"(The Red Sox) have got a decision to make," Clay Buchholz told reporters after his second start of the spring, an outing in which he danced in and out of danger against Puerto Rico's loaded lineup. "There's seven or eight guys that are in line for five spots. It's basic math. Not all seven or eight guys can be in the rotation. I came in here thinking, 'Hey, they're going to have to make a decision and they're going to have to have to make that decision regardless, so I might as well make it as tough on them as possible."
With every appearance Buchholz makes this spring, he makes that decision tougher. After throwing three no-hit innings against the Orioles -- a lineup that included Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters and Luke Scott. Counting his outing against Puerto Rico, Buchholz now has surrendered one run on four hits in seven innings pitched; he's struck out five and hasn't walked anyone.
"I feel relaxed," Buchholz told reporters after his third start. "I feel I have some confidence going out there, whereas last year, where I was, my mind was just an array of thoughts. I didn't even know what I was thinking. ... You can't be like that to compete at this level. Slowly but surely, it's getting better and I feel more comfortable and more confident."
The Red Sox are going to have themselves a problem if Buchholz keeps pitching the way he's been pitching. Buchholz looks primed to have a Lester-type breakout season -- but he can't do that if there's not a spot in the rotation. Brad Penny, a 30-year-old veteran who went 16-4 with a 3.03 ERA just two years ago, is working his way back from shoulder issues. Tim Wakefield is doing what he does; he's surrendered four earned runs in seven innings this spring and has walked four, but yanking him from the rotation would be equivalent to forcing him into retirement. Future Hall of Famer John Smoltz, who had a chat with Buchholz before the youngster's start yesterday, has already been penciled into the rotation for July, August and September.
But there's another option for Buchholz.
Baseball Prospectus has the Detroit Tigers projected to finish second in the American League Central with an 80-82 record. As weak as that division is, the Tigers could be in it until the end.
But if things go wrong for the Tigers early this season, they might be tempted to sell off an expensive part or two with an eye on rebuilding their starting rotation. (Sorry, but Nate Robertson ain't getting it done.) Buchholz might be just that piece around which the Tigers could build.
The cost? This guy.
Miguel Cabrera will have six years and $126 million left on his contract after this season. One team that could absorb that type of money, though, is a team that shaved Manny Ramirez from its payroll, a team that failed in its attempt to throw $180 million at Mark Teixeira and a team that is in the process of achieving cost certainty with its core of young players.
It's also a team that certainly could find a spot for a guy who can hit 30 home runs and drive in 110 runs and get on base at a .380 clip and slug .550 and be pretty much what Manny Ramirez was for eight years in Fenway Park's right-handed batter's box.
Might this be part of the big plan? If the Red Sox leave Buchholz at Triple-A Pawtucket to carve up inferior competition, might they just be preserving his value?
It's tough to trade away a potential ace. But when you can get a guy whose Baseball-Reference.com comparables include Ken Griffey Jr., Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda and Mickey Mantle, well, you don't have much choice.