Phillies take calculated chance on Buchholz

Red Sox at Orioles May 21, 2012

Clay Buchholz has a curveball.

It isn’t the best curve in baseball, but it has a history. It helped him early in his major-league career, becoming an elite pitch that helped him toss a no-hitter against the Orioles.

It was there in 2010, when he received Cy Young votes after attaining a 17-7 record with a 2.33 ERA.

It was there in 2013 when, after a host of injuries that derailed most of two seasons, Buchholz started with a flourish, going 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA in his first 12 outings.

And it was there in 2015, helping him to a 3.26 ERA for a Red Sox team thirsty for pitching.

Buchholz throws a four-seam fastball and two-seam fastball, a cutter and a changeup. He used to throw a slider but dropped it from the repertoire. Still, if there’s any pitch that Buchholz throws that can consistently dominate, it may be that curve.

In 2016 the Phillies leaned on the curve. Aaron Nola, Jeremy Hellickson and Jerad Eickhoff, especially, threw curves that often devastated opposing hitters.

So you can see why the Phils traded for Buchholz. His career plays like an EKG reading. There are poor stretches, atrocious stretches, and when he’s bad it’s not pretty. Ask Red Sox fans and they’ll go on about the turbulence of the Buchholz Experience, but that’s clouded by a four-year contract extension gifted him during the 2011 season. He was a top prospect, a can’t-miss, sure-thing golden arm. That no-hitter against the Orioles? His second start. Expectations were always ridiculously high.

But in Philadelphia, Buchholz won’t have the weight of Red Sox Nation leaning on his shoulders. He’ll have a $13.5 million contract, but the Phillies are picking up the tab. And while he would’ve been asked to work within the confines of a constant pennant race in Boston, in Philadelphia he’ll be asked to simply pitch every few days and help the young staff.

At worst Buchholz does what he’s done a few times already – throw a couple stinkers, get hurt and miss time. He has one year left on his contract. He was worth a minor-grade prospect. A number of young pitchers are right behind him, ready to pitch in the majors. If Buchholz doesn’t work out, it won’t be the end of the world.

But at best Buchholz reestablishes himself as a stout starting pitcher capable of working deep into games. He won’t strike out too many, but maybe he’ll refine his repertoire and hand in plenty of quality starts. Maybe he’ll fill a fourth-starter role, solidify the rotation and give the bullpen enough rest during the dog days. At most, maybe he throws a couple gems.

The key is the curveball. The Phils love them, help pitchers refine them, and will surely look to turn Buchholz back into that hammer-throwing shut-down pitcher he was 10 years ago. It may not work. But maybe it will.

And that’s the point of this deal, and of the Joaquin Benoit deal, the Pat Neshek deal and the Howie Kendrick deal. There are risks on the 2017 Phillies roster, but none of them are heavy. The reward? Look at Buchholz’s past, and you can see a reward as tempting as wanting to swing at a meaty pitch before it drops right off the table.

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