Red Sox veteran Clay Buchholz is a lot of things.
Among them, the righthander is a former first-round pick – selected 42nd overall by Boston in 2005 – with parts of eight big league seasons under his belt. On his best days, he looks like a Cy Young winner. On his worst, someone who belongs in the minors.
Next week, the Texas native will turn 30 and he’ll sit just months away from arguably the most important year of his career.
Following last month’s trades of four starting pitchers in the span of a week, Buchholz is all that remains from the Sox’ season-opening five-man rotation. In that group, he quite possibly possessed the best “stuff”, but his fragility and inconsistency landed him fifth in the pecking order. Now, on a staff of rookies, youngsters, and a newcomer in Joe Kelly, he is the veteran arm with no discernible leadership skills.
Last season – after supposedly sleeping funny while holding his daughter – neck, shoulder, collarbone, and joint ailments cost him three months of the season. At the All-Star Break, many began questioning his mental toughness when he suggested the Red Sox were ready for him to return to the mound, free of risk, but he wasn’t comfortable pitching with discomfort. He was 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA in 12 starts to that point.
Over the course of the year, though he did eventually return, Buchholz’s critics started to view the pitcher as one only willing to throw when everything clicked and all parts of him, mental and physical, felt right.
To Buchholz’s credit, he shed some of that reputation when he gutted out a World Series start through injury and gave up just three hits and one unearned run in four innings. It looked, to optimists, like the beginning of a new, edgy hurler.
Following a slow start to this season, Buchholz missed 60 games with what was termed a hyperextended left knee. Around the Red Sox, it was more commonly considered a mental break for the vet to gather himself and rediscover his command.
Buchholz returned on June 25. Since, he’s 3-3 with a 5.40 ERA in eight starts. In that time, the righty hurled one of the finest gems of his career in a July 13 complete game, three-hit, 12-strikeout, no-walk shutout of the Astros. However, he has also allowed at least four runs in six starts and seven in each of his last two, including his first opportunity as the de facto captain of the rotation.
In all, Buchholz is enduring perhaps the worst season of his career. He is 5-7 in 18 starts, punctuated by a 6.20 ERA, a 1.61 WHIP, and a career-high 11.2 hits per nine innings in 101 2/3 frames. Among qualifiers, he’s essentially the most terrible starter in baseball this year.
In some ways, though, one comment the starter made recently is worse than anything he’s done on the mound – and it wasn’t when he essentially blamed Boston’s season-long struggles on the loss of Jacoby Ellsbury.
As trade talks appeared to be ramping up late in July and it became increasingly clear ace Jon Lester would be dealt, Buchholz was asked how that would affect the team.
“If [a trade] does happen, it’s a blow,” he said. “He’s been our horse for as long as I’ve been here. Don’t know who would fill his shoes.”
Don’t know who would fill his shoes?
For a team currently absent a front of the rotation starter entering 2015, that was alarming. You’d have hoped Buchholz would say virtually anything else, after first looking in the mirror.
The two-time All-Star simply isn’t that kind of guy. Buchholz has top of the rotation skills with a mindset that may not belong in a major league rotation at all. He’s as unpredictable as he is talented. At one point you didn’t know what to expect from him from year to year dating back to when he burst on the scene with a no-hitter in 2007; now, that uncertainty exists from start to start.
Buchholz has never made more than 16 starts in consecutive seasons, nor pitched more than 110 innings in back-to-back years. His ERA marks since 2008, in order, read 6.75, 4.21, 2.33, 3.48, 4.56, 1.74, and 6.20.
Buchholz’s best days are behind him. Between inconsistency, injury, and that lack of mental fortitude we crave from athletes, no matter their talent level, most fans and media are ready to move on from the career Bostonian, even for pennies on the dollar. Others want him in next year’s hopefully vastly revamped rotation, but nowhere near the top.
I fall in line with the latter. I want Buchholz with the Red Sox in 2015.
Why? No, it’s not that I believe he’ll suddenly put it all together and rank among the best pitchers in the American League, as he appeared in line to do in 2013 before his season was derailed. Rather, it’s because whatever amount of his guts, heart, or however you’d like to term it will be tested like never before.
Next season is the last guaranteed year of Buchholz’s contract, his salary set to jump from $7.7 million to $12 mil.
(Imagine being due a substantial raise after what he’s done this year? I digress.)
After 2015, the Red Sox hold two team options on Buchholz, one for $13 million in 2016 and the next for $13.5 mil in 2017. If he pitches well next year – even around 125 innings and an ERA in the 3’s would suffice – he’d be a relative bargain to commit to for the following season.
If he doesn’t, however, that $245,000 buyout to send him on his way would be a no-brainer.
The end of Clay Buchholz in Boston.
"He's got to be a piece of the puzzle, not the whole puzzle,” general manager Ben Cherington told reporters when discussing Buchholz on Wednesday in St. Louis. “We're confident he can turn it around because he's healthy and that means he's got a chance to turn it around. But obviously, the results are not what he wants; they're not what we expect from him. He knows that.
“It's not wake up tomorrow and it's all better. He's got to continue to work and get on the right track the rest of this season and then have a good offseason and come to spring training and we expect him to be a part of the rotation next year, an important part of it.”
Cherington went on to discuss Buchholz’s lack of feel for his secondary pitches and how that’s contrasted his past effectiveness. Whether that has derived from mental or physical woes, or a combination of the two, it is a problem.
“Getting [Buchholz] back on track might be the No. 1 objective as far as the rotation goes,” the skipper said before going on to analyze what separates front and back-end starters. “We’ve seen from Clay that there’s elite performance as it’s capable, and yet the one thing that he and I talked about extensively yesterday was just trying to get him back on to the most simple element that a pitcher has under control, and that’s this pitch in this moment, and take away all the other distractions or all the other things that you’re trying to accomplish.”
It’s clear how the organization sees Buchholz in regard to ability, or he’d no longer be here. Finding a way to harness that skill when he’s perfectly healthy is another story, and one filled with uncertainty.
“He's going to be better again,” Cherington proclaimed. “I don't know if that's going to be tomorrow, next week or a month from now. But he'll be better again.''
It had better be in 2015; otherwise Buchholz will be without a baseball home and the hardest hit he’ll allow in his career will be felt in his wallet.
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