Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Felix Doubront or Andrew Miller Most Likely to Land Fifth Spot in Red Sox Rotation

Perhaps the biggest mystery for the Red Sox right now is who their fifth starter will be when the team breaks camp in a few weeks.

The Sox are auditioning a series of candidates in spring training: Alfredo Aceves, Aaron Cook, Vicente Padilla, Felix Doubront and Andrew Miller are all vying for the final spot.

Carlos Silva, who suffered trough shoulder problems last year in the minors, has already been shut down by the Sox due to a recurrence of the same problem. Silva had been hoping to revive his career as a starter, but the Sox say he is now out of the running for the fifth spot in the rotation.

Out of necessity, the Red Sox gave Aceves four starts last season. But, due to his durability and versatility (Aceves has shown the ability to pitch up to four innings in relief), the Sox preferred using him out the pen. Aceves had a 2.03 earned run average in 93 innings of relief and held opponents to a .193 batting average in 2011.

In the past, Aceves has expressed his desire to start. After all, that's where the money is. The righty has about five effective pitches and he throws them all for strikes. That's already gotten the attention of manager Bobby Valentine.

"He’s almost a pitching savant kind of guy. He seems to have a great feel for his craft, innate almost. He sees things other guys don’t see, I think,’’ Valentine gushed recently.

But after losing closer Jonathan Papelbon to the Phillies in free agency and potentially shifting Daniel Bard to the rotation, can the Red Sox afford to lose the other key asset to their bullpen?

The feeling here is no.

Cook and Padilla are both established veterans. But both are returning from injuries. The last time either of them pitched was in the NL West, and they both looked terrible.

Due to injuries, Cook endured two successive bad seasons with Colorado. He went 6-8 with a 5.08 ERA in 2010, and 3-10 with a 6.03 ERA last year. After experiencing shoulder problems in 2010, Cook worked all offseason to get his shoulder in shape. But in spring training last year, he jammed his finger in a door and essentially ruined the rest of his season.

Padilla made 16 starts with the Dodgers in 2010, going 6-5 with a 4.07 ERA. Last year, after starting the season on the disabled list, Padilla made just nine appearances (no starts) and posted 4.15 ERA before quickly going back on the DL in May. Padilla was shut down with a forearm injury and later had neck problems that required surgery.

Because of their recent histories, both Cook and Padilla were only granted minor league contracts by the Sox. This will allow the club to use them as as inexpensive insurance polices, keeping them at Pawtucket for as long as necessary, waiting for the inevitable injury that will eventually occur to one of their primary starters.

On the other hand, lefties Doubront and Miller are both out of options. This means that if they don't make the team out of spring training, neither can be assigned to Pawtucket without first passing through waivers. It is a virtual certainty that both pitchers would be claimed by other teams, meaning the Sox would lose them.

Doubront was drafted and groomed by the Red Sox. After Clay Buchholz made it to the big league club, Doubront was supposed to be the next in line. But last year he showed up to spring training overweight and out of shape, then quickly suffered an injury in April. Groin and hamstring injuries caused him to miss most of the season, a year in which he ultimately threw just 77 1/3 innings.

It proved to be a lost year for Doubront, one that was supposed to be a key part of his development.

But Doubront is only 24-years-old and hard-throwing lefties are hard to come by. The Sox still have confidence that he can become an effective Major League pitcher. So far this spring, he's impressed everyone.

The young Venezuelan looked sharp in his two-inning start against Boston College on Saturday, allowing only an infield single and throwing 15 of his 20 pitches for strikes.

After the game, Valentine sounded quite impressed by Doubront's performance.

"He threw all his pitches extremely well. Seems like he's probably a little ahead of the rest of the pitchers with his command and stuff right now. He's looked that way since he's been here," said the Sox skipper.

The 26-year-old Miller arrived to the Majors with big hopes and expectations. He was the North Carolina Tar Heels' single-season and career strikeout leader. He was named Baseball America National Player of the Year and Roger Clemens Award winner as the nation's top collegiate pitcher.

In the summer of 2005, Miller was named the College Summer Player of the Year by Baseball America and rated as the No. 1 prospect in the Cape League by the publication.

Consequently, he was selected as the sixth overall pick in the 2006 draft by the Detroit Tigers. But Detroit rushed him to the big leagues a mere 10 days after making his minor league debut. That proved to be disastrous for both Miller and the Tigers. The lack of development showed and the Tigers eventually shipped Miller to the Marlins after just one full season. The lefty never really recovered and has failed to live up to all the promise and hype.

Now the Red Sox are tasked with trying to develop Miller and allowing him to reach his true potential. At 6'7", Miller has struggled with his mechanics and has a hard time repeating his delivery. As a result, he has been given every imaginable bit of advice by various pitching coaches and scouts. And all of it seems to have really messed him up, both mentally and physically. What he may be lacking most of all is his former confidence.

New Red Sox pitching coach Bob McClure has decided to leave Miller alone and just let him be himself, encouraging him to go back to being the pitcher he was at North Carolina, where he had so much success. McClure and the Red Sox have shown Miller lots of video of himself from those days, hoping he can revert to his old ways and his old self. Time will tell.

Last year, was rough; Miller had a 5.54 earned run average and 1.82 WHIP in 65 innings with the Sox.

Though the lanky lefty throws a serious mid-90s heater, he lacks control. Miller hasn't shown the ability to consistently throw strikes and gives up too many walks. He has a small window this spring to get it all sorted out.

So far, so good. Miller threw two scoreless innings and struck out the side in his first inning after a leadoff walk in an 8-3 win over the Twins Sunday at JetBlue Park.

The Sox would like nothing more than to have both Doubront and Miller make the big league club out of spring training. Both are still young and cheap. However, there appears to be just one available rotation spot. Most likely, one of them will have to earn a spot in the bullpen.

If not, the Red Sox risk losing one or both players. And considering the time, patience and development the team has dedicated to both pitchers, that's an outcome they surely don't want to see.

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