As far as youth movements go, the Red Sox are experiencing some serious bumps and bruises along the way. As the team slumps toward the finish line of 2014, Boston's future for 2015 and beyond grows murky with every poor performance from a rookie or otherwise important young part of the roster, particularly in the rotation.
Take Saturday's loss to the Mariners, for example. On the mound for Boston: Brandon Workman, a 2010 second-round pick out of the University of Texas. Workman's 2013 rookie season featured its share of ups and downs, with the 26-year-old right-hander proving a valuable late-inning bullpen option down the stretch. But with the trades of Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront opening spots in the rotation, the Red Sox have given Workman a chance to show he can be a part of the 2015 rotation.
Workman, however, has fallen flat in his audition. Against Seattle, he gave up seven earned runs on 10 hits, punctuated by a three-run homer by Dustin Ackley in the fourth inning that put an end to Workman's day and sealed a 7-3 loss for Boston. It's the latest dud in a brutal stretch for Workman. In his last four starts covering 21 innings, he's allowed 15 earned runs, good for a 6.43 ERA. For the season, Workman now has a 4.93 ERA and has taken a loss in his last eight appearances.
Workman's performance, albeit on a small sample of 73 innings, is the kind of thing that would normally give a team pause when considering a pitcher as part of its future plans. But unfortunately for the Red Sox, Workman may end up with a 2015 rotation spot by default. Boston has almost zero in the way of veteran options on its roster. Of the current starting five, Clay Buchholz leads the way with 142 career starts; Joe Kelly (42), Rubby De La Rosa (23), Workman (15) and Allen Webster (12) collectively don't come close to his total. What's more, Buchholz, the lone veteran, has been abysmal in his age-30 season, posting a 5.94 ERA and 66 ERA+ in 122 2/3 injury-interrupted innings.
Workman and Buchholz aren't alone in their struggles. Kelly has a 4.09 ERA and 14/16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 22 innings and four starts after coming over from the Cardinals in a deadline deal. Webster has struggled horrifically with his control, walking 18 in 26 2/3 innings. De La Rosa has shown flashes of top-starter ability, but it's come in fits. Since joining the rotation on May 31, De La Rosa has four starts with four or more earned runs allowed and six with one or less given up. Anthony Ranaudo, who has come up from Triple-A to fill in as needed, hasn't show much in his brief time, giving up three homers and six earned runs with five walks and three strikeouts in 12 innings over two starts.
All of that has added up to one of the worst rotations in baseball since the All-Star break. In the second half, Red Sox starters have a 4.64 ERA in 196 innings, including 97 walks and 18 homers allowed (not including Workman's start on Sunday). That much was to be expected when Boston moved Lester and Lackey at the trade deadline, but it must be painful for the front office to watch its young pitchers stumble so badly when given an extended opportunity.
And should that front office want to add some veteran help to the rotation in the offseason, it'll find the cupboard bare. The winter's two big free-agent targets — Lester and Max Scherzer — will likely be priced out of Boston's range, given the expected interest that teams like the Tigers, Yankees and Dodgers will have in that duo. James Shields is another intriguing option, but the former Ray and current Royal will be 33 in the offseason and is likely to secure a huge haul from whichever team loses out on Lester and Scherzer. That leaves the likes of subpar innings-eaters like Ryan Vogelsong, Edinson Volquez and Roberto Hernandez as the best options in a tough market.
But Boston will need arms to take innings, mostly because its young crop of starters — which also includes former top prospect Matt Barnes — is short on starting experience. Only Buchholz has thrown more than 125 innings in the majors, but he's topped out at 189 and has routinely dealt with injury issues. Kelly's max is 124, set last year, which is also his career high. De La Rosa, who had Tommy John surgery in 2012, will break the 80-inning mark this year for the first time ever. Webster's high is 131 1/3, achieved in 2010; Workman's is also 131. As such, the Red Sox don't have a single pitcher they can count on for 200 or more innings next season, much less at least 150-plus above-average frames.
Granted, this is a problem the Red Sox would have faced even had they kept Lester, Peavy and Lackey. The first two were set to be free agents at season's end, leaving only Lackey, who's had his share of elbow troubles. But the rotation's missteps make Boston's hard stance with Lester on an extension that much tougher to understand. Had the team been able to come to an agreement with its former southpaw ace before the season, it would've had a strong bulwark in place should the likes of De La Rosa, Webster and Workman — not to mention Ranaudo and Barnes — fail to progress. Instead, the team will have to hope that its current group can find equilibrium before it's too late.
Pitching is not the only group of youngsters not performing to plan for the Red Sox — the steep MLB learning curve has cost Jackie Bradley Jr. his starting job in center field, while Xander Bogaerts has gone from preseason AL rookie of the year candidate to one of the worst everyday players in baseball. But the holes in the rotation are most worrisome for a team that has said all the right things about returning to contention in 2015. General manager Ben Cherington has done a tremendous amount of wheeling and dealing in his bid to get his team back to the World Series, including Friday's signing of Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo. But his biggest winter challenge will be building a rotation that won't challenge for one of the league's worst next year.