The Boston Red Sox are scuffling as the calendar turns to May, and Felix Doubront is becoming a poster boy for their struggles. Soon, he could be a part of a wave of changes for the team, as the Red Sox should think long and hard about replacing Doubront in the rotation if his inconsistency persists into late May and early June.
The Venezuelan left-hander threw six innings of three-run ball against the Rays on Thursday night in what was one of his better starts of the year. That effort dropped his ERA on the season to 5.70, as Doubront earned a no-decision while registering a quality start, keeping his team competitive in the second half of a doubleheader.
While Doubront was far from dominant, every non-disastrous start is of importance for him, as he looks to stave off competition from a number of intriguing young pitchers, experienced starters in the Boston bullpen and the possibility of a midseason trade for a starter. The Red Sox have no shortage of options if they decide to replace Doubront, and it's something they should begin to consider more seriously in the near future.
On the season, Doubront's 5.70 ERA is accompanied by a 6.3 K/9, 3.6 BB/9 and a 1.57 WHIP. He's already allowed five homers and 35 hits in 30 innings and is averaging just five innings per start. According to FanGraphs, he's been worth 0.2 fWAR.
In a way, the six-game sample size with which we have to work from Doubront's 2014 season perfectly represents what's made him so frustrating to watch throughout his career. So far this season, Doubront has had one good start, three acceptable-but-uninspired starts and two disastrous starts. According to Bill James' Game Score, which rates performances on a scale that uses 50 as average, Doubront has scores of 47, 25, 47, 61, 25 and 52, respectively, this year.
What we're seeing from Doubront is nothing new. In fact, over his first six starts last season, Doubront was actually worse than he's been in 2014, registering a 6.03 ERA with an opponent batting line of .307/.390/.420. He then went on to throw 79.2 innings of baseball with a 2.71 ERA from mid-May through July before fading down the stretch.
Doubront ended up producing 2.8 fWAR of value last season, finishing with a 4.32 ERA, 3.78 fielding-independent pitching (FIP) mark and respectable walk (3.94) and strikeout (7.71) rates. Still just 26 years old, it's understandable why the Red Sox don't want to give up on that sort of potential just yet.
But the Red Sox got off to a roaring start last season, and they were able to to live with some bumps in the road as Doubront worked through his early struggles. Boston also lacked the plethora of options in the high minors that they have today, so Doubront's leash was a bit longer than it should be in 2014.
Doubront is out of options and can't be sent to the minor leagues, but Boston could use the ever-popular "phantom DL" stint to allow him to work through his issues while on a rehab assignment. Or they could transition Doubront to a bullpen role, which is a role he excelled in during the 2013 postseason.
If Boston does decide to pull Doubront from the rotation, here are some of the options they have to replace him:
Rubby De La Rosa
The general sense I get is that De La Rosa has faded a bit from Red Sox fans' collective consciousness since his inclusion in the "Nick Punto deal" from mid-2012. When De La Rosa came to Boston, his prospect status was already exhausted, and unlike fellow former Dodger Allen Webster or other young arms like Matt Barnes or Henry Owens, he did not make yearly appearances on major prospect lists.
While many thought the Red Sox would use De La Rosa out of the bullpen due to his history of arm troubles, Boston instead elected to stretch "RDLR" out, and that's a call that appears to be paying off. After an up-and-down 2013 season in Triple-A, De La Rosa is dominating in 2014, as he has thrown 27.2 innings in Pawtucket with a 2.28 ERA, 8.13 K/9 and 2.28 BB/9.
De La Rosa still isn’t pitching late into his starts, and the sample size right now is too small to declare that his troubles with command and control are completely in the past. But it's been a very promising start to the year for De La Rosa, nonetheless, and he's a strong candidate to replace Doubront as a long-term option with significant upside.
Workman is good enough to pitch important innings out of a major league bullpen right now, and that is indeed the role in which he began the season. But after Craig Breslow returned from the DL, Workman was sent back to Triple-A to continue his development as a starter and to get stretched out for possible use in that capacity in Boston later in the season.
The immediate results haven't been very pretty, as Workman has been roughed up in three starts in 14.1 innings for Pawtucket. But this is a player who has already proven to be an effective pitcher, both in Triple-A and at the major league level, albeit in small sample sizes. The upside with Workman is modest, but he's a very useful arm to have in the organization, nonetheless.
Capuano lacks the sex appeal or name value of the plethora of young pitchers down on the farm, but he could be Boston's choice if they simply decide to skip Doubront for a turn or two in the rotation rather than replace him altogether. A fellow southpaw like Doubront, Capuano lacks Doubront's upside, but he is a steadier performer.
Capuano has been dominant in the bullpen this season, so it would hurt to lose his arm at a time when Edward Mujica and Koji Uehara are struggling. But he's also proven to be an adequate-if-unexciting starter as recently as last year, when he made 20 starts for the Dodgers. The Red Sox probably wouldn't want him to approach that number of starts this season, but he could serve the team well if he gets three to six outings.
Fans who don't follow the minor leagues and only remember Webster from his disastrous MLB stint last year will cringe at this suggestion, but there is more to Webster than meets the eye. He might have the best pure stuff of any of Boston's promising young arms, and he has the most experience at Triple-A, too. He's off to a decent start in Pawtucket this season, as he continues to refine his command and work on inducing ground balls.
In some ways, many of the problems that plague Doubront—command, mental toughness, a propensity to give up homers and repeating his delivery—plague Webster, too. Yet the upside is there for Webster to perform as a No. 3 starter who throws the occasional clunker, and the Red Sox wouldn't be nuts to give him another shot in the major league rotation.
There are other potential in-house choices to replace Doubront as well. Henry Owens has the highest upside of any Red Sox minor leaguer (with the possible exception of De La Rosa), and he could be ready for the majors later in the year. Matt Barnes' upside is a tick below Owens', but he's a bit closer to being MLB-ready. And Anthony Ranaudo is another option if he starts throwing well in Pawtucket.
If Doubront's struggles persist into the middle of the season, the Red Sox could also use their highly rated farm system to swing a deal for a mid-rotation starter, similar to what they accomplished last year in acquiring Jake Peavy. In fact, for a rebuilding team looking to shed salary and take on a player with some upside, Doubront may be a fairly enticing trade chip as part of a larger package.
That's getting ahead of ourselves, of course, and I firmly believe that Doubront deserves another few turns in the rotation before the Red Sox make a drastic move. Boston apparently feels that way, too, as Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reported Thursday that the Sox aren't considering bumping Doubront from the rotation just yet.
But with Clay Buchholz also struggling mightily and the Sox finding themselves three games under .500 in May, Boston can't afford to run Doubront out for another 10 starts if only half of them are going to be competitive. At some point, they need to use the wealth of minor league talent they've accumulated to improve the major league team.
Doubront's future with the Red Sox is completely in his own hands. Whether that will prove to be his saving or his undoing is anyone's guess.