Before the 2008 season, the prospect gurus at Baseball America rated Clay Buchholz the fourth-best prospect in baseball. Not the fourth-best in the Red Sox organization, or the fourth-best to have pitched for the Portland Sea Dogs the previous season.
The fourth-best in baseball. Behind, if you’re curious to know, the Reds’ Jay Bruce, the Rays’ Evan Longoria, and the Yankees’ Joba Chamberlain. Buchholz checked in six spots higher than David Price, who has amounted to something excellent, and three ahead of Clayton Kershaw, who has amounted to something transcendent.
The point is not that projecting prospects, even by the most informed evaluators, is an inexact art, though Buchholz > Kershaw certainly serves as unassailable evidence. It’s that Buchholz was regarded as elite, a perceived future ace, and one who had tantalized Red Sox fans by pitching a no-hitter in his second big league start in September 2007.
He was a supremely promising young pitcher. As it turned out, through his spotty nine-plus years in Boston, he reminded us of that promise just often enough to drive everyone nuts.
Buchholz’s tenure of occasional excellence and recurring exasperation ended Tuesday when the Red Sox traded him to the Phillies for minor-league infielder Josh Tobias, a 24-year-old who hasn’t taken a swing in Double A yet. The final ledger for the lanky 32-year-old righthander: 81 wins, 61 losses, a 3.96 ERA, two world championship rings (in ’07 as a bit player who wasn’t even with the team in the postseason, in ’13 as a participant), and one enigmatic legacy.
That’s not a bad run. It’s also not close to the whole story, which is why such an uneven deal, at least in terms of professional accomplishment so far, was greeted in Boston with a satisfied chorus of good riddance. Through the years, Buchholz would occasionally — but only occasionally — live up to those enormous early expectations. His most complete season came in 2010, when he went 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA (second to Seattle ace Felix Hernandez in the American League) in 173.2 innings.
Spliced in with those good times were too many down years: A pitcher of Buchholz’s ability should not have single-season earned run averages of 6.75, 5.34 and last season’s 4.76 on his Baseball-Reference page. There were too many injuries and as a consequence, he never could be counted on to supply enough innings (his career-high is 189 from the 2012 season, when he went 11-8 with a 4.56 ERA).
He was outstanding during the Red Sox’ essential fast start in that special 2013 season, and finished the year with a 12-1 record and a 1.74 ERA. But, as always, there was a catch, an aggravating plot-twist somewhere along the way to fulfillment. He made just 16 starts — he was derailed by a baffling shoulder injury in June that was apparently caused by holding his infant daughter in bed at an awkward angle. He didn’t pitch again until September. While he did contribute that postseason, most notably with four innings without surrendering an earned run in Game 4 of the World Series, it once again felt Buchholz’s potential brilliance had been abbreviated by odd circumstances.
I don’t know that Buchholz rates as the most frustrating Red Sox starting pitcher I’ve ever seen, because I do remember Mike Torrez. But he’s on the short list mostly because it seemed like he needed everything — the weather, his health, his mind-set, what he had for breakfast, the amount of sunscreen he had on his arm, whatever — to be perfect to be at his best. And in the grueling grind of the baseball season, there will be very few days where everything goes your way. He did not handle additional degrees of difficulty well.
It seems appropriate that his final appearance with the Red Sox came in a game in which they were counting on him dearly, and he pitched OK, but didn’t last long and couldn’t deliver on the hope. Buchholz allowed two earned runs in four innings in Game 3 of the American League Division Series against the Indians. Cleveland won, 4-3, to sweep the series. The Red Sox season ended that day. It turns out so did Buchholz’s career in Boston.
Early returns among Red Sox fans on social media offered a heavy consensus on the deal: Finally, Buchholz is out of here. That’s telling, and hardly surprising given how vexing he has been over the years. But it was also something of a surprise in that president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski made the deal now, and for what looks like a fringe prospect at best in Tobias. It’s not exactly Bill Lee for Stan Papi, but without context, it does appear to favor the Phillies significantly.
While the Red Sox have tremendous quality and depth of starting pitching, that can change with one twinge in an important elbow. We still remember the lesson of trading Bronson Arroyo for Wily Mo Pena before the 2006 season; saying you have pitching depth is a fine way to tempt the baseball gods into taking it away. Buchholz might have brought more in return near spring training, which makes me wonder if the real impetus for this trade was to clear salary room to bring in another player. I suppose it’s appropriate for Buchholz to leave us with one more mildly befuddling moment as he goes.
I always figured Buchholz would end up in one of those pitcher-redemption factories — the Cardinals and Pirates always seem to find an annual reclamation project or two — and discover the consistency in performance that eluded him here. I’m not sure that happens with the Phillies, who have lost at least 89 games each of the last four years and have a fan-base so unforgiving that Red Sox fans look sympathetic by comparison.
But if he does figure it out, I hope Red Sox fans who were cheering the move Tuesday resist collectively breaking out that old Bob Lobel line: Why can’t we get guys like that? Buchholz may succeed elsewhere, but if it happens, save the hypocritical laments. Red Sox fans have wanted him delivered to that elsewhere for years now. Nearly 10 years after he arrived with such promise, he’s someone else’s over-30 enigma now.