The Boston Red Sox's 2012 campaign left a lot to be desired, but there was nothing more disappointing than Boston's pitching. With fans hoping for a complete 180 from the mound, spring training represents the first hopeful sign of a turnaround.
Everyone's eyes will be fixated on Jon Lester, searching for signs that he's back on the waggon and looking like his old ace-like self.
They'll be waiting to see if a fit-looking John Lackey, back from Tommy John surgery, will produce even a dollar's worth of his $82.5 million contract—though nobody's really holding their breath.
Question marks will seek answers regarding Ryan Dempster's ability to succeed in the American League and whether or not Joel Hanrahan can hold up the caboose at closer.
But while all eyes will be on the players who hold the Red Sox's immediate future in their gloves, there's no reason not to scout out the up-and-comers. The Red Sox feature a deep bullpen and in order to bolster that unit, the team has invited seven non-roster pitchers looking to break into the 40-man roster to camp.
Here are the pitchers to watch during spring training that will otherwise be throwing under the radar—unless of course, they shoot themselves in the leg.
Rubby De La Rosa learned his dangerous changeup from Pedro Martinez.
If that doesn't sell you on his potential with the Red Sox, add in the fact that his main pitch is a 100 mph fastball.
And before you bring up the Tommy John surgery he underwent in 2011, rest assured that his fastball is right back where he left it.
De La Rosa was the bright spot in the Boston megatrade last summer, which involved sending Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto to the Dodgers. De La Rosa turned out to be one of the players to be named later that Boston got in the deal.
At the time of the trade, the righty had returned from surgery to make a dozen minor league starts and just one start with the Dodgers in 2012. But in 2011, he went 3-4 with a 3.71 ERA, striking out a batter per inning before getting injured.
Though we've yet to see what De La Rosa can really do since surgery, we're likely to get a glimpse in spring training. He's predicted to start the season in Pawtucket, but with the guidance of his idol in Martinez, who's rejoined the Red Sox as a special assistant, and a healthy arm, it might not be long before the 23-year-old is back in the majors.
If the Sox starting rotation has an injury, or De La Rosa stands out in camp, it'll be sooner than later.
Allen Webster came to Boston in the packaged deal with De La Rosa, and while he wasn't mentored by Pedro, he's not too far behind in his pursuit of the big leagues in making the Red Sox's 40-man roster.
The 23-year-old righty is known for his ability to produce ground balls and is listed by Baseball America as the fourth-best prospect and second-best pitching prospect for the Sox behind Matt Barnes, who didn't get a spring invite. Heading into 2012, Webster was ranked as the Dodgers' second-best prospect.
Webster was drafted by the Dodgers in 2008 and spent 2012—up until the trade—with Chattanooga in Double-A. He pulled out of a rough 1-5 start and finished 6-8 in 27 games with a 3.55 ERA, 117 strikeouts and 57 walks. During one stretch, he allowed only two home runs in 130 2/3 innings, totaling just 19 in his pro career.
He squeezed in no more than two games in Portland last year and didn't make a great impression. He posted an 8.00 ERA over nine innings, allowing eight runs off 13 hits. But two games with a new team really isn't indicative of much.
That's what spring training is for, and you better be watching.
With Tim Wakefield gone, it's only right—or Wright—that the Sox have a new knuckleballer.
Steven Wright, acquired at last year's trade deadline, was a standard pitcher in 2006 when he was drafted by Cleveland. It's only since 2011 that he set out to master the knuckleball.
And mastered it he has.
He's had his ups and downs throughout the years but in 2012, Wright made 30 starts in the minors, compiling a 10-8 record with a 2.53 ERA and striking out 7.3 per nine innings.
Wright impressed enough to make the cut of the 40-man roster and will be a favorite for filling in at the first sign of injury in the rotation. Just take it from the mouth of Red Sox manager John Farrell, who commented on Wright's knuckleball and potential last week in an interview with WEEI.
...Whether or not he realizes the success of Tim Wakefield or R.A. Dickey, in a manner of about a two- or three-year period, he's gotten a very good feel for the pitch. He throws it harder than Wake, more like R.A. Dickey. This is a guy who has a chance -- he's certainly one of our depth starters now -- he's certainly going to be an interesting guy over time.
A seventh-round selection in the 2010 draft out of the University of Miami—where the ace went 28-8 in three years—24-year-old Chris Hernandez has quickly moved up the farm system.
Starting in Salem, he was a 2011 Carolina League All-Star and went 10-7 with a 3.18 ERA. In 2012, he moved up to Portland and then found himself pitching in Pawtucket in no time.
In 26 total games (25 starts) last season, he combined for a 5-12 record with a 3.26 ERA and 90 strikeouts. In Portland, he was selected to the Eastern League's midseason All-Star team.
In both seasons, Hernandez's ERA ranked second lowest among all Red Sox full-season minor leaguers.
The high-80s pitcher is known to throw a lot of strikes. His go-to pitch is his cutter, which induces a lot of ground balls. While he was with the Sea Dogs, Hernandez told the Bangor Daily News about his favorite pitch.
