Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

YOU CAN NEVER HAVE ENOUGH PITCHING

Especially young pitching. Kason Gabbard and Jon Lester are cheap and will be under the Red Sox control for years to come. They should both be part of the Sox future rotation. Neither should be traded now.

Jon Lester's sudden call up from Pawtucket is as intriguing as it is uplifting.

Of course we all wanted to see him put an exclamation point on his return from cancer treatment and prove that he was healthy enough, and fully prepared, to pitch at the big league level again. After showing so much poise and potential last season, many of us knew he was just the kind of young man who would be successful at battling cancer.

And after going 7-2 last year for the Red Sox, we all wanted to see what the 23-year-old could do this season.

But Lester struggled recently in Pawtucket, making his immediate return seem unlikely. Sox management said they wanted to see him put together a string of strong Triple A starts before calling him up. But that didn't happen after a forearm strain sidetracked Lester's return. In 14 starts at Triple-A Pawtucket this season, Lester was 4-5 with a 3.89 ERA. But the organization's main concern was that he had just 51 strikeouts in 71 2/3 innings, and opponents hit .250 against him in Triple A.

When you factor in Kason Gabbard's impressive performances of late, the return of Lester seemed improbable until the September call-ups.

Without question, Gabbard has earned his spot in the Sox rotation. The rookie has allowed three or fewer hits in four straight starts. Now 4-0, Gabbard is unbeaten in his last eight starts, two of them last year. The young lefty has won all five of his starts at Fenway Park and is the third pitcher in franchise history to win his first five major league starts at home, following George Winter in 1901 and Boo Ferris in 1945. No one has won more than five.

A 29th-round draft pick by Boston back in 2000, Gabbard earned his most recent win almost exactly a year -- 364 days, to be exact -- after his major league debut. With a string of strong performances, his ERA has dropped to an impressive 2.97.

And now the more highly-touted Lester, the best story in the world of sports in some time, has another win under his belt after stifling the Indians last night in Cleveland over six innings. Lester's line; Ninety-six pitches, five hits, three walks, two runs, and six strike outs.

But here's the rub; Curt Schilling will be back in less than two weeks, and something's got to give. The Sox have six starters for five rotation spots. What will they do? And what are they thinking with this call up?

Clearly, Julian Tavarez had to go. He hadn't given his team a fair chance at winning in quite some time. In his last five starts, Tavarez was 0-4 with a 7.71 ERA. But with Gabbard taking Schilling's spot and Lester called upon to replace Tavarez, what happens when Schilling returns? This is the question on the mind of nearly every Red Sox fan.

Was Lester's inaugural start just a showcase for interested teams? One has to hope not. His is an inspirational story of courage and perseverance. Red Sox Nation has fallen in love with this kid. And the team seems to feel similarly. The organization has had nothing but high hopes for Lester since drafting him in the 2nd round of the 2002 draft.

In fact, Lester has been among the Red Sox top prospects for the last few years. Sox fans heard the hype about him over the intervening years and eagerly anticipated his arrival to the big league club. Then last year he finally provided a taste of all that he was capable of, before anaplastic large cell lymphoma sidelined him with the first serious challenge of his young life. But he rose to the occasion, like a warrior, and won. That's tenacity. That's what you look for in a pitcher.

Fighting cancer may have made Lester mature more quickly, and it has certainly proven his mettle. He has shown tremendous attributes; confidence, determination, and poise -- these are the things that make a successful big league pitcher.

The Sox are a veteran team, but they have played lackluster baseball since the start of June. Lester's return could spark and inspire a club that needs just such a lift at this time. Lester's teammates were clearly pulling for him and reveled in his success. Couple that with the mantra that championships are built on pitching, and that young pitchers like Lester are relatively cheap and can remain under a team's control for years to come. Why would the Sox trade this kid?

Perhaps to get Mark Texiera. But with Scott Boras reportedly seeking at least $20 million annually for Texiera's services after next season, the cult-hero Lester seems like an awfully high price to pay.

But perhaps Lester isn't the one being dangled.

Maybe the Sox question whether Gabbard can maintain his sterling touch once teams start getting a better scouting report on him. Perhaps the Sox think he's pitching above his potential right now and that this is the time to trade him, while his value is at its pinnacle.

If someone has to go back to Pawtucket upon Schilling's return, so be it. As of now, Gabbard has earned his spot. But both of these young lefties should be part of the future.

As the old saying goes, you can never have enough pitching. The Red Sox appear poised to fill the gaps when Tim Wakefield and Schilling both retire, or aren't tendered new contracts. The Red Sox rotation could get much younger with Gabbard and Lester joining Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Under that scenario, the future has never looked brighter.

Of his return, Lester said he just wants to, "come back and be with these guys and do this for a long time."

The Red Sox should grant him his wish. And while they're at it, they should grant that same opportunity to Kason Gabbard as well.

Let's hope the Red Sox keep both young lefties and enjoy the fruits of that decision.

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