Clay Buchholz is an elite pitching prospect. There's no question about that. He throws five pitches. His curveball is his best pitch and can be unhittable; just ask the Baltimore Orioles. He ran into trouble in his big-league stint this season -- he went 2-9 with a 6.75 ERA -- but he had a 1.80 ERA at Double-A Portland and a 2.47 ERA at Triple-A Pawtucket. He remains someone the Red Sox view as a top-of-the-rotation pitcher for years to come.
The Red Sox will not trade him for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, at this point. The Red Sox will not trade him for Miguel Montero. The Red Sox might not even trade him for Russell Martin, though there's no indication such a deal has been discussed at all.
But is that the smart move to make?
The Red Sox, after all, have extraordinary pitching depth in their organization right now. Josh Beckett is 28. Daisuke Matsuzaka is 28. Jon Lester just turned 25. Behind these three remains a smorgasbord of talented starting pitchers: Michael Bowden, Nick Hagadone, Casey Kelly, Stolmy Pimintel.
Some will pan out. Some won't. That's the nature of prospects. For every Lester, you get a Brian Rose. For every Josh Beckett, you get a Mark Prior.
What will Buchholz be?
Truth is, we don't know.
And that's why it's fascinating that the Red Sox are so reluctant to trade him -- but won't close the door on it, either.
Minor-league pitchers with Buchholz's stuff are like lottery tickets. If you win, you win big -- just ask the Phillies, who won a World Series on the left arm of former prospect Cole Hamels. If you lose, you're left with pretty much nothing.
Should Jason Varitek decline Boston's offer of a one-year contract with or without an option, however, the Red Sox would be without a major-league-ready catcher. Going into the season with Josh Bard and a handful of unproven non-prospects isn't really an option for a team with World Series aspirations. Trading for a catcher -- be he Saltalamacchia or Taylor Teagarden of Texas, Montero of Arizona or someone else entirely -- would be the only option.
That trade could have already happened; the Red Sox could have avoided the entire Varitek soap opera. But Theo Epstein just won't trade Buchholz.
The lottery ticket might be worth too much for him to give up. He also might worry that no catcher on the market is a can't-miss All-Star, the type of player for whom it would be acceptable to trade someone who might just be the next Cole Hamels.
Every pitcher is different, of course, but we do have a little bit of recent history to examine. For the sake of an arbitrary cutoff, we'll use any pitcher ever ranked in the top 20 of any Baseball America list from 2000-06. (The more recent prospect lists include pitchers who haven't necessarily had a chance to play out their potential.)
For context: Buchholz was ranked No. 51 among big-league prospects by Baseball America in 2007; he was ranked No. 4 on the same list in 2008.
(Catchers on the list in parentheses, just for fun. Clearly, top prospects at catcher are very, very difficult to find.)
6. Francisco Liriano, Twins
7. Chad Billingsley, Dodgers
8. Justin Verlander, Tigers
10. Matt Cain, Giants
(18. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Braves)
Synopsis: Liriano tore up the American League in 2006 before undergoing Tommy John surgery; he was 6-4 with a 3.91 ERA upon his return in 2008. Billingsley and Verlander now are the aces of their respective pitching staffs. Cain would be if not for Tim Lincecum, though he's 15-30 with a 3.71 ERA in his last two seasons.
(How many of the above would you give up for a highly ranked catcher like Saltalamacchia? Let's say: 1 of 4. You wouldn't trade Liriano, Billingsley or Verlander unless you absolutely knew you were getting someone like Joe Mauer. You certainly wouldn't trade them for Miguel Montero.)
(1. Joe Mauer, Twins)
2. Felix Hernandez, Mariners
7. Scott Kazmir, Devil Rays
16. Adam Miller, Indians
Synopsis: Hernandez and Kazmir are aces. Miller, however, has scuffled at Triple-A Buffalo; he had a 4.82 ERA in 2007 and made just six starts in 2008 thanks to injury. Said ESPN.com's Keith Law in his Top 100 released this month: "Miller has had injury trouble before, missing time in 2003, 2005 and late 2007 because of arm trouble, and it's unlikely that he'll bounce back in 2009 and handle a starter's workload."
