There are many reasons why prospects fail. Some players are immature, lacking the work ethic and drive necessary to succeed at the next level. Some players are just not talented enough, as certain holes in their game severely shorthand them when facing major league competition. However, by far the saddest reason why prospects fail is injuries. One Red Sox player whose career has been derailed by injuries is Clay Buchholz, who has shown incredibly talent but has never gone a full major league season without seeing the disabled list at least once.
At the beginning of the 2007 season, Clay Buchholz was one of the brightest young stars in baseball. Buchholz dominated the minor leagues as he posted a 1.77 ERA in 16 games (15 starts) at Double-A Portland and then was solid enough, posting a 3.96 ERA, in Triple-A Pawtucket to merit a promotion to Boston in September. Of course, you all know the story by now– a 23-year old Buchholz, making his second major league threw a three walk no-hitter in a 10-0 win against the Baltimore Orioles.
That was just the start of the huge amount of national attention Buchholz was about to receive. The young right-hander was good in a few more games the rest of the year and, though he did not make the cut for the playoff roster, he did pick up a World Series ring as the Red Sox won it all in 2007. At the onset of the 2008 season, Baseball America ranked Buchholz as the #4 prospect in all of baseball. No doubt, he looked like he was on the brink of stardom.
However, Buchholz struggled in Boston in 2008 and was demoted to Pawtucket, where he spent the rest of that year and the beginning of the 2009 season. He showed some promise in 2009, posting a 4.21 ERA in 16 starts, but 2010 was really the start of Buchholz’s career as an a true major leaguer. As a 26-year old, Buchholz finished sixth in Cy Young voting as he finished 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA. Unfortunately, while 2010 brought Buchholz into the fold as one of baseball’s better young pitchers, it was also the first season that he missed considerable time due to injuries as he missed five starts due to a hamstring pull.
Over the next few seasons, Buchholz showed considerable promise but continued his injury-prone ways. He made just 14 starts in 2011 and then made 29 in 2012, though he likely should have made fewer as he was terrible through April and the first half of May due to recurring symptoms of the back injury that plagued him in 2011.
In a way, 2013 was a microcosm of Buchholz’s whole career. Through the first two months, Buchholz had really seemed to put it all together. Through the right-hander’s first 12 starts, he was 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA and was showing off the elite stuff and control that had made him so promising just a few years ago. However, he suffered a shoulder injury and sat out much of the summer before finally returning for a few games in September and the playoffs.
2013 also marked the fourth season that Buchholz has really been expected to be a key contributor. After the 2014 season, there will be five seasons of full-season major league data on Buchholz and one could argue that it is really his last chance to turn his career around. Now, he hasn’t been a disappointment by any means, but he has the potential to be so much more if he could just stay healthy. With an elite farm system which is just starting to pump out pitching prospects, it may not be long until there’s just no place for a talented but injury-prone pitcher like Buchholz.
Because of that, 2014 could be defined as a make-or-break year for Buchholz: a year to prove that he can stay healthy and effective over a full 32 games in Boston. If he cannot, then the Red Sox could look to deal him as many other teams would be willing to take a flyer on a pitcher as gifted as Buchholz. Perhaps Boston will keep Buchholz around, but after five seasons where he has failed to stay healthy, it’s hard to imagine them really trusting him with as significant a role as he’s seen in recent years. It just seems as if 2014 is Buchholz’s last chance to take the bull by the horns and become the dependable starter he projected to be five years ago.