March 2012

Closing Time from the Back Fields at Fenway South

After watching 11 straight hours of baseball on Friday, there was no way my dad and I were going to be able to make it back across Alligator Alley, only to wake up at 5:30 am and make the commute all over again. 

I didn’t really know what to do with myself on Saturday because I had already spoken with pretty much everyone I had intended on speaking with. It was nice to just chill out, watch the games, and informally speak with a couple of guys. 

The Single-A guys were home and the Double-A and Triple-A guys went to the Twins complex. 

The Greenville lineup was: Vinicio 6, Swihart 2, Cecchini 5, Perkins 9, De La Cruz 8, Moanaroa 3, Chester DH, Thompson 4, Hammer 7. 

The Salem lineup was: Bradley Jr. 8, Ramos 9, Bogaerts 6, Renfroe 5, Almanzar 3, Blair DH, Marquis DH, Robertson 2, Sanchez 7, Natoli 4. Diaz P. 

Jose Iglesias and Jarrod Saltalamacchia made appearances in both lineups and took at-bats basically at their own discretion. This made attempting to score the games nearly impossible, but I was able to con my dad into scoring the game on his iPad (he uses this awesome app called GameChanger), so I might be able to post that later. I’ll keep you updated. 

Henry Owens, who was drafted in the supplemental first round of the 2011 draft, started the Greenville game and threw the first two innings. There’s a reason he was the 36th overall pick. I was absolutely blown away by how well he pitched. In his first inning of work he struck out two batters (both looking) and elicited a ground ball to first. He threw eight of 12 pitches for strikes. 

In his second inning, he threw five of nine pitches for strikes, eliciting two ground outs to short and striking his second batter out looking. 

Owens is clearly an efficient pitcher, and he’s not afraid to attack hitters. His change up is excellent, with great drop the end, and it was fooling hitters, getting them to check their swings. 

I talked to Owens briefly after his start and he said he was nearly surprised by how well his outing went for his first spring training start. He thought that he might leave his fastball up or that he might not have command one his off speed stuff, but everything was working out there for him. 

Jose Iglesias got a single in his first at-bat, but otherwise, he grounded out in the rest of his appearances. They weren’t sharp ground outs either. 

I was impressed with Blake Swihart’s speed considering he was drafted as a catcher. He can really get down the first base line. 

I was able to sit down and watch Matty Ott’s second inning of work, and I really liked what I saw from him. He has a quick deliver and good arm speed, and was eliciting a lot of swings and misses. He struck out two batters in his second inning of work. 

I actually had the pleasure of meeting Ott’s parents, and his mom was able to give me some great information. Ott was drafted in the 13th round out of LSU, where he was their closer (he was actually a starter in high school). As a freshman, he broke the single-season saves record, and actually holds the All-time record, which he acquired his junior year. He was the SEC freshman of the year and was on the Freshman All-American team. He pitched the ninth, 10th, and 11th innings in the first game of the College World Series, and got the win. 

Ott pitched for Salem on Wednesday, where he struck out five batters, didn’t walk anyone, and broke two bats. It will be interesting to see if the Red Sox keep him as a reliever or try him as a starter. If you look at former Red Sox prospect Kyle Weiland (traded to Houston in the offseason along with Jed Lowrie for Mark Melancon), he closed at Notre Dame, but was converted to a starter. I think Ott sticks in the bullpen for now. 

Jordan Weems came into the Greenville game after Swihart to catch. It will be interesting to see where the two of them start the season.

I’m liking Xander Bogaert’s approach at the plate more and more. I think he’s become more patient, and he waits for his pitch more this season compared to last.

I spoke with Noe Ramirez briefly after the game to discuss why he was being temporarily shut down. He attributed it to shoulder soreness and said that the organization was simply being extremely cautious at this stage. The same thing happened to Matt Barnes, who was shut down this week for soreness in his forearm, but he told me the other day that he should be pitching sometime next week.

I could not have imagined a better week at minor league spring training. It was absolutely exhausting, but it was one of the best weeks of my life. I always go into spring training convinced that there is no way it could surpass the previous year’s, but each year, my expectations are exceeded. The players say it’s a grind, but covering them is a grind in and of itself–especially with the commute from Miami to Fort Myers. In all honesty though, I don’t think the amount of work I put in even compares to the amount of work they put in. They are there working in the cages before I arrive, and they’re still working on conditioning as I leave. It’s truly admirable how much work they all put in. 

