Clay Buchholz is headed back to the AL East with Toronto

After a strong half-season in Arizona, Toronto is the latest team hoping Buchholz can fulfill his potential.

Clay Buchholz Red Sox
Clay Buchholz delivers at Fenway Park on July 28, 2014, against the Blue Jays. –AP Photo

Fourteen years after the Red Sox felt they got a draft-day steal on a player many shied from for makeup concerns, and three years after they finally gave up on him entirely fulfilling his superstar talent, Clay Buchholz soldiers on as a major leaguer. And his next stop might bring him back to Fenway Park.

According to MLB.com, the Toronto Blue Jays have signed the 34-year-old free agent, who’d been potentially linked with both Texas and a return to Arizona earlier this winter.

By WAR, Buchholz is the fourth-most valuable pitcher of his 2005 draft class and Boston’s second-best pick that year behind Jacoby Ellsbury. (Those two and Jed Lowrie were the fruits of having five of that year’s first 47 selections.) Yet when the Red Sox dealt Buchholz in December 2016 to Philadelphia for little more than salary-cap relief, it was hard not to feel like he underwhelmed here.

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At Buchholz’s best, few were better. He famously threw a no-hitter in his second career start and entered the 2008 season as a better prospect in Baseball America’s eyes than both Clayton Kershaw and David Price. Buchholz narrowly lost the ERA title to Felix Hernandez in 2010, was easily baseball’s best starting pitcher for the first 2½ months of 2013, made two All-Star teams and three strong starts during that successful 2013 playoff run. And yet, his Boston ERA was just 3.96, with the Sox going 104-94 in his starts (postseason included).

Injuries were a near constant, with Buchholz landing on the disabled list in seven of his 10 Boston seasons. He lost half seasons to a stress fracture in his back (2011); bursitis and a neck strain caused, apparently, by holding his daughter awkwardly (2013); and a strained flexor muscle in his throwing arm (2015). Those were interspersed with fingernail, blister, hamstring, and knee-hyperextension problems.

Those were also part of a larger feeling that, to a large percentage of Red Sox observers, it was always something. He struggled to cope with runners on base and was annually one of baseball’s slowest workers. His usage of suncreen and rosin for grip prompted public accusations of cheating from the Toronto broadcast team and largely made the public aware of the widespread practice. The year after Buchholz’s no-hitter, he had a 6.75 ERA. The year after his career 2010, it was 4.56. The year after his phenomenal 2013, it was 5.34.

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“He appreciated what everyone did for him. He enjoyed his time here,” baseball operations chief Dave Dombrowski told reporters at the time of the trade. “A change of scenery and a new opportunity is not always a bad thing.”

Buchholz threw only seven innings for the Phillies, tearing a flexor tendon and needing surgery. Kansas City signed him late last March, then released him in May after three minor-league starts. Arizona quickly jumped on him, its GM Mike Hazen having been part of the baseball ops team that drafted Buchholz, and he was excellent until being shut down last September with another flexor issue — this time, a strain.

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The Blue Jays added both Buchholz and reliever Bud Norris on Thursday, a couple of classic low-risk, high-reward fliers. The former could find a spot at the end of the rotation and, for whatever it’s worth, has good career numbers at Rogers Centre — a 2.63 ERA in 106 innings and 17 appearances (16 starts). The potential is tantalizing.

Not that we haven’t heard that before.