When the Red Sox and Dodgers pulled off their blockbuster swap last August, most of the focus was on the expensive major leaguers the latter acquired for the stretch run. In a show of its newfound financial muscle under the Guggenheim Group, Los Angeles assumed a jaw-dropping $270 million worth of future contract commitments through 2018 at little discount, while Boston regained incredible payroll flexibility while shedding some of the key players who were disappointments during its dismal 93-loss season, namely Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett.
Lost in all of that was that in addition to space-fillers James Loney and Ivan DeJesus Jr. — both of whom are already gone from the organization — the Sox received a pair of very promising young righties in Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa. In time, the Dodgers could regret losing them every bit as much as they will having the aging Gonzalez and Crawford on their roster.
Both pitchers have opened some eyes this spring. Webster hit 98 mph on the radar gun during his first Grapefruit League outing of the spring, a tick higher than most scouting reports have noted. The 23-year-old righty's fastball is less known for its velocity than its natural sink, which he uses to generate a ton of groundballs and thereby prevent homers; he yielded just two in 130 2/3 innings at the Double-A stops of the Dodgers and Red Sox last year and has averaged just 0.3 per nine in his pro career. Scouts call the pairing of his fastball with his plus-plus changeup "devastating," and his slider shows signs of being a plus pitch as well, though he needs to improve his command across the board. He walked 4.2 hitters per nine last year, though he also struck out 8.9 per nine en route to a 3.86 ERA.
That performance landed him a spot in the middle of the major prospect lists; Baseball America ranked him 49th, ESPN 63rd, Baseball Prospectus 69th and MLB.com 71st. His minor league pitching coach with the Dodgers, Chuck Crim, told WEEI's Alex Speier that the total package reminded him of Derek Lowe:
"Just kind of imagine Derek Lowe with sharper, harder and gnarlier secondaries… The sink is insane. Granted, Derek could control that sink and start it and end it where he wanted to. That takes years of experience with that type of a pitch. But there's not too many, if you look at hard sinker guys, there's not too many to compare it to. Normally guys don't throw sinkers with that kind of movement that hard…
"Sometimes we ran into trouble because he had so many weapons. He kind of messes himself up in games. He almost gets dizzy on what to throw at times because he has so many weapons."
Webster has the highest ceiling of any upper level Boston pitching prospect, and while he'll likely start the season at Triple-A Pawtucket, he may well find his way into the team's rotation at some point this year. In my winter report card series, I dinged the Red Sox for the makeshift nature of their rotation remake in the wake of a season where their starters ranked 12th in the American League in both ERA (5.19) and quality start rate (44 percent). They signed Ryan Dempster to a two-year, $26.5 million deal, and will bring back John Lackey after a year lost to Tommy John surgery, that on the heels of an astronomical 6.41 ERA the year before. Those two are slated to join Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront, a trio that combined for 91 starts with an underwhelming 4.75 ERA.
Webster doesn't currently have an opening, which is why I didn't include him in my AL Impact Rookies piece last week, but he could provide an alternative if one of those pitchers gets hurt or otherwise underperforms. Doubront, a 25-year-old southpaw whose 2012 combination of high walk and homer rates (4.0 and 1.3 per nine, respectively) is untenable, is likely the man on the bubble. Lefty Franklin Morales is currently the number six starter on the depth chart after a solid nine-start showing last year, but his short track record in the rotation and history of control problems (a career 4.5 walks per nine) both suggest he's vulnerable.
Even with his command issues, Webster may be more rotation-ready than fellow 23-year-old De La Rosa, whose development accelerated rapidly after Baseball America ranked him 90th on their 2011 list. He took a huge leap forward that year, jumping to the majors after just 16 starts and 92 innings at Double-A across 2010-2011, debuting in the majors in late May and throwing 60 2/3 innings in 10 starts and three relief appearances for the Dodgers that year. He whiffed 8.9 batters per nine with his own combination of high-90s heat, changeup and slider, but he walked 4.6 per nine en route to a 3.71 ERA.
Alas, he wound up needing Tommy John surgery by early August. He had worked his way back to the Dodgers last summer but had made just one major league appearance and six minor league ones before being included in the trade, and the Red Sox shut him down for the year upon acquiring him.
De La Rosa reached 100 mph several times in his first spring appearance on Sunday, but even so, the Sox plan to bring him along slowly, limiting him to two innings per appearance this spring. The team hasn't decided whether his long-term future lies in the rotation or the bullpen. "Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, time will tell what role he settles into," said manager John Farrell after his outing. His career high for innings in a season is just 110 1/3 back in 2010, so the likelihood is that he'll spend time in both roles this year to limit his workload, and could begin the season at Pawtucket. Baseball Prospectus' prospect team ranked De La Rosa fifth and Webster sixth on their list of Boston's Top 10 Talents 25 and Younger, behind shortstop Xander Bogaerts, third baseman Will Middlebrooks, centerfielder Jackie Bradley, and righty Matt Barnes, a 2011 first-round pick who spent most of last year at High-A and is thus much further off than either Dodger product. All in all, it's a pair who could help the Sox overcome forecasts of pitching-related doom as they attempt to avoid another finish in the AL East's basement.