It’s still hard to say if it tops last year’s though because not only did I have more than a week, but I also got accepted into Syracuse and started writing for SoxProspects in the same night while I was covering minor league spring training. I think I made the most of the week I had, though, and it’s going to kill me to go back and sit in a classroom and learn about writing instead of getting the hands on experience. 

I can’t thank the players enough for their kindness and willingness to speak with me–whether it be formally or informally.  Stories on Jordan Weems, Henry Owens, Cody Kukuk, Noe Ramirez, Jackie Bradley Jr., Sean Coyle, Kolbrin Vitek, Bryce Brentz, and Brandon Jacobs will be up throughout the week either here, on SoxProspects, or through the Portland Sea Dogs. I’ll keep you updated as they come out. 

I wish nothing but the best to these players, and I hope that I’ll be able to make it up to at least one of the affiliates this summer. 

Minor League Camp Notes from 3/14/12

Good morning from Red Sox minor league camp! Finally got some WiFi access here, so I figured I’d briefly type up my notes from yesterday. I spent a solid 11 hours watching baseball between minor league workouts, minor league games, and the major league game. I’m back at it again one more time before I head back up to the tundra.

Yesterday, Double-A and Triple-A were home playing the Orioles affiliates, and the Single-A boys were up in Sarasota.

I spoke with Brandon Workman about his outing on Thursday. He said he felt good and was excited to be out there. He was pleased with his off-speed pitches for his first outing.

Jason Garcia said he felt good about his fastball. He kept it down for the most part, but left it up in the second inning.

Chris Hernandez told me he threw two innings for Portland and retired all six batters he faced. He felt good about his fastball on both sides of the plate, as well as his cutter on the inside. He also said that his change up felt good, and that he only left one curveball up.

Justin Erasmus said his shoulder his perfect and he is throwing today (Friday).

Derrik Gibson told me he went 1-2 for Portland (a single).

Portland’s lineup on Friday: Hissey DH, Meneses 6, Vitek 5, Brentz 9, Rodriguez 3, Ibarra 2, Pichardo 7, Gentile 4, Johnson 8. Chris Carpenter started the game followed by Manny Rivera, Yeiper Castillo, Pete Ruiz, and Robby Scott.

In his first inning of work, Carpenter threw about 10 of 18 pitches for strikes, giving up a run.

In his second inning, he threw nearly all nine of his pitches for strikes. He threw a lot of first pitch strikes and elicited a lot of foul balls.

Carpenter had a lot of balls hit sharply to him. He has great reaction time, and is a good fielding pitcher.

Pete Hissey had a multi-hit game, including a single and a triple.

Bryce Brentz hit a single up the middle. Should he and Vitek end up in Portland, that could be a very powerful 3-4 combination.

Manny Rivera looked solid in his two innings of work. He retired the side in order in his first inning, which included getting Manny Machado, the Orioles first round pick (and the third overall pick) in the 2010 draft.

When I walked over to the Pawtucket game, it looked like Mitch Dening was being taken off the field by a trainer. I’ll look into that a bit more today.

I was somehow able to acquire a VIP pass so that I could respectfully linger outside the clubhouse, which allowed me to get interviews with both Bryce Brentz and Kolbrin Vitek. I guess the security guard took sympathy on me after having seen me sit down in the grass on Wednesday and get victimized by the sprinklers.

I also spoke with Keith Couch briefly about his outing on Thursday. He said he felt comfortable on the mound, just that he was rushing things at first. He threw his change up and curveball for strikes, which he was pleased with because that’s what he focused on in the offseason.

Noe Ramirez told me that he has been temporarily shut down. He cryptically said that he would be back soon. I’ll try to get more on that today.

I caught up with Drake Britton today, who was cut yesterday and has since been assigned to the Portland club. He said that all his stuff was there last season, he just wasn’t there mentally. He concentrated on improving his mental game a lot in the offseason. He seemed pretty confident that he won’t be in Salem again (it’s probably just a toxic environment for him), and he could move up to Portland for the start of the 2012 season despite his poor season statistically. Look for a HUGE improvement in him.

