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Could Clay Buchholz be trusted in the bullpen?

Posted by Adam Kaufman  August 28, 2013 09:38 AM

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An interesting debate arose on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s “Felger and Massarotti” program on Tuesday:

If Clay Buchholz struggles in his return from lingering shoulder and neck injuries when he, we hope, is back in the rotation in September, could he be an option out of the bullpen in the playoffs?

There’s obviously no way to definitively say one way or the other without giving it a shot, but it’s not an idea I’m at all comfortable with.

As we know, Buchholz is 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA in 12 starts this season. We’ve been reciting those stats since the All-Star last threw a major league pitch in a June 8 win over the Angels. He’s made only two starts since May 22. In all likelihood, it’ll have been three full months before he takes the mound again while donning a Boston cap.

The good news is that Buchholz felt fine physically in Sunday’s rehab outing for Single A Lowell. The bad news, of course, is that the start wasn’t pretty. He gave up three runs (one earned) on one hit and three walks in two-thirds of an inning while throwing 38 pitches and just 19 for strikes. Location was a problem and so was his velocity as he topped out at 90 miles per hour. To his credit, it was a tune-up start filled with rust. Such a pattern would be concerning, but not an isolated appearance facing hitters for the first time in about 11 weeks.

Another rehab start is scheduled for Friday, where he’ll throw about 55 pitches for either Double A Portland or Triple A Pawtucket. Likely a third turn next week. That means, with no setbacks in a journey that’s included several, Buchholz will have time for three or four starts for Boston leading into the postseason.

At this point, John Lackey, Jon Lester, and Jake Peavy are, in whatever the order, all but guaranteed to be in the playoff rotation. That assumes, which I do, that the Red Sox will make their first return to October since 2009.

After those three one-time aces, there’s room for one more.

That man won’t be Ryan Dempster. Though he’s been a full-time starter since 2008, the former Cubs closer has 226 career relief appearances spanning more than 230 innings on his resume, including one scoreless frame during the 2007 National League Division Series. There’s no reason to believe he couldn’t be an effective set-up man or long reliever.

Then there’s Felix Doubront, an interesting case. With Tuesday’s pounding of the Orioles, the southpaw is 10-6 with a 3.74 ERA, and he has had only one bad start – a 7-run, 4-inning performance against the Yankees on Aug. 16 – since early-May. He’s been about as consistent as anyone in the rotation this season. However, he also has some miles logged as a reliever with 21 games out of the bullpen over his first two big league campaigns in 2010 and 2011. Yes, he stunk, to the tune of a 6.39 ERA and 1.73 WHIP in 25-and-a-third innings, but he’s certainly more confident and experienced now and could be a valuable resource.

That brings me back to Buchholz. He’s made just two career relief appearances, none since 2008, and he posted a 2.25 ERA in four innings. The results were fine, but I would contend he’s a different pitcher at this stage. Those appearances came in his first 19 career games when he was largely struggling and still trying to find his way in the big leagues. Since then, he’s made 101 straight starts with, generally, a lot of success. He’s become a creature of habit who, by his own admission, needs to be 100 percent and feel just right every time he takes the mound.

As Red Sox vice president and assistant general manager Mike Hazen told me last month when discussing the then-mysterious timeline for Buchholz, players “have to be ready to go mentally and ready to go physically.” We’ve perhaps learned since why he opted to reference the mental approach first.

That in mind, do you feel you can rely on a guy – even a quality, capable All-Star – to so drastically alter his routine in such a short period of time, and at the most crucial juncture of the season? To suddenly and without experience become a dominant set-up man, willing and able to pitch consecutive days after not throwing for months because of an injury that doctors say came from not pitching? Can you depend on him to be locked and loaded as he stoically emerges from right field while wearing black-rimmed glasses with a skull between his eyes as “Wild Thing” blares over the stadium speakers? A stretch, I suppose.

Nothing about his make-up has suggested he’s that guy. Fair or unfair, the last few months have heightened many people’s concerns – mine included – over Buchholz’s mental and physical toughness. Again, he is the one who volunteered a need to be 100 percent, a plateau that no other player in his clubhouse is close to.

It’s unrealistic to expect Buchholz to be the pitcher he was before his injuries when he returns, but he’ll have to be at least as good as what they have currently in order to help the Red Sox come the postseason. Even if that means he’s not fully stretched out and only throwing 75-85 pitches to start, that could translate to at least five effective innings. If he struggles a little, and by that I mean troubles in the box score and not with his velocity or location, I’m still perfectly comfortable with him taking his turn in the rotation and hoping the bigger games yield better results. I imagine the Sox’ brass feels the same way because they know what he’s capable of and it’s where he fits best.

Any hindrance in his abilities, though, and I question what value Buchholz would bring the bullpen. To go a step further, he could even be a detrimental addition to a group of relievers that has been among baseball’s best in the second half.

Tim Lincecum’s first-ever run out of the bullpen after a miserable regular season with the Giants last year was special, not a rule of thumb. We also remember around here what Pedro Martinez did in 1999, but he was unequivocally the best pitcher in baseball.

The time is now for Clay Buchholz to find whatever urgency he can. With the playoffs roughly five weeks away, it’s rotation or bust.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

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About this blog

Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.

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