Rubby De La Rosa, the right-hander with a huge arm whom the Red Sox acquired the Dodgers in last summer’s blockbuster, encountered former Dodgers 20-game winner Ramon Martinez – an instructor for Los Angeles — early in his career. And while it is typically the young pitchers who recognize their instructors, in this case, the tables were turned.
“We were talking and he said, I know you,” recalled De La Rosa on Friday, at the Red Sox Rookie Development Program.
De La Rosa’s ties to Ramon and Pedro Martinez, it turns out, go back nearly a lifetime. His grandmother served as the nanny for the famous Martinez brothers in the Dominican.
“I grew up with these people,” said De La Rosa.
While the 23-year-old Red Sox pitcher knows Ramon better than his more decorated brother — Ramon Martinez, in fact, called recently to offer De La Rosa his house during spring training — it was Pedro Martinez who taught De La Rosa his changeup in 2008, and it was the former Red Sox great who captivated the young pitcher’s imagination when he was growing up in the Dominican.
“I don’t watch a lot of baseball. But all the time Pedro pitched, I watched all the time,” he said. “I had to watch what he did. I want to be like him every time. When I grew up, I watch him all the time — video games and everything.”
And now, De La Rosa — who showed tremendous promise in the big leagues in 2011 before requiring Tommy John surgery that cost him most of last year — finds himself in the organization where Pedro Martinez spent his greatest years and where Ramon Martinez spent two seasons towards the end of his career. Thanks to the blockbuster deal that shipped Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto to Los Angeles, De La Rosa relocated from the team with whom both Martinez brothers entered pro ball to the team with whom they pitched together at the end of their careers.
The right-hander can show dazzling stuff, with an explosive fastball that’s been known to hit triple digits coupled with the Martinez changeup, an offering that has been devastating at times.
“His main pitch is his tremendous fastball, anywhere from 94-100 mph with very good movement on it. His main secondary out-pitch is his changeup, which is what we consider in the scouting world [on the 20-80 scouting scale, with 80 being the highest) an 80 changeup. It's very deceptive, especially with his arm speed and fastball,”Chuck Crim, De La Rosa’s pitching coach in Double-A Chattanooga in both 2011 and 2012, recalled in October. “He's got a put-away, strikeout changeup. He's got a slider. He's got a curveball.
“He's pretty creative. As soon as he starts to spin pitches, he likes to change arm angles, create different breaks. It's really one main kind of breaking ball that he uses different angles with. But his main secondary is the put-away changeup. It's an 80. It's unbelievable.”
The Sox have had less of a chance to see his stuff in person. De La Rosa, who was 4-5 with a 3.71 ER, 8.9 strikeouts and 4.6 walks per nine innings in the big leagues in 2011, barely pitched last year while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He appeared in just seven games (13 2/3 innings) in the big leagues and Double-A before getting included in the deal with the Red Sox; however, he was claimed off waivers, and so the Dodgers had to pull him back and keep the right-hander till the end of the season, when he could go to Boston as a player to be named.
The world of the player to be named is a kind of baseball purgatory -- while De La Rosa could long-toss and throw bullpen sessions under Crim's supervision, he didn't pitch in any games for fear of any kind of injury or setback that might complicate the trade. Thus, he spent the last weeks of his season losing his mind, healthy but unable to pitch in games, in Chattanooga.
"I was sick. I was not allowed to be around and play," said De La Rosa. "At Double-A, I couldn’t do nothing. Just run, condition, work out. that was sad for me. I wanted to go home. I talked to my agent and said I want to go home because this is bad, everybody playing and I’m not playing. So I need to focus on other things. It was a bad experience for me.”
But, now with the Red Sox, his purpose has been restored. He's 17 months removed from Tommy John surgery and free to take part in the full slate of activities in the team's Rookie Development Program, familiarizing himself with the city of Boston where he's expected to contribute at the big league level in 2013.
"I’m still working my way back. I feel done, but I’m still working," he said. "[But] when I go back to the game, I’m not thinking it’s hurt. I’m not afraid. It’s just pitching.”
Certainly, he’s looked like anything but a damaged pitcher to the Red Sox. De La Rosa, like the other three pitchers (Allen Webster, Steven Wright, Drake Britton) in the Rookie Development Program, is long tossing, and the electricity in his arm has been evident.
“From a long-toss standpoint, he looks strong, he looks healthy. Physically, he’s made progress from when we first saw him, first acquired him in the trade. He’s improved physically, so we’re going in the right direction,” said De La Rosa. “”You can tell that he’s absolutely been working really hard with [his throwing program], with the arm strength. He told us that he’s been throwing for quite a while and it shows. It’s a really quick arm. Ball’s jumping out. He’s aggressive and confident with that throwing program. He’s mixing in some of his off-speed at this point, early on, just getting a feel for it. Looks like he’s able to compete.”
The Sox plan to bring De La Rosa to camp and stretch him out as a starter. While talent evaluators acknowledge that there is some question about whether he has the command to be a big league starter, if he can harness hit, his huge stuff gives him top-of-the-rotation potential. That is the role in which the young pitcher envisions himself.
“I like to start — always. Always in my career, a starter,” he said. “When I came up to the Dodgers, I relieved, but two weeks later, I was a starter. That’s my dream – to always be a starter.”
De La Rosa almost certainly will open the year in Triple-A Pawtucket. Given that he threw fewer than 15 innings last year, and has never logged more than 110 innings in a season in his career, the Sox will likely use Triple-A to regulate his innings and build his workload in the early stages of next year. Even so, if he is healthy and returns from Tommy John with the ability to attack the strike zone with his diverse, creative arsenal, there seems little question that he has the stuff to be a big league contributor at some point in 2013.
For De La Rosa, the prospect is a tantalizing one.
“Whatever the organization needs, I’ll be there. There’s a reason I’m here,” he said. “Right now, I’m in preparation to take any position that’s open. Reliever, starter, closer, I’m going to take it.”
If he can offer even a hint of the magic of Pedro Martinez, then such confidence seems reasonably placed.