DUNEDIN, Fla. -- This is not the best day to be telling you that left-hander Henry Owens will be pitching in Boston this summer, not at some vague point in the future.
Owens gave up five runs in three-plus innings in a 6-3 loss Thursday to the Toronto Blue Jays. He was taken deep twice, first by Jays slugger Jose Bautista, who crushed a hanging changeup, and then by Danny Valencia. His spring-training earned run average is 6.30. He walked a batter, uncorked a wild pitch, fell behind more hitters than he would have liked, threw almost as many balls (28) as strikes (30).
So what would embolden anyone, on an afternoon in which Owens was hardly at his best, to declare that Sox equipment man Tom McLaughlin will be hanging an Owens nameplate over a locker in the Fenway Park clubhouse sometime in June or July, if not sooner?
Because that’s the way the Red Sox work. When they believe in a top pitching prospect who has performed the way Owens has since being chosen in the first round of the 2011 draft, they are not afraid to fast-track him to the big leagues.
More seasoning in Pawtucket? That’s not how it worked for Jon Lester, another tall 22-year-old left-hander. Lester made 11 starts for the PawSox in 2006 before he was called up to the big leagues on June 10 of that year and was thrust into the rotation. Just as they have so far with Owens, the Sox ignored teams that wanted Lester -- the Rangers wanted him in the A-Rod deal, the Marlins wanted him in the Josh Beckett trade -- and held on to a pitcher they expected to be a major factor in their future success.
And that’s not the way it worked for Clay Buchholz, either. Buchholz made only eight starts in Triple-A before he was called up to the majors on Aug. 17, 2007, three days after his 23rd birthday. Two weeks later, Buchholz threw a no-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles.
Lester and Buchholz both were first-round picks who demonstrated their ability early. Owens, who led all minor league pitchers in strikeouts in 2013 and 2014 combined (339 K’s in 294 innings, a rate of 10.4 K’s per nine IP), has done the same. And even on a day when he was lit up, ask him if he thinks he is big-league ready, and he doesn’t hesitate.
“Absolutely,’’ he said. “I feel like I could give the team a chance to win every fifth day. I'm still working out the cobwebs, but I'm getting ready for the season.’’
The Sox have confidence in Owens. They have confidence in two other young left-handers too: Eduardo Rodriguez, whom they wrested away from the Orioles for reliever Andrew Miller last July and is the most powerful of the three; and Brian Johnson, the former University of Florida All-American who may have the most advanced approach of the three and is a consistent strike-thrower, a quality the Sox embrace.
All three could one day be in the Boston rotation, although teams generally aren’t that lucky. Injury or other adversity tends to wreck the best-laid plans. It’s possible that Rodriguez, Johnson or both could beat Owens to the big leagues, depending on the timing of a callup or the matchups involved.
But while the Sox have a reputation for overselling their prospects, talk to enough scouts here and you’ll find their regard for Owens goes well beyond hype. They’ve taken note that the 6-foot-7 Owens is no longer a swizzle stick dressed in synthetic fabrics but a filled-out 220 pounds, the added muscle translating to increased velocity to both his fastball and curve. And unlike 6-foot-7 Miller, who was all arms and legs and needed time to discover a delivery that worked for him, Owens is an exercise in smooth on the hill.
“I saw him last summer and he was very impressive. I like him a lot,’’ said one major league scout with a pitching background. “I saw him show inconsistent command this spring, but that doesn’t bother me because I’ve seen him at his best and it’s still early spring. He has a chance to be really good.’’
The pitch that has been a separator for Owens is his outstanding changeup. His fastball has ranged from 88 to 93 mph, but there is deception in his delivery that makes it play faster than it is, and his curveball has shown improvement.
Will Owens struggle if called up this season? In Lester’s first seven starts in the big leagues, he didn’t go beyond six innings and yet in four of those starts his pitch count topped 100 and he didn’t throw fewer than 90 in any of them. A year later, after a successful recovery from cancer, Lester was pitching the World Series clincher in Colorado.
Owens, Rodriguez and Johnson are three reasons the Sox have not succumbed to a trade proposal for Cole Hamels. Of course, Hamels would give them a better chance to win this season. But the Sox believe they have enough to contend anyway, and Ben Cherington is balancing the team’s immediate needs against what the rotation may look like in the next three, four, five years. It’s the same reason John Farrell (then Sox pitching coach) pounded on a table and argued against trading Lester for Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana when the Twins were open to making that deal.
“We’re fortunate to have this young group of pitchers,’’ Farrell said Thursday, “especially the left-handers.’’