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When will it be time for pitching prospect Matt Barnes to get promoted?

04.18.12 at 12:40 pm ET
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Matt Barnes is three starts into his professional career, and thus far, he has been incredibly dominant.

On Wednesday morning, Barnes ripped through the Lexington Legends, the Single-A affiliate of the Astros. He breezed through six shutout innings, striking out nine and allowing three hits while walking none. Ho-hum — more of the same. After all, the right-hander, taken by the Red Sox with the No. 19 overall pick in the 2011 draft, has made three starts, pitched 16 innings, struck out 25 batters, walked two and allowed six hits for the Greenville Drive in the South Atlantic League. He features a mid-90s fastball and a swing-and-miss curveball that have simply overmatched opponents who are primarily trying to get settled in their first full season of pro ball.

“The fastball has had explosive, impressive life. He has a really good feel for the curveball. The changeups he’€™s thrown have been good ones,” said Sox farm director Ben Crockett, after Barnes’ first two starts.

He has been performing like the proverbial men among boys. That makes it fair to ask: When is the right time for the 21-year-old to move up in order to give him a greater challenge?

To answer that question, it’s worth considering why the Sox assigned Barnes to Greenville in the first place. After seeing Barnes touch 96 mph with his fastball with a good curve and changeup, there was certainly conversation about letting the right-hander start his career at High-A Salem. Unquestionably, his stuff would have justified such an assignment.

Still, the Sox wanted Barnes to establish his footing as a professional at the lower level in Greenville. They wanted to familiarize himself with the five-day pitching routine and to have an environment in which he could comfortably begin the process of growing into a pitcher, learning to incorporate his changeup into his mix in a place where he would likely enjoy good results while doing so. At least through his first two starts, the Sox were still hoping to see Barnes work his changeup into the mix with greater frequency.

The Sox have had other top draft choices dominate while making their debuts at Greenville, most notably Clay Buchholz (2006), Casey Kelly (2009) and Anthony Ranaudo (2011). Here’s a look at the first four starts in Greenville for all three:

Clay Buchholz (2006): 2-0, 0.96 ERA, 18 2/3 IP, 22 SO, 4 BB
Casey Kelly (2009): 3-0, 0.90 ERA, 20 IP, 19 SO, 3 BB
Anthony Ranaudo (2011): 1-1, 0.46 ERA, 19 2/3 IP, 23 SO, 8 BB

Barnes has been more dominant than those three pitchers in his early starts, but that’s something of an exercise in splitting hairs. All three of them were more talented than the level where they were performing.

Kelly ended up making nine starts (going 6-1 with a 1.12 ERA) in Greenville before a promotion to Salem. Ranaudo — the pitcher of this trio who most closely compares to Barnes, given the fact that both were highly regarded Division-1 performers in college — made 10 starts in Greenville, going 4-1 with a 3.33 ERA before moving up. Buchholz actually made 21 starts in Greenville (going 9-4 with a 2.62 ERA) before he was promoted to the Sox’ High-A affiliate at the end of the year.

It appears to be a matter of when, not if, for Barnes this season. He doesn’t need to reach a certain threshold in early-season starts in Greenville before moving up to Salem. At the same time, the Sox do have some developmental goals in mind before they let Barnes move up to his next professional challenge.

“I think it totally depends on the player or the pitcher,” Crockett said of the timing of a potential promotion. “So much of it has to do with background, previous competition level, age, the way those outings are going. I wouldn’€™t say there is an absolute minimum or maximum we need to see to kind of check the box, but certainly we want to continue to see progress with the fastball command within the zone and the continued involvement of the changeup before we make any moves.”

Read More: anthony ranaudo, casey kelly, Clay Buchholz, Greenville Drive
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