Clay Buchholz, still regarded as one of the top starting pitching prospects in the organization -- if not the game -- is in the middle of confidence recovery.
After taking quite a dip in 2008 -- Buchholz went 2-9 with a 6.75 ERA in two stints in the Boston rotation -- the wiry righty is trying to rise up again in the Arizona Fall League.
In that relaxing environment, Buchholz is getting the command back on his fastball. Buchholz's changeup, a gorgeous pitch when right, has turned up again after betraying him when he needed it most.
"Sometimes little baby steps -- it's like the stock market," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said recently. "You want to get everything you lost back the day you lost it, and it doesn't work that way. But he's out there doing what he's supposed to -- just getting some confidence [back], getting the armspeed [back], and throwing his pitches. It will be an interesting progression to watch."
But the key progression is not what happens in November out in the desert. The real test will start under the Florida sun.
When the Red Sox report to Spring Training in February, Buchholz will be one of the most interesting stories on the team. Can he rebound from his nightmare of 2008 to become an important member of the '09 team?
"He's doing really well in the Arizona Fall League," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "The reports we've gotten have been outstanding. He's been 93 to 95 [mph] with his old changeup back, his 80 [mph] changeup, and getting swings and misses. He's able to throw it for a strike. His curveball has improved from the season."
Perhaps most important is that Buchholz is getting a familiar look back in his eyes -- the one that was almost always present before the stumbling blocks of 2008.
"He's working with a real sense of purpose and determination to try to figure some things out that had perplexed him for a little bit this season," Epstein said. "It's, so far, a very positive developmental step for him and we hope he can continue to figure out some of the mechanical issues and some of the fundamental issues but also rebuild some confidence heading into the offseason so that when he shows up in Spring Training, he's feeling good about himself, because he'll have a lot to prove."
Efforts to reach Buchholz in Arizona were unsuccessful. In four starts for the Scottsdale Scorpions, the 24-year-old Buchholz is 1-1 with a 2.60 ERA. He has 12 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings.
Buchholz's season with the Red Sox bottomed out on Aug. 20 at Camden Yards, when he was knocked out after 2 1/3 innings in which he gave up five hits, walked three and didn't get a strikeout. After that, it was back to Double-A Portland, where he stayed for the rest of the season.
As it stands right now, the Red Sox have starters Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield lined up for the rotation. Justin Masterson, who came up big in 2008, could be back in the bullpen or return to his more natural role of starting. Don't be surprised if Epstein further bolsters the rotation via a trade or a free agent signing.
Where does Buchholz fit in? That is a story that will unfold in time.
"I think Clay's role coming into Spring Training will depend a lot on what we do as an organization with respect to our starting pitching," Epstein said. "He'll certainly be a candidate to pitch his way onto the team. And if he doesn't, he'll be part of our depth moving forward. Obviously you want to start the year with more than five starting pitchers. We're going to need 10, 11 or 12 throughout the course of the year. Depending on the work Clay does this fall and what kind of winter he has with building up his strength and his mindset, he could come to camp anywhere from our fifth starter to our seventh starter."
Perhaps the instant success Buchholz had in 2007 hindered him in '08. After pitching a no-hitter in his second Major League start, Buchholz set the bar exceedingly high.
Even during Spring Training of 2008, Buchholz was having trouble getting opponents out.
Francona and pitching coach John Farrell spent a lot of hours talking with Buchholz during his tough times, but perhaps things were just going too fast for him.
"There were a lot of things that went wrong this year that just mounted and mounted and mounted," Francona said. "It happens. Now, sometimes you have to almost simplify. Let's get back to basics, because he wasn't throwing a plus changeup at the end. Some of that is not just mechanical, it's confidence.
"His changeup [in Arizona] was devastating. OK, good, let's get that back, because there are some things that have to be done differently at the Major League level, with scouting reports. Hitters aren't stupid. They've watched everything. Let's just get him back to feeling really good about himself."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.