(For a catcher: 1 of 4 -- we're not going to count Cain twice.)
4. Edwin Jackson, Dodgers
8. Greg Miller, Dodgers
13. Adam Loewen, Orioles
14. Zack Grienke, Royals
17. Cole Hamels, Phillies
18. Dustin McGowan, Blue Jays
Synopsis: Jackson eventually was traded to Tampa Bay, where he won 14 games this season as the Rays' No. 5 starter. Miller now is a full-time reliever who had a 7.71 ERA in 48 appearances at Triple-A Las Vegas last season. Loewen flamed out as a pitcher and is trying the Rick Ankiel path of reinventing himself as a hitter. Grienke and Hamels both are aces. McGowan started last season hot but had a 5.24 ERA in his last 12 starts.
(For a catcher: 4 of 6.)
5. Jesse Foppert, Giants
9. Gavin Floyd, Phillies
(16. Victor Martinez, Indians)
18. Adam Wainwright, Braves
20. Jeremy Bonderman, Tigers
Synopsis: Foppert was traded to Seattle in 2005 and released in 2006; he had a 7.62 ERA in Triple-A last season. Floyd finally had his breakout season last season, going 17-8 (with a 3.84 ERA, so let's not get carried away) with the White Sox. Wainwright won a World Series as a reliever with the Cardinals and turned himself into a serviceable starting pitcher after that. Bonderman lost 19 games as a 20-year-old and a better pitcher than that -- but not that much better.
(For a catcher: Floyd still has a high ceiling, so we'll say 3 of 4.)
1. Josh Beckett, Marlins
2. Mark Prior, Cubs
6. Juan Cruz, Cubs
14. Ryan Anderson, Mariners
16. Dennis Tankersley, Padres
17. Nick Neugebauer, Brewers
19. Jerome Williams, Giants
Synopsis: We all know about Beckett. We all know about Prior. Cruz now is one of the Diamondbacks' top relief pitchers. Ryan Anderson never made it to the big leagues; he might be baseball's biggest bust in the last decade. You've never heard of the other three.
(For a catcher: 6 of 7.)
4. Jon Rauch, White Sox
5. Ben Sheets, Brewers
7. CC Sabathia, Indians
13. Roy Oswalt, Astros
15. Chin-Hui Tsao, Rockies
20. Bobby Bradley, Pirates
Synopsis: Rauch has had his ups and downs; he has a 3.83 ERA in his career, including a bipolar 2008 season in which he had a 2.95 ERA for Washington and then a 6.56 ERA after a trade to Arizona. Tsao was let go first by the Rockies and later by the Dodgers. Bradley had a 13.14 ERA at Triple-A in 2005 and hasn't played since.
(For a catcher: 3 of 6.)
1. Rick Ankiel, Cardinals
10. John Patterson, Diamondbacks
12. Mark Mulder, Athletics
14. Kip Wells, White Sox
15. Matt Riley, Orioles
20. A.J. Burnett, Marlins
Synopsis: We all know about Ankiel. Patterson had a decent full season with Washington in 2005 (9-7, 3.13 ERA) but hasn't done much since. Mulder went to back-to-back All-Star Games before injuries set him back. Wells has a career 4.67 ERA and might be the epitome of mediocrity. Riley now is a Triple-A relief pitcher. Burnett got lots of money from the Yankees.
(For a catcher: You'd take what Mulder did before he got injured. Burnett still is a great pitcher. We'll say 3 of 6.)
Where does that leave us?
According to an entirely unscientific survey of, well, myself, we've discovered that 21 of the 37 top pitching prospects of the last decade have underachieved to the point that you'd be happy to trade them for an above-average catcher like Saltalamacchia. Then again, that means 16 of the 37 have turned into, well, Kazmir, Hamels, Sabathia and Beckett.
That means a 57 percent chance you haven't lost anything. That means a 43 percent chance you get burned really, really badly. Knowing what the Red Sox have in their rotation and what they have coming behind Buchholz, would you do it?
(If you ask me -- and, hey, you clicked on my blog, right? -- I'd do it.)