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March 21, 2010 at 11:53 AM

2010 Organization Outlook: Starting Pitchers, pt. 1

After examining the Red Sox’ depth among position players, we now turn our attention to the pitchers, today covering the starting pitchers who pitched in Salem or higher last season. The Red Sox have a few top talents in the upper half of the system, but none who profile to be true aces on the level of a Jon Lester. However, while the ceiling may not be limitless for players like Casey Kelly, Michael Bowden, and Junichi Tazawa, that does not mean those players will not contribute in Boston in the near future, and there is a lot to like among the players in the upper half of the system in general. Kelly is a bona-fide top 40 prospect in all of baseball, while Bowden and Tazawa have made appearances on top 100 lists themselves. With openings in Boston’s rotation likely to be scarce in the next few seasons, the Red Sox’ depth on the mound near the top of the system should be good for a few pieces of trade bait, or bullpen depth, for the next season or two.

MLB: Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jon Lester^, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield
AAA: Randor Bierd, Michael Bowden, Fabio Castro^, Kris Johnson^, Adam Mills, Junichi Tazawa
AA: Travis Beazley, Felix Doubront^, Kason Gabbard^, Ryne Lawson, Blake Maxwell, Ryne Miller
A+: Stephen Fife, Seth Garrison, Casey Kelly, Eammon Portice, Kyle Weiland
A: Yeiper Castillo, Caleb Clay, Brock Huntzinger, Jeremy Kehrt, Mike Lee, Stolmy Pimentel, Fabian Williamson^
SS-A: Drake Britton^, Cesar Cabral^, Pedro Perez, Ryan Pressly, Alex Wilson
Rk: Hunter Cervenka^, Randy Consuegra, Roman Mendez, Manny Rivera^, Pete Ruiz, Tyler Wilson
DSL: Nestor Lastreto^, Yunior Ortega, Juan Rodriguez, Francisco Taveras^, Raynel Vellette
YTD: Mario Alcantara, Raul Alcantara, Richardo Betancourt^, Renny Parthemore, Kendal Volz, Madison Younginer
DNP: Austin Bailey
Gone: Paul Byrd (MLB), Brad Penny (MLB), John Smoltz (MLB), Enrique Gonzalez (AAA), Charlie Zink (AAA), Jarod Plummer (AA), Jose Capellan (A+), Dave McKae (A+), Bryan Price (A+), Nick Hagadone (A), Hunter Strickland (A), Jose Alvarez (SS-A)

The Lead Story: Easily the top pitching prospect in the system, Kelly dominated on the mound last season in a way no Sox minor leaguer had since Clay Buchholz. At age 19, he conquered the South Atlantic League so thoroughly in nine starts that the front office had no choice but to promote him. He continued to have success in Salem, suffering a couple bad outings but allowing one hit or fewer over six innings on at least three occasions in his eight starts. The Sox will look to finally challenge Kelly with an aggressive assignment to Portland this season. Tazawa came as advertised in Portland last year, earning a selection to the MLB Futures Game. However, he wore down after being promoted to Pawtucket in late July, and then to Boston in early August, and began leaving pitches up in the zone. After an offseason to build up his strength, the 23-year-old will now try to build on his strong rookie campaign in Pawtucket, and should be ready for the majors full-time in some capacity next season. Bowden got knocked around some in his late-season appearances for Boston, but the 23-year-old completely revamped his mechanics over the offseason, losing much of the awkward movement in his pitching motion. It will be interesting to see if that will help him regain the form that once allowed him to be dominant, even without top-notch stuff. Bowden will begin the season as a starter in Pawtucket to serve as depth for the major league rotation. If he pitches brilliantly, then he may become trade bait. If he does not, then it may be time to consider a move to middle relief, where the ability to go all-out in short stints could help make up for some of his weaknesses.