Dick Berardino, a player consultant for the Red Sox (also a former player and coach), told me he was particularly impressed with Ryan Dent, who played for Pawtucket in Friday’s game. He hit a lead off home run, and also hit a double. Berardino commended him for his defensive range.

Henry Owens will be throwing today. I’ll have more updates when I get home later. I’ll be posting interviews here as they come out.

Also, if you haven’t seen this week’s Fort Report that I collaborated on with @SPWill, make sure you take it out. There are some more details there from my first-hand observations this week, and Will did a great job accumulating the biggest news from the beat writers.

First Two Days of Minor League Spring Training 2012

After attempting to get my bearings Monday and taking the day off Tuesday, I was eager to get back to the complex on Wednesday for the first minor league spring training games. I planned my week out perfectly because I decided to visit one of my best friend’s at her school Wednesday night so I wouldn’t have to take another day off.

I left my house with what I thought was impeccable timing. I was making such good time that I thought it justified a pit stop at Panera for second breakfast. I arrived at the complex right around 9:20, but the players were already out on the field. They don’t get out until 11:30 on Monday, and today they’re out before 9:30? I was a bit frustrated only because I like getting there before they get out so I can establish tentative interviews as early as possible. It wasn’t a problem though.

Before the Single-A guys got on their bus, I had about seven tentative interviews scheduled. I began to fear that I might be spreading myself a bit thin, and admittedly, I was right. At this point, I have conducted five of said interviews, and four were on Wednesday. I was deliriously tired by the last one, but I think it still went well.

The first guy I talked to was Noe Ramirez, the Red Sox’ fourth round pick in 2011. We talked for a solid ten minutes, so I have a ton of content on him. We talked about how his experiences at Cal-State Fullerton have helped him become a professional ball player, his arsenal, and the adjustments he has made since joining the organization. I’ll let you all know when my story on him is on SoxProspects.

I briefly caught up with Chris Hernandez, who spent the 2011 season with Salem posting a 3.18 ERA, giving up 112 hits over 127.3 innings, and walking 51. He said he felt burnt out at the end of the season, and said that the competition level in Salem was actually less than at the University of Miami. He anticipates starting the 2012 season with Portland.

This was the lineup for the Portland Sea Dogs: Hissey 8, Meneses 4, Vitek 5, Brentz 9, Rodriguez 3, Vazquez, 6 Gibson, 7 Pichardo.

Anthony Ranaudo started and threw two innings. He threw hard, but missed low and inside a few times against lefties. He kept the ball pretty low. I caught up with him briefly after the game. He said that he felt great, and that he had good down angle on his fastball on both sides of the plate. He also felt good about his secondary pitches, and he threw three changeups. He felt fatigued in the second. Brandon Workman informed me that Ranaudo was topping out around 94 mph, which is a bit high for this early in the spring, so that probably explains the fatigue.

Bryce Brentz had a fantastic game for Portland. He hit an RBI double, and made a strong, spot-on throw to third base to get the runner out. He also made an incredible diving catch.

Bobby Valentine, who was down at the complex, seemed impressed with him. Somehow, I ended up informally talking to Valentine for two innings about Red Sox prospects. I was lingering by him just watching the game, and he asked me which prospects I thought were good. Naturally, I blanked. Of course I’m just standing there thinking, “What is baseball?!” “What are prospects?!” but I just discussed whomever came to mind. In fact, he even asked me a couple of situational questions. Like whether or not I thought it was appropriate if a runner gets picked off when he’s trying to steal, and whether or not I give the batter the green light at 3-0. Maybe Bobby will heed my advice.

I have to say, though, it was absolutely surreal to talk to him, and that he was asking my opinion about Red Sox prospects.

Jim, the head security guard at the complex, is particularly impressed with Valentine’s attention to detail. He was telling me how Valentine is very particular about when exactly coaches hit the ball to the pitchers with the fungo bat during pitching-fielding-plays–the pitchers still have to be off-balance in order for the drill to be effective.

Jim was also saying how Valentine has had Ortiz practice bunting down the third base line. This would be the perfect combative move to the infamous shift that nearly every team employs against Ortiz. There is no doubt that the shift works, so it’s obviously necessary to adapt to it. If you see Ortiz get on first base by bunting down the third base line, you heard it from Jim first.

