Sox go deep - in arms

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / July 16, 2009
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As the rain poured down, and the future of the Futures Game appeared in doubt, the Red Sox placed a call to Major League Baseball. Junichi Tazawa - the team’s prized Double A righthander - already had warmed up, and the team simply wanted to ensure that his night was over. No worries. When the shortened game was completed and the box score tallied, Tazawa was left with a line of zeros.

The Sox, after all, had an investment to protect.

Measured in manpower and hours and dollars, it’s hard to fathom just how much it takes to bring a young player to the brink of the major leagues.

Tazawa, signed in the offseason as an amateur leaving Japan, is nearing that stage already. He has the stuff to pitch in the majors today. There’s development time to come, of course, because the talent-laden Red Sox have that luxury. With many other organizations, Tazawa might already be pushing for time in the big leagues.

“I don’t think there’s many farm systems that have the kind of pitching depth the Red Sox have in the minors,’’ said Jim Callis, of Baseball America. “I think with just about any other organization, Clay Buchholz would be in the big league rotation right now. Michael Bowden would probably be in the big league rotation right now. A guy like Junichi Tazawa would probably be pushing to go into the big leagues with a lot of organizations.’’

Add in Casey Kelly, the Single A pitcher drafted in 2008, and “there’s four guys right there that I don’t think too many clubs can match,’’ Callis said. And four guys who, should the Sox decide a major trade is needed at the upcoming deadline for proven major league talent, would be among the most coveted chips in the game. But given the Sox’ history, it’s likely the prospects will stay homegrown.

So how have the Sox reached this point, a nearly impossible feat given the rate of attrition among pitchers?

With an organization that has the financial resources to make big bucks signings - witness the pursuit of Mark Teixeira this winter - the Sox’ dedication to other means of acquisition is significant. But whether it’s through the first-year player draft or international scouting and signings, it all comes down to one factor.

“I do think it sort of starts and ends with talent,’’ director of player development Mike Hazen said. “I’ve said this plenty of times before: Guys like Clay Buchholz and Bowden and Tazawa and those types of players, I mean you’re not going to make them major league players. They were drafted as major league players.

“Hopefully in time with development, fitting in the system, and getting their innings and their work, that development can add some tools to their package maybe in helping them along the way. But it really starts and ends with talent.’’

And the ability to find such talent. But while the Sox benefit immensely from the potential influx of talent in their system, the situation doesn’t always make that talent happy.

“That’s definitely a good thing for the organization,’’ said Buchholz, who will be called up tomorrow to make the first start out of the All-Star break for the Sox in a likely cameo. “Not so good for all the guys that aren’t in the big leagues. I’ve talked to [Bowden] a couple times like, ‘Man, if you were with 28 other organizations, you’d be the 2 or 3 guy in the rotation.’ That goes through everybody’s head, especially the guys that are major league ready to go up there.

“The whole pitching standpoint, it’s you’ve got to take what you’re given. In this case, you’ve got to bide a little bit more time than a couple other guys had to.’’

A set philosophy
The slogan, repeatedly, is that it’s just not rocket science. The Sox have a philosophy - one shared by many clubs - and they draft accordingly. As Hazen says, the team looks for “big physical guys with pretty good arm action and stuff.’’ Assistant general manager Ben Cherington adds “guys that either have the stuff or project to have the stuff to miss bats and get ground balls’’ - key for facing American League East lineups.

Simple, right? But there are factors.

Because the Sox have drafted near or at the end of the first round recently, most of the can’t-miss position player prospects have been snapped up. While determining major league ability and talent is far from exact, it’s more exact regarding position players. With pitchers, there is significantly more risk.

“I think that pitching is harder to predict at the amateur level, and so you see pitching, good major league pitchers, come from all areas of the draft,’’ Cherington said. “First-round picks, later-round picks. Still, more are picked higher in the draft than not, but it’s much more widespread whereas position players - again, there are exceptions - but a lot of the good position players in the big leagues are first-, second-round picks.

