front-line starter who could spring from within the organization.
"We have not, by any means, shifted our focus to position players and said, 'We'll just acquire pitching externally,'" Crockett said. "We're still very focused on trying to develop our own pitchers and trying to learn and evolve and improve our systems. I think there's a good foundation in place. We have some of the same people here that had a lot to do with Lester and Buchholz getting there, and we're continuing to push forward to try to get that next wave up to Boston."
Ten years and counting since the last time it happened, the Red Sox are still waiting.