Justin Erasmus was prematurely taken out of the Portland game when he was hit in the shoulder. I talked to him about it the next day and he said that there’s only swelling, and that it’s just a minor injury. He doesn’t anticipate being out for any extended period of time, and insisted that he was a “soulja.”

I spoke a bit with George Lombard, the manager of the Gulf Coast League, about what he has seen in Jordan Weems, as well as other players as of late. We also discussed what kinds of tools he looks for in a player because the talent is so raw at the level he coaches.

After the Double-A and Triple-A games ended, I decided to sit in the grass and work on some stories while I waited for the Single-A guys to get back from the Twins complex since it’s only a short ride away.

When the bus pulled up, Garin Cecchini was the first one off the bus. He was ranting about the fire hydrant that had just been knocked over by the bus driver. “That’s blind bill for ya!” he said.

First, I spoke with Cody Kukuk, the Red Sox’ seventh round pick in 2011. We his arsenal, as well as the challenges he has faced since joining the organization. We also discussed his first appearance of the spring.

He said he was a little jittery in the first inning because it was his first start of the spring in his first spring training. He slowed things down a bit in the second inning, and felt more comfortable with his fastball, and also said that he felt really good about his off speed pitches, and that they were working.

Then I talked to Sean Coyle about the struggles he experienced in Greenville last season, and how he plans to remedy them. He has adjusted his mechanics a little bit. This will be explained in detail in tomorrow’s Fort Report on SoxProspects. I’ll have a more extensive story on him within the week. I really appreciated how much detail he went into when explaining things to me.

Finally, I spoke to Jackie Bradley Jr., who was drafted in the supplemental first round. The interview went really well until the sprinklers decided to go off, but it didn’t cripple the interview by any means.


Day 2 

The complex was a bit more crowded today because there was also a Major League game. In fact, all of the guys participating in Major League Spring Training worked out on some of the fields at one point or another. I got to say hello to Will Middlebrooks, Lars Anderson, and Michael Bowden. They all remembered me, and it was really nice to catch up with them a bit.

I spoke with Madison Younginer about his outing with Greenville the day before. He said that his off speed stuff felt good in the bullpen, but he left a couple up in the zone in his outing. He got five ground ball outs, but he doesn’t anticipate necessarily being primarily a contact pitcher. He thinks he’ll get more contact this year, but he also thinks he’ll get more strikeouts. He said his velocity is back up, and that he changed his mechanics before Instrux–particularly with his glove arm.

Swen Huijer said his fastball and change up felt good, and that it was important to him that his fastball feel good since he’s going from pitching indoors in the Netherlands, to outdoors here. He said his curveball wasn’t feeling too great, though.

This was the Greenville Drive lineup: Greenville lineup: vinicio 6, de la Cruz 8, cecchini 5, Vazquez 2, Weems dh, Perkins 7, Chester 3, Thompson 4, Turcoy 9. Mark Melancon started.

This was the Salem lineup: Salem lineup: Coyle 4, Bradley DH, Bogaerts 6, Jacobs 8, Shaw 5, Almanzar 3, LeBlanc 9, Spring 2, Sanchez 7. Matt Albers and Brandon Duckworth piggy-backed each other.

Miguel Peña pitched for Greenville, and I was impressed with his first two innings before he lost command in the third. In his first inning, he threw roughy nine of 11 pitches for strikes, and they were all first pitch strikes. In his second inning, he gave up a hit, but threw seven of 12 pitches for strikes. In his third inning of work, he got hit around a lot and missed his spots. He works quickly and paints the corners well. He adjusts to the strike zone if he has to. He has a nice curveball.

Brandon Workman seemed like he was having trouble establishing the outside corner in his first inning, which might have made him struggle with his command. In his first inning, 11 of 21 pitches for strikes, and couldn’t really stay ahead in the count. He fared much better in his second inning, throwing six of 10 pitches for strikes, eliciting two ground ball outs and a strikeout.

Sean Coyle, Xander Bogaerts, and Garin Cecchini all impressed me with their defense–particularly Cecchini because his complete health allows for more mobility. Look for him to be exceptional both defensively and offensively this year.

