PAWTUCKET — For most of his first five seasons in the Red Sox system, Felix Doubront was buoyed by a starting pitcher’s mentality. The 23-year-old was accustomed to taking the ball once every five days, only to spend the down time between starts preparing for his next turn.
The script was altered last season, as Doubront was shifted to the bullpen in a move more bore out of need than the hurler’s actual performance. Injuries and ineffectiveness had ravaged Boston’s relief corps to the point that Doubront took part in the starter-to-reliever shuffle. The native of Venezuela wound up totaling 10 games in relief —nine with Boston, one with Pawtucket. If you think that number is low, consider this: Prior to joining Pawtucket last May, Doubront had appeared in 92 games, all of which were starts.
After beginning this season as Boston’s only lefty option in the bullpen, Doubront is returning to his pitching roots. Optioned from Boston on Monday, Doubront will start for Pawtucket on Friday in Rochester. It will mark his first starting assignment at any level since last July.
“He’s going to start games,” affirmed Mike Hazen, Boston’s vice president of player development and amateur scouting. “He’ll probably be on a short [pitch] count to start, but we’ll build him up from there.”
Even though Doubront’s body of work as a reliever this season is small — in three outings he totaled 2 2/3 innings with a 6.75 ERA — the Red Sox are confident that he has grasped enough to be counted on should the need arise. That said, Boston officials think the time has come to return Doubront to where he feels most comfortable.
“His value to the major-league club at this point is his ability to [start and relieve],” said Hazen. “He’s not going to pitch in relief right now, so we’re going to get him lengthened out so that he can go up (to Boston) and be involved in the rotation and the ‘pen. Based on what we saw last year, when he jumped in the ‘pen and was in the big leagues a week later and did not miss a beat, we feel that he can make that transition again.”
The plan is to tread carefully for Doubront. He tossed a season-high 29 pitches in his first outing with Boston after missing most of spring training with soreness in his elbow. PawSox manager Arnie Beyeler relayed that he doesn’t anticipate that Doubront, who tossed a side session Tuesday, will be allotted more than four innings or 50 pitches Friday. The plan is for Kris Johnson to follow Doubront as Friday would have been Johnson’s normal day to start.
“I’m close. I can honestly say I’m pretty much – 10 more innings, a couple of outings. We’re going to build [arm strength] over a couple of outings, do three or four innings, and then go from there,” said Doubront, speaking at his locker stall inside the clubhouse Wednesday. “If you asked [if Doubront could start] two or three weeks ago, I’ve got no strength in my arm to throw outside or inside, to throw all my pitches to go somewhere right [away from left-handed batters]. But now I’m getting there. That’s important, man. That makes you confident in your pitches.”
The idea of transitioning from the rotation to the bullpen and back to the rotation is a maneuver that Hazen says can prove tricky for a young pitcher. By making Doubront a starter early in the season, the Red Sox feel that some of the guesswork and anxiety will be eliminated.
“It would probably be because he’s a starter,” said Beyeler when asked if making the switch is overrated. “He got put in a reliever’s situation to help out the big league team last year. He’s a young kid, but he just throws.”
Having Hideki Okajima pitch effectively as he did while with Pawtucket – 5 2/3 scoreless frames – helped make Boston’s decision to send Doubront down an easier one.
“[Summoning Doubront directly from Fort Myers to Boston] had to do with major-league need. Now that the major-league pitching has solidified itself over the last seven days, we want to maximize Felix’s value, hence, why the priority shifted,” said Hazen. “Certainly the way [Okajima] has pitched has given us some comfort with the depth we have at Triple-A. [Fellow southpaw] Rich Hill and Okie [Okajima] have been lights out, but also Felix wasn’t getting used a whole lot in the majors. We felt that it was a smarter play for the longer haul of the season to have Felix ready to do both, whereas, up with the major-league ‘pen, he’s only able to impact the team in one direction.”
Doubront admitted he was initially caught off-guard upon informed he would be stationed in Boston’s bullpen. When told he was heading back to the rotation, he simply smiled.
“I feel prepared for everything, to compete,” said Doubront.
Sounds like the perfect creed for a pitcher who could wind up being indispensable for Boston in 2011.