The Red Sox may insist their white flag is tucked away, still gathering dust since 2012 -- perhaps in A.J. Pierzynski’s now-vacant locker -- but the signs are all around. Mookie Betts is up. Christian Vazquez is up. Space in the rotation could soon open up for both Brandon Workman and Rubby De La Rosa. The rest of this season will be spent developing young prospects at the game’s highest level so that, even if they make a miraculous climb back from 9 1/2 games out of first place in the A.L. East, the core of the next great Red Sox team will have accumulated valuable big-league innings.
“We are where we are,” said Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington. “If the standings were turned upside down, if our positioning was different, maybe that wouldn't be happening. But we are where we are, so we gotta find out about guys. We've gotta see what opportunities come our way. At the same time, we're trying to get better as quickly as we can in ways that make sense.”
Already, several young players have seen significant MLB action in 2014. At times they’ve flashed the skills that have had them earmarked as young organizational thoroughbreds. At times -- more often that not for some -- they’ve struggled badly. Luckily for the Red Sox, their system is deep with ready-made Major League talent. It's on the backs of those players that the oft-mentioned “bridge” will be built, and the construction is underway.
After hearing from members of the organization and players as well as MLB scouts, we look at six Red Sox up-and-comers who will help determine the team's direction for years to come. Here's one:
RUBBY DE LA ROSA
Where does he stand?
Like Brandon Workman, De La Rosa has been in a state of limbo for parts of this season. He began the year with the PawSox and then was brought up in late May, making five starts . . . some of them downright dominant.
Against the Rays, Twins and A’s he pitched seven innings each, totaling 18 strikeouts. In the three games combined, he allowed just one run.
“It is a challenging thing to do,” Ben Crockett, the Red Sox' director of player development, said of jumping back and forth between levels, “but ultimately the only thing you can control is the effort that you put in and how much you’re competing out on the mound. I think that’s something that we’ve seen positively from both [De La Rosa and Workman], whether they’re in Pawtucket or they’re in Boston. They’ve come ready to work and they’ve competed when they’ve been on the mound. Those are the things that you can control.”
De La Rosa made a spot start last Wednesday, going five innings and allowing three runs in a 5-4 win over the White Sox. He’s earned the right to remain with the team at least a while longer and will pitch Saturday at Fenway Park against the Royals.
“Rubby overall has been dynamic this year,” said Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves. “I thought the second year after his Tommy John [in 2011] you see the fruits of waiting and being patient, and of course health. Adding a split, adding a changeup, being able to change speeds on the changeup, throwing his curveball, slider – it’s a great mix. Now it’s all where he throws the ball to. That’s the bottom line.”
Where do the Red Sox hope he’ll be, eventually?
The hope is that he’ll be “a healthy pitcher with a lot of knowledge and planted strongly in the American League as an elite pitcher,” Nieves said.
De La Rosa has the stuff to be that guy. He proved it when he limited one of the best teams in baseball to just one run on four hits in seven innings in a 2-1 win over Oakland last month.
Whether he’s able to follow through on that promise -- either as a starter or a reliever, which is how he made his 11 big-leagues appearances in 2013 -- will depend on the level of consistency he’s able to develop.
“When you cement yourself in the big leagues is when you create a routine,” Nieves said. “You become consistent. The bad ones are not so bad and the good ones are really good. That’s when you start seeing guys really taking shifts through the big leagues.”
Scouts have said that despite De La Rosa’s solid season, he hasn’t established enough of a track record to shake the label that he can be Felix Doubront-like in his inconsistency.
“He's blowing guys away in Triple-A,” one scout said. “It's not even fun. When he's hot, you ride him. And his stuff is good. The changeup is good, the breaking ball is good. He gets late life. It's everything you want. I just don't know how consistent he'll be when they need him . . . I’ve seen this guy probably 12 times. Some games, he throws great. Others you say ‘Man, this guy doesn’t throw strikes.’
“He’s a big-leaguer. I think he’s probably a No. 4 or No. 5 starter. Either that or they let him be the eighth-inning guy and just tell him, ‘Blow these guys away.’ ”
What does he have to do to get there?
Nieves said the Red Sox are still working with De La Rosa to develop a routine. The 25-year-old righty still sometimes “throws just to throw,” according to the Sox pitching coach, and needs to focus on having a purpose every time he puts a ball in his hand.
“You only have so many bullets in that arm,” Nieves said. “Work on your craft. Work on your delivery. Work on location. Even playing catch. To me the game of baseball and pitching is he who hits the glove the most wins. So why don’t we practice it every time we pick up the baseball?”
De La Rosa also needs to add polish to some of the finer points of his job, like how he works with runners on base.
“He still needs a lot of work on the stretch, which is very important because usually the biggest pitches of the game come from the stretch,” Nieves said. “He’s a work in progress. I’m glad I have the job.”
Despite the imperfections of his game, this season has been a revelation of sorts for De La Rosa. In the minors he has a better ERA, WHIP, walks-per-nine innings, and strikeout-to-walk ratio than he did last season at Triple-A.
Now he just needs to maintain.
Trade him or keep him?
You know the old adage: You can never have enough pitching. And the Red Sox have plenty of it.
With a half-dozen arms -- Workman, De La Rosa, Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes, Henry Owens -- who have spent time in the minors this season possibly getting cracks at Boston’s starting rotation within the next two years, any of them could be expendable in the right deal. That’s the luxury of having organizational depth.
If De La Rosa ends up reverting to his habit for inconsistency, and if there’s a team out there that wants him as their reclamation project, a trade for the right type of return could make sense.