But perhaps there is no greater unsolved mystery than what the team can expect from Clay Daniel Buchholz. The guy with the exclamation-point build is a giant question mark heading into the season. Buchholz is either another cog in general manager Theo Epstein's player development machine or the ultimate talent tease. Either way it's time to find out what Clay is made of.
No more hiding behind the prospect label, no more caution, no more trips to Triple A, unless it's a rehab start. He is a big-league pitcher for better or worse, whether he stays with the Olde Towne Team or ends up being trade bait worthy of Bass Pro Shops.
Buchholz's development is the single-biggest reason the Red Sox should entertain a six-man rotation. He has nothing left to prove in Pawtucket and needs to prove himself in the big leagues, for his sake and that of the Sox. Every quality big-league start Buchholz makes would make it a little easier for Epstein, if he can overcome the separation anxiety, to pitch Buchholz as the center piece in a deal for Adrian Gonzalez or Prince Fielder or a slugger-to-be-named later.
Sending the slender Texan back to Rhode Island isn't going to help him learn to limit the damage, maintain his focus, and stop throwing over to first like he's running Dean Smith's four corners offense with the first baseman when the game isn't going his way.
We know by now what Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka are and are not. They're both good, solid major league starters; neither is a top of the rotation starter. We don't know what Buchholz is or can be. With Josh Beckett still unsigned beyond 2010, it's important to find out if Buchholz is capable of being the ace pitcher that Epstein has always maintained he can be. You can only find that out with the him pitching off a big-league mound every fifth -- or sixth day.
The Sox have time and room to let Buchholz work out the kinks. The Yankees are doing the same thing with Philip Hughes, who was named the Bronx Bombers No. 5 starter, and Matsuzaka probably won't be ready until the end of the month.
Buchholz, who threw a no-hitter in his second big league start, has the stuff (i.e. changeup) to be the righthanded Cole Hamels, a nice homegrown counterpart at the top of the rotation to Jon Lester and a counter-punch to the Yankees offensive superiority. He also has the potential to be a righthanded Casey Fossum, a stick-thin, highly-hyped prospect the Red Sox wouldn't part with who never reached his potential.
(Anybody like a do-over on holding onto Fossum instead of shipping him to Cleveland for Bartolo Colon?)
Buchholz looked like the former during the second half of last season, when he came off the pine at Pawtucket to stabilize a rotation gone awry after the meltdowns of John Smoltz and Brad Penny and Tim Wakefield's back trouble. In 16 second-half starts, Buchholz was 7-4 with a 4.21 ERA, including an eight-start stretch in August and September during which he went 6-0 with a 2.44 ERA.
The Sox gave him the nod in Game 3 of the American League Division Series against the Angels, and he rewarded them with a quality start -- 5 innings, 6 hits, 2 runs.
After last season, Buchholz came to spring training with more weight on his frame and the weight of greater expectations as well. He has lost a little of both.
Buchholz has been shelled in Florida. His ERA looks like the work of a gymnastics judge. Yesterday's outing against the Minnesota Twins was regarded as a positive step for Buchholz and it was, even though he gave up five hits and four runs in 4 2/3 innings. That actually lowered his spring ERA to 9.53 in four starts.
Baseball's a funny game. Last spring Buchholz was electric, posting a 2.52 ERA in six spring training starts and was sent down to Pawtucket. This season, he gets boxed up like a UPS package, and he's already been penciled in to start the season with the Sox and make his first start in Kansas City on April 11.
Disregard both sets of stats because spring training statistics are among the most meaningless and bogus in all of sports. Coming off starting the clincher in the 2007 World Series, Lester posted a 6.00 ERA in the spring of 2008. He ended up fulfilling his potential with a breakout season (16-6, 3.21 ERA) and now he is arguably the ace of the Sox staff.
That's why you can write off Buchholz's spring and hope you're right.
The truth is that while Buchholz's career is nascent he isn't really a kid anymore. He is much closer to Lester than he is to his successor as Sox "it-boy" pitching prospect, 20-year-old Casey Kelly.
Buchholz is just seven months younger than Lester. He got married in the offseason, and is expecting his first child.
He has matured off the mound. Now it's time to see if he can do it on the mound.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.