The Red Sox have slow-played Brayan Bello all winter.
Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom opened the offseason by refusing to commit a rotation spot for the young right-hander while nonetheless noting "he possesses as much upside" as anyone in the game. Months later, manager Alex Cora hedged a little -- "I don't want to say he has a spot, but there's a good chance that he will have a spot" -- before adding that nothing will be handed to him.
The Red Sox may be trying to temper expectations for Bello, but there's little doubt that not only will he be in the rotation when the season opens on March 30 against the Orioles, but that he might boast the highest upside of any starter on the team.
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While the Red Sox hope that Chris Sale returns to All-Star form and that veterans James Paxton and Corey Kluber provide something, too, Bello is the one pitcher on the staff clearly on the ascent, and how quickly he harnesses his considerable potential could go a long way towards establishing the rotation as a strength rather than a liability.
"He's in a great place," Cora said recently. "He understands that he has work to do, and there's nothing given, but he's very talented. We know."
The 23-year-old right-hander's final numbers were nothing special last year -- 2-8 with a 4.71 ERA in 11 starts -- but the old adage about how you finish particularly applied. After struggling to harness his electric sinker or pair it with a consistent second pitch through his first five starts, Bello turned a corner in September.
Over the final month, he posted a 2.59 ERA in six starts while striking out 31 and walking only 12. Along the way, he tossed six shutout innings against the Rangers to earn his first big-league win, and he battled Yankees All-Star Nestor Cortes pitch for pitch in a 2-0 loss.
He also harnessed a changeup that became his most effective pitch, as well as an above-average slider. Watching him develop into a legitimate starting option is no small feat for an organization that has barely developed a young starter since Clay Buchholz.
"This is going to be a big year for him," Sale said. "I think there's a lot of excitement with him. You never know what you're going to get when you first get to the big leagues. Your first start, your first month, whatever it is. I think he learned a lot from that first stint last year getting up there, getting his feet wet, getting the experience. I see nothing but really good things in his future. He's only going to keep gaining, he's working hard."
To prove his point, Sale noted that he gave a Bello an encouraging tap on the leg recently, "and it felt like I was hitting a tree. ... He's electric at worst when he's out there doing his thing."
The development of young starters is rarely linear, so there's no guarantee Bello keeps improving, which is undoubtedly part of the reason the coaching staff wants to make sure he comes to camp hungry. But there's no denying his high ceiling.
"Look, he's going to be really good," said pitching coach Dave Bush. "It's going to be bumpy; it always is for young pitchers as they figure it out. We have more than five starters right now on purpose. We need the depth, so we're building up multiple guys, we're going to get them all ready in spring training, and by the end of the spring if we get through it healthy with everybody ready then we'll have a decision to make, and that's a nice problem to have."
For Bello's part, he has focused on improving. He worked out with Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez this winter in the Dominican Republic, where they concentrated on throwing his fastball up and the zone and commanding his slider.
He hopes he's ready to start combining those lessons with last year's debut experience to take a leap forward.
"I'm not taking anything for granted this offseason," Bello said. "Going in with the same plan I had last year and just working hard to be on that opening day roster."