Ironically Clay Bucholz managed to avoid the Fire Sale of 2014 by having a dismal season far below expectations. His performance remains an enigma with curve balls sharp and lethal, but change-ups and cutters wild and unpredictable. No one vied for his services, so he is the last man standing in the Red Sox rotation.
That would not have been the case in July, 2013, when he was the subject of many inquiries about pitching. In the late Spring of 2013, he was the most dominant pitcher in baseball. In this space I lobbied for him to be Opening Day pitcher in 2014.
But the dominant Bucholz mysteriously disappeared while he was on the disabled list, so he became the problem instead of the prodigy.
It may be too soon to write off the talented Bucholz. He still shows some spectacular change-ups and the cutter often goes where he wants it to. Bucholz actually has the chance to head up a young and unproven pitching rotation. I’ll try not to oversell him this time, but I have seen the brilliant version (1.0) of Clay Bucholz and will not give up on its revival.
Juan Nieves has his work cut out for him, with a reconstituted pitching rotation, but he knows what he has with Bucholz. There might still be a dazzling return to the days of Bucholz 1.0
Speculation around the 2013 Red Sox revolves around the new acquisitions in the off season, especially Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew, Ryan Dempster and Joel Hanrahan. These players could revitalize the team at their respective positions, but they are not as crucial to the success of the 2013 Sox as two pitchers who have become veteran leadership: John Lester and Clay Bucholz.
If both Lester and Bucholz return to the form of their early years with the Red Sox, they could be the most potent top of the rotation in the American League. They are probably the two most-mentioned players in trade talks during the off season and simultaneously the biggest disappointments of 2012.
The 2012 World Series showed how critical pitching has become in Major League baseball. The Giants won because their pitching rose to the occasion and the Tigers lost, because theirs didn’t. Excellent pitchers can beat excellent hitters , even Triple Crown hitters like Miguel Cabrera. Bullpens can take over a game in the seventh inning with lefty specialists, set-up men, closers and defensive replacements. The last three innings have become like fourth quarter football with preventive defense.
The Red Sox have stocked their bullpen with multiple closers, set-up men and lefty specialists. It’s hard to imagine a less than competent bullpen from the likes of Hanrahan, Bailey, Uehara, Aceves, and Miller. With Breslow, Tazawa and Morales, they even have depth to anticipate injuries.
So it comes down to the top of the rotation, which could be the most feared in baseball. The physical health of Lester and Bucholz can not be assumed, but the discipline and mental preparation will definitely improve under John Farrell, who brought them into the Major Leagues as their pitching coach. Farrell’s value to the Red Sox really turns on his ability to manage pitchers, and these two pitchers are his proudest accomplishments as a pitching coach.
Even in their worst seasons in the Majors, there were days when Lester and Bucholz were unhittable in 2012. You watched accomplished hitters trudging back to the dugout shaking their heads. They knew they had been over-matched. Contending teams in baseball need two pitchers who can do that. Ryan Dempster can do that, too, if his arm holds up.
It’s a safe bet that the Red Sox will improve offensively with a healthy return of Ellsbury, Ortiz and Pedroia. The team chemistry has to improve with their new manager. Defensively they are stronger up the middle than in any recent season. The crucial element is the pitching and Lester and Bucholz are the critical members of this staff. Imagine a season when both of them are healthy and focused, and you can imagine two twenty-game winners. Then you can easily imagine playoffs and who knows what else?