Doubront held his own in Portland last season at 21, an aggressive placement given his limited experience at High-A in 2008, but he still seems to be an afterthought. After an impressive spring, he may have forced his way up to Pawtucket, an impressive step at his age with a repertoire that certainly is not overpowering. Still, even if he starts the year in Portland, Doubront is young enough that he could wait until next season to advance for the sake of further refinement. Weiland skipped Greenville in 2009, beginning the season in Salem in his full-season debut, and although he stumbled out of the gate, he was arguably the most consistent pitcher in the system after the all-star break. The club was impressed enough to invite him to major league camp this spring, and although his future may be in the bullpen, the Sox will let him continue to start as long as he is successful. The sinkerballer will advance to Portland this season, the stop that tends to separate the future relievers from the true starters. Fife missed the season’s first two months after tests in spring training showed weakness in his shoulder. He finally debuted at the very end of May and needed just eight starts in Greenville to earn a promotion to Salem. The 23-year-old has great control, allowing just 14 walks in 87.1 innings in 2009, and may have the best chance to stick as a starter of Boston’s college-drafted pitchers. He should start in Salem, where he scuffled some in his final four 2009 starts, but receive a mid-season promotion to Portland if all goes well.

Below the Fold: Once signed as an undrafted free agent reliever out of a Texas junior college, Miller made the switch to starting late last season shortly after a promotion from Salem to Portland. He responded, performing well and earning an invite to the Rookie Development Program in January. He still has plenty to learn in Double-A as the Sox determine in what role his future lies. Similarly, Bierd worked as a reliever for most of last season before moving into the Pawtucket rotation. Acquired from Baltimore in exchange for David Pauley, he has reportedly piqued the Sox’ interest and is being looked at seriously as a future starter. He will slot into the Pawtucket rotation behind Bowden and Tazawa. Mills will join him there as he continues his slow, fanfare-light climb up the ladder to the bigs. As has been his wont, Mills started slow in Portland, but got hot in June and July to earn the bump to Pawtucket. He does not strike many batters out, but limits hard contact and gives out few walks. This season he will try to prove himself to be a legit major league prospect during a full Triple-A season.

Once a top 15 prospect, Johnson will likely move to the bullpen this year, particularly if one reads into Terry Francona’s recent comments about the number of players sent to minor league camp that need to be stretched out (Francona said four pitchers needed to do so, and Kelly, Weiland, Bierd, and Mills were also in the group sent down). Johnson’s great college curveball simply has not returned since Tommy John surgery, so now armed with a good fastball-changeup combo, he could be an effective middle reliever. Given his move to the ‘pen and nightmare season in Pawtucket in 2009, Johnson might begin in Portland to get his feet underneath him in his new role before advancing back to the Triple-A level. Portice, the Sox’ top pitcher at the 2008 Fall Instructional League, followed up on that promise by putting up impressive strikeout numbers in Salem last year. Part of his success is due to a unique, quick delivery. This year in Portland, we should find out if he can remain a starter or if he will move to the bullpen, where his delivery and repertoire may be better suited. Garrison was a surprise starter in Salem last season, but acquitted himself well after the aggressive assignment, recovering from a shaky early season to post solid numbers in June and July. Still, his walk numbers are not where the organization would like to see them.

Sidebars: Gabbard was re-acquired last season after an aborted attempt by the Rangers to move him to the bullpen. He struggled mightily in five Portland starts, a troubling sign for a pitcher who once seemed on the verge of becoming a legitimate major league starter. The best place for him to start getting his career back on track this season is probably extended spring training … Beazley was limited to just one 2009 appearance due to injury. He had surgery in January and will begin the year rehabbing … Castro came up as a reliever but last year was used as a full-time starter for the first time. If everyone in the potential Bowden-Tazawa-Doubront-Mills-Bierd Pawtucket rotation is healthy, he will work out of the bullpen once again, but he could be the first option if a spot starter is needed at that level … Maxwell has been the prototypical swingman the past two seasons, starting 32 games and pitching in relief in 37. Always better as a reliever, the side-armer should get the chance to pitch in that role full-time in Portland given the Sox rising starting depth … Lawson took his lumps in Portland’s rotation last year, the latest step in his strange progression up the system ladder in which he skipped High-A after moving from the bullpen into the rotation. He will fight for a spot in the Portland rotation to start the year.