“I guess it’s more likely where we pick, certainly where we pick first and then after that, it’s more likely in the history of the draft that we’re going to be able to acquire impact pitching than impact position players. We think we can get both, but it’s probably more likely that we can acquire impact pitching.

“I think [we have taken] some risks with performance, injury, track record, performance as it relates to ability to command pitches within the strike zone, having particular pitches, roles, etc.,’’ Hazen said. “I think that’s where they’ve done probably their best work is finding those types of guys that maybe were a little undervalued based on where we’ve drafted over the last few years.’’

Then there’s the fact that no team is more aggressive than the Sox in finding talent in the draft market and internationally, from all levels, all backgrounds, all places. Callis calls it a “leave no stone unturned approach that is one of the reasons the system is as deep as it is, and [has] all the guys they’ve promoted to the big leagues recently. They’ve been willing to watch everywhere they can possibly find talent and then spend to sign that talent.’’

In short, they have the funds to gamble. Teams with less money to spend to fix holes later can’t always take the same chances. They are confined to needing to hit on players at a high rate. If it takes drafting 10 pitchers to hit on two, as the wisdom goes, the Sox are one of the few teams that can afford to try. Not all clubs can, say, draft and sign Kelly with a bonus of $3 million in the first round.

“We’re not perfect at it, certainly,’’ Cherington said. “But we’re fortunate to have the resources to do that, in terms of support from ownership financially, but also in terms of just the ability to have access to talent around the world. There are some teams that have to choose which markets to get involved in, and we don’t have to choose and that’s an advantage.’’

Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi puts it succinctly: “Payrolls on other teams aren’t what they are with the Red Sox and Yankees. You have to draft and develop your own players. That’s the only way you’re going to get them.’’

Patience needed
So, while the organization feels “good about it, but not satisfied or comfortable,’’ Cherington said, of its pitching depth, it’s sometimes a harder sell for those pitchers. While Buchholz will get another major league start tomorrow, his frustration has bubbled up at times this season. He has chafed at being left at Triple A to dominate the first portion of the season.

“We’ve all grounded out. We’ve all made minor league money,’’ Double A pitching coach Mike Cather said. “But if there’s an organization willing to move players, it’s the Boston Red Sox. Careful what you wish for. If you’re looking to be traded or looking to go somewhere else, it’s pretty good over here. I’ve been in a few organizations and they take care of their own. That’s a very positive thing.’’

Buchholz is likely to return to Triple A after his start, where he’ll join Bowden. Down in Double A is Tazawa, along with Felix Doubront. Below them is Kelly, along with Stolmy Pimentel, Kyle Weiland, Bryan Price, Nick Hagadone, and Stephen Fife.

Not all of them will make it, of course. But for now, as they stack up in the system, as they’re slotted into the 12 spots per minor league affiliate the Sox must staff with promise, the organization is overflowing with talent. The names might not be as familiar as Buchholz and Bowden, but some of the talent could be just as real.

Though the Sox were ranked 13th in organizational talent by Baseball America this spring, Callis attributes that to an export of prospects to the major league, and rates the pitching in the system far higher. At the top, in fact.

“A lot of organizations would have to push these guys and then they go up there and learn in the cooker,’’ Pawtucket manager Ron Johnson said. “Because of the abundance of quality people, we’ve been able to do things right and keep guys, not put guys in the situation where he’s got four or five good starts, you’re in the big leagues, go get ’em. You’ve got to sit there and [deal with it] for a while and maybe scuffle and stuff like that. I think this is a perfect situation.’’

So where, in the end, do the Sox think they stand with their pitching?

“Needing to get better,’’ Hazen said. “I think that there’s obviously been some guys that have come through. We have some guys in the system right now that are in pretty good positions, but you can have injuries to pitchers any time, any day, any situation, age, experience notwithstanding. You need to have more than anybody else does, and you always do. That’s just the nature of pitching.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at

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