Coyle was aggressive on the base paths. He has good instincts.

Jason Garcia had at least two strikeouts in his first inning of work. Seemed like he was throwing the ball harder, too.

Keith Couch had a nice first inning, striking out two batters swinging. He retired the side in order in his second inning.

I spoke with Brandon Jacobs after the game about his season last year, and how losing the football weight has allowed him to be more successful as a player, among other things.

I’ll be covering Friday and Saturday’s minor league spring training games as well.

For live updates, you can follow me on Twitter @Eli_Dreesox


Everything Was Baseball, Nothing Hurt

You know you’ve had a long day when you watch both the sunrise and the sunset on Alligator Alley. But when it comes to baseball, a 14-hour workday (not including transcribing interviews and writing this) is something I approach with a smile, not a grimace. 

I felt compelled to get to the new complex by 8:30 a.m. because I needed to get my bearings if I was going to have any success. With City of Palms Park and the old Players’ Development Complex, I felt complacency, intimacy, and familiarity because I knew what I was doing. This time, I was going in fairly blindly. I had only a decent idea of where I was going, and I had no idea what kind of access I was going to have. 

That’s what made the day so much fun though: it was an adventure, and the unknown is both fascinating and troubling. While most protagonists have at least one companion, they end up carrying their burden alone. The ring is Frodo’s burden and his alone; Harry is Voldmort’s last horcrux and must face him alone; and Luke knows he must face Darth Vader alone. Similarly, my adventure was characterized by the bliss of solitude, but it wasn’t nearly as daunting. 

I arrived at the complex a bit before 8:30 as planned, and attempted to figure out where the minor leaguers where practicing. I asked the first security guard I came across if the minor leaguers practiced where he had directed me to park. 

“Not to my knowledge,” he responded. 

This is when I knew that I had made the right call in arriving at the complex so early. The complex was massive, but there was no way that the players did not practice back there. I knew I had to figure it out for myself rather than just take someone else’s word for it. 

I could hear players in the batting cages (which are right behind the stadium), but I decided to respect the sign that said “Staff Only Beyond This Point.” The gates were open to the empty complex though, so I decided to explore. 

It is an absolutely massive complex and completely overwhelming at first. But I was more overwhelmed by my excitement than its size. They say that “old habits die hard,” and I guess trespassing is a habit of mine. I made my first turn, and hardly a minute later, I saw the vague figure of a security guard in the distance. His face was masked by the sun, but his voice put me at ease: It was one of my favorite security guards, Jim, from last spring. 

He greeted me with a hug and informed me that I technically was not allowed to be on the premises until nine. I asked him if he wanted me to leave, but he said no, and agreed to show me the ropes. Jim described it perfectly when he said that covering this complex was like covering Montana instead of Rhode Island. 

Jim tried to explain to me where the players come out and what they normally do first, but even he could not explain the method to the madness. After spending the day there, I saw no patterns or logic to the workouts. 

The minor leaguers were not out by 9:30. Instead, I saw Daniel Bard, Matt Albers, and Rich Hill warming up. Other pitchers started to coming out to throw their bullpens, too, and before I knew it all of the position players were out on the field doing agility drills. 

The greatest part of this, and easily one of the highlights of my day was when Adrian Gonzalez hurled two cones as he came across them. If Adrian “Cone-Hurler” Gonzalez ever goes on the disabled list with a lower back strain, you know why. 

It’s just that I didn’t get to the complex at 8:30 a.m. to watch the major leaguers workout. I was itching for Single-A pitching-fielding-plays, batting practice, and every drill in-between. Don’t get me wrong, I love the major league guys too, but  They didn’t start coming out en masse until around 11:30. 

It was great to see a lot of the guys from last year. They were nothing but friendly, and their recognition was the only gratification I needed to justify a 5 a.m. wakeup call. I truly appreciated how welcome they made me feel–like I’m a fixture of spring training, and that it was weird that I showed up so late. 

I swear I have baseball ADD. I could hardly stay at one field for more than a minute because I was so afraid that I was going to miss the guys I was targeting for interviews on their way in. This complex is different: the players can sneak around into places that fans can’t access.

There are six fields and only one of me and they are very spread out. But I was satisfied with the coverage I got my first day. 

