As surprising as the twists and turns of this year’s trade deadline were for the Boston Red Sox, it certainly was no secret going in that the team had become a seller. As unique as the past week has been -- seeing the club make six trades that sent seven players on the active major league roster and one minor leaguer to other organizations -- the return may have been the most surprising: four major leaguers, three minor leaguers, a player to be named later and a draft pick.
The return was much heavier on major leaguers than the typical haul for a deadline-day seller, setting things up for the Red Sox to compete in 2015. But the other major takeaway from the return is the additions the front office made to the organization’s glut of young major-league and upper-minors pitching. In all, the Red Sox now boast no fewer than 10 players aged 26 and younger between Boston, Triple-A Pawtucket and Double-A Portland who project as potential major-league starting pitchers.
Before the deadline, right-handers Rubby De La Rosa, 25, and Brandon Workman, 25, had seen extensive time in the Red Sox rotation and performed well, posting ERAs of 3.45 and 4.45, respectively, in 21 appearances between them. Following the trade of Jake Peavy, Allen Webster, 24, made his return to the major-league rotation, earning the win on Sunday. All three likely will get the chance to pitch in the majors for the rest of the season with the departures of Peavy, Jon Lester and John Lackey.
They will be joined soon by Joe Kelly, whom Red Sox fans may remember as the Cardinals’ starter in Game 3 of last year’s World Series. Kelly, 26, has missed significant time this season due to a hamstring injury, making just seven starts. He has struggled in three of four starts since returning from the disabled list, but as general manager Ben Cherington said at his Thursday press conference, Kelly is not a finished product despite being in his third year in the bigs.
Meanwhile, right-hander Anthony Ranaudo, 24, will make his major-league debut on Friday, taking Lackey’s spot in the rotation, at least for this turn. Last year’s Eastern League pitcher of the year has pitched well of late, making mechanical adjustments and slowly working a slider into his arsenal. Joining him in Pawtucket has been fellow right-hander Matt Barnes, 24, perhaps the only prospect in the group who has had his struggles this year, fighting control issues and posting a 4.81 ERA. However, with one of the best fastballs of the club’s starters, one can give Barnes a mulligan, particularly given the shoulder soreness in spring training that led to Barnes beginning the season on the disabled list.
The Pawtucket rotation already has seen one recent addition in left-hander Edwin Escobar from the Giants system. Escobar, 22, has struggled with home runs this season in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, but went six strong innings in his first PawSox start on Thursday afternoon. He was rated a top-100 prospect entering the season by both Baseball America and MLB.com, and is a player for whom a change of scenery could lead to improved results, even in Triple-A.
Another addition is reportedly coming to Pawtucket as well -- tall left-hander Henry Owens. The 21-year-old is the consensus top pitching prospect in the Red Sox system and probably could have been promoted a month or two ago, but there was no room in the Pawtucket rotation when it included the above players and knuckleballer Steven Wright, who also is enjoying great success this year. Owens already has set a Portland Sea Dogs record for wins in a season with 14 while posting a 2.60 ERA and striking out 126 hitters in 121 innings. Although he has things to work on before he is major league ready -- fastball command and refining his curveball into a more consistent third pitch chief among them -- he is clearly ready for his next challenge.
Despite the loss of its ace in Owens, the Double-A Portland rotation will remain strong, as it will be fronted by left-handers Brian Johnson, 23, and newly-acquired Eduardo Rodriguez, 21. Johnson has raised his stock perhaps as much as any prospect in the Boston farm system this year, earning a quick promotion from High A Salem in May and posting a 2.05 ERA in 16 Double-A starts. Johnson may not project to be a future ace, but has perhaps the highest ceiling of the pitchers listed here, as his four-pitch mix and advanced pitchability make it a near-certainty he will at least be a back-of-the-rotation arm as a worst-case scenario.
Rodriguez, acquired from Baltimore for Andrew Miller on Thursday, was not unlike Escobar in that he has struggled this year despite consensus top 100 prospect status entering the season. Ian Cundall profiled Rodriguez earlier today (LINK HERE), pointing out his strong pedigree despite struggling in his return trip to Double-A Bowie. If Rodriguez can rediscover his 2013 form, he could become a true steal in return for two months of Miller, who will be a free agent at the end of the season.
All told, the nature of player development will lead to divergent career paths for these 10 pitchers. Some will become major league starters, but others will head to the bullpen eventually if their development stalls. Certainly, some will be traded, and many have speculated that another goal of the Red Sox’ trades this week has been to stockpile assets for a bigger deal this offseason for the likes of Troy Tulowitzki or Giancarlo Stanton. And to be frank, the odds are against any of these players developing into the ace the Red Sox lost when they traded Lester, so expect a front-of-the-rotation starter to still be a top shopping list item for Cherington this winter.
But the exciting part is the plethora of potential outcomes given this stockpile; as stunning as Thursday’s events were, expect plenty of fireworks involving these names going forward.