"It has been a great pitch for me," said Hernandez. "I have a natural arm slot for it. It looks like a fastball coming in but, at the end, it moves about 3 inches in a downward angle. It's like a small slider. I've learned to master both sides of the plate with it."
Now entering his third year of professional ball, Hernandez has an invite to Red Sox spring training. If he continues to impress, you might see him as a good rotation fill-in.
No, unfortunately not that Chris Carpenter, ace of the St. Louis Cardinals.
This Chris Carpenter was the compensation from the Cubs to the Red Sox for releasing Theo Epstein. Not exactly a fair trade, but the right-hander could soon be carrying his weight.
The 27-year-old was drafted by the Cubs in the third round of the 2008 draft, but his numbers in Chicago weren't all that impressive.
He made his major-league debut as a starter in 2011, allowing 12 hits, three runs and walking seven over 9 2/3 innings. In 32 games for Chicago's Double-A and Triple-A teams, Carpenter went 3-4 with two saves and a 5.91 ERA.
Then the Red Sox converted him to relief.
He started 2012 on the disabled list after undergoing right elbow surgery but came back strong in his rehab assignments. He spent time with the Gulf Coast League and then moved his way up from Greenville to Portland and finally Pawtucket, collecting a total 2.08 ERA in 21 appearances. He had 25 strikeouts and allowed just 11 walks in 21 2/3 innings.
In his 16 games in Pawtucket alone, he posted a nice 1.15 ERA with four saves in four chances and 17 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings, which also included a stretch of 11 straight scoreless appearances.
By September, he was called back up to the majors.
But Carpenter struggled in his eight games with the Sox, allowing six runs on seven hits, with 10 walks and two strikeouts in just six innings.
The Red Sox designated Carpenter for assignment last week upon signing Mike Napoli. But that doesn't mean they won't need his arm down the stretch.
The important thing to look for in spring training will be whether or not Carpenter, now almost a year removed from surgery, can carry his minor league performance over to the next level.
The fact that Alex Wilson was converted from a starter to a reliever just last year isn't a bad thing. If anything, the 26-year-old is now on the fast track to the majors.
Wilson was suddenly sent to the bullpen in Pawtucket last season—his first time relieving since he was a closer at Texas A&M—where he compiled a 3.72 ERA and struck out 78 batters in 72 2/3 innings.
He's moved his way up the ranks since being drafted by the Sox in 2009 and has secured a spot on the 40-man roster. If he continues to play well, he's in prime position to step into the bullpen if the opportunity presents itself and bring his dangerous slider and fastball to the late innings.
You can't count out a veteran.
Oscar Villarreal is 31, was signed by the Diamondbacks in 1998 and hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 2008. But he's always working toward a comeback.
Villarreal, who made his MLB debut in 2003 with Arizona, signed a minor league contract with the Red Sox, which includes a spring training invite. He's also pitched for Atlanta and Houston, totaling 258 career major league games in six seasons, in which he went 24-15 with a 3.86 ERA.
Since 2009, Villarreal has bounced around the minor league systems of the Mariners, Rockies, Royals, Phillies, Dodgers and Orioles, before landing with Boston. In 2009, he was set back by Tommy John surgery, his third elbow injury and second surgery.
In 2012, Villarreal posted a 3-4 record with a 2.88 ERA in 37 games (two starts) for Baltimore's Triple-A Norfolk and in the offseason, he went on to pitch in the Mexican Pacific League, including an appearance in the 2013 Caribbean Series.
The right-hander is likely to start in Pawtucket, but a strong showing in spring training coupled with his ability to stay healthy could lead to his long-awaited return to the majors at some point during the season.
Jose De La Torre signed with the Mets in 2006 and has yet to make a major league appearance. But his success in the minors suggests his promotion could be just around the corner, providing he shows up in spring training.
The Red Sox acquired the 27-year-old righty from Cleveland in a trade for Brent Lillibridge.
His numbers are impressive: In 339 minor league innings over six seasons, De La Torre has allowed just 15 home runs and averaged more than one strikeout per nine innings.
His totals for 2012 in both Cleveland and Boston systems reflect a 9-1 record and 2.80 ERA in 46 appearances. In 12 outings in Pawtucket since the trade, he posted a 2.45 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 18 innings.
He's not necessarily at the top of the list, but it's not unreasonable that he may break into the bullpen at some point in 2013.
Terry Doyle, a Massachusetts native, won't have any trouble getting love from Red Sox fans. For Doyle played for Salem High and then Boston College. After five minor league seasons with the White Sox, he's returned home to the Red Sox.
Expect the right-hander to start out the year in Pawtucket, where he'll compete to realize his dream of reaching the big leagues—and in Fenway of all ballparks.
In his five seasons, Doyle has posted a 2.94 ERA, a 1.13 WHIP and has struck out 459 batters in 511 2/3 career innings.
In 2012, the 27-year-old posted a 2.83 ERA and .93 WHIP in 76 1/3 innings in Triple-A before signing with a Japanese team and making three starts.