-Brandon Workman told me he anticipates starting the season with High-A Salem. Workman was drafted in the second round in the 2010 draft out of the University of Texas. He spent all of 2011 with the Greenville Drive where he posted a 3.71 ERA and struck out 115 over 131 innings while walking only 33. Workman said he didn’t do as well as he would have liked, but I think those are pretty respectable numbers for his first full year in professional ball. 

Garin Cecchini (click the link to read my interview with him last year) was glad that he finally felt healthy and told me that he feels “100%.” He’s really looking forward to the season and anticipates starting the season in Greenville. Cecchini was drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 draft out of high school (he intended on going to LSU). Cecchini was still recovering from an ACL injury at the start of the 2011 season. He played 32 games for the short-season Lowell Spinners where he posted a .298 average and a .398 OBP and struck out only 19 times in 114 at-bats before being sidelined by a wrist injury. If Cecchini can stay healthy the entire season, look out for him. In my interview with 2011 first-round supplemental pick Henry Owens, he said he was particularly impressed with Cecchini’s hitting. 

-Speaking of interviews, besides speaking with Owens, I also spoke with the Red Sox’ third round pick in 2011, Jordan Weems. Both interviews should be on within the week. I’ll post a link here as well. 

-I’ll also be doing a “first-take” piece for them on my first impressions of the new complex. 

I didn’t get over to the major league game until around the fifth inning. I had to linger by the entrance to the batting cages because I was not allowed back by the entrance to the clubhouse. I couldn’t talk my way into the game, so I decided to bite the bullet and buy standing-room only tickets. They were supposedly on the Green Monster, and as much as I would have liked to sit there, I wanted to be able to actually see the game. 

It didn’t take me long to find a seat, and by the seventh inning, I was right behind home plate. I liked what I saw from Mark Melancon. Andrew Bailey struggled in his debut, giving up three hits in a row. I’m not concerned, though. I think Melancon and Bailey are going to be a great combination. Bailey also made a great play to catch the runner at third in a rundown. I think it was scored 1-5-2-5. Ryan Lavarnway also made an incredibly impressive play at the plate. Juan Carlos Linares hit Pedro Ciriaco on the cut-off and Ciriaco relayed to home. Matt Dominguez also made a few nice plays at third base. It’s good to see him playing, but one has to wonder what his role is with the organization now that Hanley Ramirez is moving to third after the Marlins signed Jose Reyes. 

Scott Atchison completely botched an easy grounder that only made me dream of more pitching-fielding-plays. Ciriaco’s walk-off home run was the icing on the cake, and it was the perfect end to a perfect day. 

Everything was baseball, nothing hurt. (I swear if I ever write a book that will be the title. Kurt Vonnegut is the man). 

I’ll be going back to the complex tomorrow for the first minor league spring training games. I’ll be seeing the Double-A and Triple-A affiliates take on the Twins’ affiliates. I’ll be tweeting lineups, so if you’re interested, follow me on Twitter @Eli_Dreesox. 

40-Man Roster & Non-Roster Invitee Questions for 2012 & My Thoughts on Varitek and Wakefield Retiring

Red Sox Major League Spring Training holds a lot more interest this spring because there are actually some uncertainties this spring. Last year, nearly everything–save two bullpen spots–was set in stone before the first exhibition game. The Red Sox winning the World Series was just as certain as the members of the starting rotation. This year, only three spots are secured in the rotation, and the bullpen spots are arguably contingent upon who makes the rotation. There is more certainty when it comes to the position players, but it is still unclear how Bobby Valentine will approach the platooning at right field, shortstop, and catcher.Last season there were no doubts about productivity. But baseball is full of surprises. Jacoby Ellsbury surpassed everyone’s expectations, and Carl Crawford failed to meet his. Baseball is a humbling sport, and the Red Sox were humbled on every level. Many have pinned the Red Sox for third in the division, and some believe that the only hope for playoff berth comes from playoff expansion.

