FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Years from now, when Matt Barnes is a mainstay in the Red Sox's rotation, people will look back and realize that the second half of the 2012 season was pivotal for the right-hander to have prolonged success in the big leagues.
There clearly will be those reading that statement who dismiss it immediately. After all, Barnes -- the Red Sox's No. 3 prospect and No. 38 on the Top 100 list -- had a 5.74 ERA over 12 second-half starts during his first full season. The Carolina League hit .295 against him during that stretch. Barnes' walk rate went up, his strikeout rate went down. How could that possibly be what ends up being the driving force to making the 2011 first-round pick a solid Major League starter?
It should be filed under the "adversity is the best teacher" category. Anyone can succeed when all cylinders are firing at full capacity. Learning how to compete when not everything is working, learning how to really pitch, is essential. And that's exactly what Barnes was able to do during that stretch in the later months of the 2012 season.
"I thought the first half was awesome," Barnes said with a smile. "If I could do that again, I'd be really happy. But the second half is actually where I think I learned more about myself and more how to pitch rather than just throw a baseball. It allowed me to develop the changeup, which has become a huge part of my game now. Overall, it was a great learning experience."
"There definitely was an adjustment period, one that I think actually helped the development of his changeup in the second half of the year," farm director Ben Crockett said. "We saw improvement of usage there and definitely in quality. It was definitely a good experience for him."
That changeup, along with the whole knowing how to keep your team in the game without feeling your best, could be the key. Barnes has always had the outstanding fastball, with excellent velocity and life. Crockett pointed out that Barnes didn't lose much there as the season wore on, that perhaps only his command suffered slightly because of fatigue. His breaking stuff has always been above average as well.
But that offspeed stuff? Well, at the University of Connecticut, and even early on in the Minors, Barnes didn't need it a whole lot. He was smart enough to know he'd need it eventually. But nothing beats experience on the mound, and Barnes started really working on what was clearly his third pitch in earnest during that second half. Hitters in Double-A -- his likely starting point this season -- better be ready for a much more complete version of Barnes in 2013.
Of course, there's more to just pitch development that will contribute to Barnes' advancement. Going through that first full season can be extremely valuable in terms of understanding what to expect, what it's like to get through a long year, pitching on a five-day schedule regularly for the first time. Barnes used all of that during his offseason work and came to camp this year without that feeling of the unknown that accompanies most young players in their first Spring Training.
"You come in knowing what to expect," Barnes said. "It helps you prepare a little bit differently to get ready for the season again.
"It's those dog days in July and August. When you're working out, you're thinking, 'This is what's going to help me get through those dog days when it really starts to get tough and your body gets tired.' People can tell you as much as they want how long the season is and how tiring it can get, but until you go through it, you really don't know. After going through that, you learn how to handle the workload and what to do in the offseason to prepare for those later months."
Minor League camp is just getting going full throttle these days on the back fields by JetBlue Park. Barnes has thrown in just one intrasquad game to go along with some bullpen sessions. The early returns have shown that the 2012 lessons and offseason work that came as a result show a poised right-hander ready to take the next step.
"From a work standpoint, he's had very professional side [sessions]," Crockett said. "After a good season, he's come in and not tried to do too much. He's executing a plan every time he gets on a mound, in the bullpen. He's working on things, which I think is a big positive. He's very business-like in his approach."
And Barnes is taking that same approach when thinking about his future in the organization. The jump to Double-A is a big one; some say it's the biggest one, the one that separates the men from the boys. Few doubt Barnes' ability to handle it, much like he largely handled the promotion from the South Atlantic League to the Carolina League in 2012.
With that leap comes certain expectations. Reaching Double-A means hitting the upper levels of the system. Performing well there can put a player in "knocking on the door" mode. That professional and business-like attitude Crockett mentions? That's helping Barnes stay in the here and now, and not look too far ahead.
"Everybody here wants to get to the big leagues as fast as possible," Barnes said. "That's why we're here. We want to get to that level and stay there, but I try not to get caught up in that. I still have to go out there and perform. If I don't perform, nothing's going to happen.
"For right now, I'm just working on my pitches, working on my command, getting ready for Opening Day. I just want to go out and be as consistent as possible, especially in the second half of the season, and just let everything else take care of itself."