Role Reversal: Buchholz May Surpass Lester as Top Red Sox Prospect

Keith TestaCorrespondent IMay 27, 2009

BOSTON - APRIL 8: Carlos Pena #23 of the Tampa Bay Rays connects for a two-run home run against  Jon Lester #31 of the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, April 8, 2009, in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The discussion seemed settled by the end of last year: Jon Lester was going to be a Major League ace, and sooner rather than later.

Sure, the Red Sox had Josh Beckett in front of him, but after a summer in which the young southpaw generally outperformed Beckett in every conceivable category, it seemed only a matter of time before the torch was passed.

New England is still waiting.

Meanwhile, another discussion seemed settled by the end of last year: Clay Buchholz had flamed out early.

A rocket ascension to the big leagues and a no-no in his second Major League start quickly gave way to massive mental struggles. Before all was said and done, Buchholz somehow found himself toiling in Double-A.

Those awaiting Buchholz’s painful demise are still waiting, too.

The paths of the two hurlers couldn’t have appeared more opposite. Both were once can’t-miss prospects, but last spring it seemed one was headed straight for superstardom while the other was headed for the psych ward.

Now would be a good time to revisit those assessments.

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Lester has put together what can only be described as a miserable start to the 2009 campaign.

He came in with the highest of hopes—many, including Boston’s own Jerry Remy, tabbed Lester as a favorite for the Cy Young Award—and has thus far failed to meet even mediocre expectations, posting an ERA over six in the first two months of the season.

Buchholz, meanwhile, has essentially been toying with Triple-A batters.

Monday night, he carried a perfect game through eight innings before giving up a harmless single on the way to a complete-game shutout.

He’s currently 3-0 in eight starts and boasts a 1.30 ERA, having whiffed 49 batters in 48 1/3 innings of work.

Perception is a funny thing in sports. It seems once the media tags a player with a particular label, it’s nearly impossible to shed.

Lester, thanks in large part to his courageous battle with cancer, has been cast as the tough-as-nails youngster who won’t let anything stand in his way.

Buchholz, meanwhile, was labeled fragile and immature after mighty struggles early last season.

And yet, it’s Lester who has crumbled numerous times this season.

Those whose glass is half full will tell you he suffered through only “one bad inning” in Tuesday’s defeat. Those whose glass is half empty will tell you there have been too many bad innings in otherwise solid starts.

Lester’s sudden penchant for coming unraveled at the first signs of distress is troubling, to say the least.

Buchholz, on the other hand, has handled his situation perfectly.

He took his demotion from the big leagues to Double-A in stride last year, finishing the season strong. He returned this year to dominate in spring training and at Pawtucket, without so much as a whisper about why he hasn’t been called up.

If you ask me, that’s a tough-as-nails approach from a guy not willing to let anything stand in his way. Oh wait...he’s supposed to be the other guy.

The point here is simple: Decisions are made far too early in sports.

Lester was anointed an ace-in-training while Buchholz was essentially thrown on the prospect scrap heap.

It’s quite possible that Buchholz will have the better Major League career. I’ve thought so for years.

Even as Lester was mesmerizing New England and Buchholz was hiding from it last year, I refused to believe their career paths were set in concrete. Both have the make-up to be big-time starters, with filthy stuff and the necessary killer instinct.

Nobody is calling for Lester’s demotion from the starting rotation. And I most certainly don’t think he’ll struggle this way for the entire season. But it’s clear he isn’t ready to anchor a staff by himself.

Buchholz might not be able to either, but he may be just as close as Lester, even while wearing Pawtucket’s uniform.

There’s no doubt Buchholz will get a call to the bigs before all is said and done this spring. It wouldn’t surprise me if he outperforms Lester down the stretch. His ceiling is nearly unlimited, and I suspect he’ll be a top-of-the-rotation starter for a long, long time.

So, too, could Lester. In fact, envisioning that pair atop the starting rotation is enough to make any Red Sox fan giddy. It’s entirely possible they are the future of Boston's pitching staff.

But one thing has become obvious: Those who anointed Lester a hero may have done so too early, and those who buried Buchholz were guilty of the same.

Such is life in the Boston media market in which “time to develop” means somewhere between one and two starts.

Thus far this season, at least, the roles have been reversed. The media may still view the pitchers largely as they did before, but their performances have at least provided reason to pause before predicting the future.

It’s a bright one, for sure. But just how bright, and who shines brightest, remains to be seen.