THIS is player development

August 21, 2008 - 6:35 am

The potential seemed limitless. In just his second major-league start, on the final day of the season, the pitcher tore through the enemy lineup like paper. The 21-year-old stood just one batter from a no-hitter in which the sole imperfection was someone else's fault. The right-hander had recorded 26 outs without allowing a hit or a walk, the only member of the Detroit Tigers to reach base having done so on an error. But Bobby Higginson broke up the no-hitter and shutout (perhaps to the secret relief of Felipe Crespo, who had committed the error that permitted the lone baserunner) with a two-out homer in the bottom of the ninth, and the Blue Jays rookie had to settle for a 2-1 win. Disappointment was inevitable but muted by the broader implications of the exceptional outing. There could no longer be any question about the immense potential of Roy Halladay, whose second major-league start, in retrospect, seemed like a sort of crystal ball that forecast his inevitable emergence as a Cy Young award winner and one of the best pitchers in the game. But the path between that day in Detroit in 1998 and Halladay's emergence as a pitching giant was anything but direct. In 1999, though Halladay amassed respectable numbers (8-7, 3.92 ERA), he struggled badly with his command, walking 79 in 149 1/3 innings. The wheels fell off the following year. The 23-year-old Halladay went 4-7 with a 10.64 ERA, and walked almost as many batters (42) as he struck out (44). He was shipped unceremoniously to the minors, and his 2-3 record and 5.47 ERA in Triple-A did little to suggest either the promising pitcher who burst onto the scene in '98 or the innings-swallowing beast who elicits respect and awe from his opponents. The relevance for Clay Buchholz is obvious. The 24-year-old spent most of the past seven or eight weeks looking defeated, in no small part because he was. The steady drumbeat of "L's" reached critical mass, and Buchholz--who simply destroyed his opponents after beginning his pitching career just a handful of seasons ago--had no context that could soften the failure, particularly given the enormous expectations that grew from a no-hitter in his second big-league start. But Buchholz' struggles are far more the norm than the exception. Player development is not linear. Young players, especially pitchers, must endure backwards steps before their careers move onward. Halladay offered that glimmer of brilliance and cratered almost as quickly. He set aside his adversity to emerge as an ace. Buchholz, who owns a dismal 2-9 record with a 6.75 ERA as a big-leaguer this year, now will find out if he can do the same. Now, it is back to Double-A Portland for Buchholz, where he will rejoin the team and pitching coach (Mike Cather) with whom he established himself as a prospect last year. It was with Portland that Buchholz outpitched Roger Clemens in a minor-league game, and where he put up video game numbers against overmatched minor leaguers. Now, he returns to that climate as a humbled pitcher. But the potential ceiling of Buchholz remains unaltered from the beginning of the season. It is merely that the question of when, or whether, he reaches that potential has become more pronounced.