While it will certainly be interesting to see how these story lines play out, I would argue that the Red Sox minor league system has even more intriguing plots. A few prospects had breakout seasons, and a few experienced humbling regress. Every minor league player is a work in progress. If they weren’t, they would be at the major league level. Mechanics are still raw and malleable, and vague words like “potential” and “high-ceiling” are assigned to prospects. They are certainly appropriate words, but I call them vague because a player can have an awful season, but still have a lot of potential because he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet. There is still time for change, adjustment, and improvement, and if a player can apply those changes, there is a chance that his potential will materialize. There’s a reason they call it player development: It implies a process, an evolution.

Let’s start out with the 40-man roster because those are the guys you are most likely to see throughout the course of this season. It is important to note that just because a player is on the 40-man roster, it doesn’t mean he will necessarily make an appearance throughout the course of the season–even in September. Granted, a lot of it is contingent upon their success during the regular season, but some guys’ placement on the roster is merely out of protection against the Rule-5 Draft. The Rule-5 draft tries to prevent teams from hoarding too many prospects in their system if other teams would have them on their 25-man roster. Players are eligible for the Rule-5 draft if they were signed at age 19 or older and have been in the organization for four years, or if they were signed 18 or younger and have been in the organization for five years. Players may not be selected if they are on the 40-man roster. If a player is selected and does not stay on the 25-man roster, he is goes back to the original team if he passes through waivers (so it’s KIND OF like getting designated for assignment).

That being said, Drake Britton as placed on the 40-man roster to protect him from being selected in the Rule-5 draft. The only reason I don’t think he will make an appearance at the major league level this year is because he hasn’t even hit Double-A. Britton had a rough season last year, going 1-13 with a 6.91 ERA. He allowed 111 hits in 97.2 innings, and had a WHIP of about 1.7. But Britton is one of those prospects with those mysterious words: potential and high-ceiling. Just one season before–when his innings count was monitored closely because it was his first season back from Tommy John Surgery–Britton had a 2.97 ERA and allowed only 23 walks in 75.2 innings for a WHIP of about 1.2. Salem is a tough jump. For the sake of comparison, Kyle Weiland said in an interview with me that his toughest jump was the one to Salem (mainly because he skipped Greenville), but Weiland was able to improve. (I know a lot of you are unimpressed with Weiland because he struggled at the major league level, but please just give him a chance in Houston. He’s going to be good). I have a lot of confidence in Drake Britton, and I think he’s going to recover from his struggles, and I think he will really learn from them.

So the first minor league plot I suggest following is Drake Britton: Can he recover from a difficult season (from a statistical standpoint)? Where will he begin 2012, though? I think that during minor league spring training, the Red Sox should pitch him at both the Salem and Portland levels, and see how he fares. As of right now, I think he should start the season in Salem (High-A), prove his dominance, and then move up to Double-A.

The same question applies to Stolmy Pimentel, whose horrific first half of the season in Double-A (he posted a 9.12 ERA) caused him to be demoted to Salem. It was hit or miss with a lot of Pimentel’s starts. In other words, he struggles with his consistency. His mechanics are still kind of raw, so I’d say there is room for improvement. Alex Wilson struggled in his first stint with Portland, but the second time around, he pitched so well that he earned himself a promotion to Pawtucket, where he will start the season.

What will Michael Bowden’s role be, if anything, with the Red Sox?

Michael Bowden has been stockpiled in Pawtucket since 2008, and I’m sure that has been frustrating. He advanced through the minors fairly quickly as a starter, and finally made the conversion to a reliever last season because there was more opportunity for him to contribute on the major-league level as a reliever. Bowden has not had a lot of success in his few major league appearances, but I think that it is important to look at the context of the situations he was brought into. I remember more than a few times when he was brought into very sticky situations or mop-up duty. I don’t think he has had a truly fair shot. If he doesn’t make the bullpen, I think Bowden would honestly fare better with another organization where he would have the opportunity to contribute consistently. Michael Bowden will always be one of my favorite prospects because he was my first interview, so I only say this because I want to see him succeed.

Can Felix Doubront stay healthy, and what does it mean if he can?

Doubront’s health problems the last two seasons have prevented him from reaching that elusive high ceiling. Doubront found control in his second stint with Greenville, and it seemed like he would never look back until injuries started hitting him. If he can stay healthy, I would say Doubront is in a situation similar to Michael Bowden’s. And something tells me that it’s one or other with them…

When is Ryan Lavarnway going to stick with Boston?

I don’t think Lavarnway will open the season in Boston because he won’t get the at-bats he needs with Saltalmacchia and Kelly Shoppach. Lavarnway’s bat has been consistent throughout the minor leagues, which I think gives him a slight edge over Luis Exposito. Matt Gingras made an excellent comparison between Lavarnway’s situation, and Buster Posey’s situation right before his rookie of the year campaign. Posey did not start the 2010 season with the Giants because he was blocked by a couple of catchers. But when he tore up Triple-A, he made sure the Giants couldn’t ignore him. Bengie Molina was traded mid-season. Buster Posey is one of a kind, but I think that he will start the season out in Triple-A, like Posey, tear it up, and be in Boston sooner than you think. His bat will get him to the major leagues, but it does not seem like his defense is good enough for him to be a full-time catcher. He will probably be some hybrid of a catcher, first baseman, and designated hitter.

What is Lars Anderson’s role with the team?

The hype around Lars Anderson was at its peak around 2008 and 2009 when he was tearing up the lower levels of the minor leagues and saw great success in one of the hardest level jumps: the jump to Double-A. But in his first full-season in Double-A, 2009, he struggled, so in spring training 2010, he received a lot of attention. He erased those doubts with a fantastic opening in Portland in 2010 where he mastered Eastern-League pitching, posting a .355 batting average and earning himself a promotion to Pawtucket. The offensive production has not been the same at the Triple-A level. There are certainly flashes of brilliance, but he struggles to remain consistent at the plate. Anderson should be commended, though, for how much he has improved defensively.

Anderson is a first baseman, though, and the Red Sox have one of the best first basemen in the league signed to a seven year contract. It does not seem like Anderson has much of a role with the Red Sox in the future. If he can put up for dominant numbers in Triple-A, he could make a case for himself as a designated hitter, but it seems like he is in No-Man’s Land right now. This is why he nearly got traded to Oakland at the trade deadline last season. I think Anderson would have a lot more opportunity with another team.

How will Jose Iglesias contribute in 2012?

When it comes to Jose Iglesias, I don’t think there’s a question so to whether or not his future is with the Red Sox. Despite his offensive struggles, the Red Sox are very high on him, and with good reason. It is nearly unanimously acknowledged that Iglesias is their shortstop of the future, but he has to meet some conditions first, and those conditions are his offense. Iglesias is the antithesis of Ryan Lavarnway. Lavarnway has the bat, not the glove, and Iglesias has the glove, not the bat. Iglesias will never hit for power, and one can only pray that he will get on base. He needs to prove that he can handle Triple-A pitching. Once the on-base percentage is higher than the batting average, we can start talking. I think he should start in Triple-A. There’s no reason to throw him into something that he is clearly not ready for yet when Mike Aviles and Nick Punto can hold the fort at shortstop.

What will Alex Wilson’s role be in the future? What’s his trajectory for this season?

I feel like Alex Wilson’s situation this year is similar to Kyle Weiland’s last year: he is on the cusp of the Major Leagues. Wilson will still function as a starter in the minor leagues, but will probably see the majority of his appearances come in the form of relieving at the major league level. Wilson dominated Eastern-League hitters last year, posting a 3.05 ERA, striking out 99 batters and walking only 37 in a career high 112 innings pitched. He only threw 21 innings in Pawtucket, but his statistics suggest success in the future. He struck out 24 batters and walked only seven in those innings, posting a 3.43 ERA. Wilson will start the season in Pawtucket, and I expect him to dominate the same way Weiland did at the beginning of last season. Keep your eye out for Wilson.

Where will Alex Hassan start the 2012 season?

Hassan has quietly been one of the more consistent outfield prospects when it comes to hitting. He has had success at every single level–the lowest he has hit is .287 in Salem. His .404 on-base percentage was particularly impressive in Portland last season. Hassan will likely start the season in Double-A because it does not look like there is room for him in Pawtucket. I think we will see him in the Pawtucket lineup a lot during minor league spring training, and it will be intriguing to see if he can handle Triple-A pitching. He will be in Pawtucket before we know it. And if it means anything, his batting average was more consistent across levels than Ryan Kalish as he rose through the system.


On Jason Varitek & Tim Wakefield Retiring

It was not until this year that I could compare a player retiring to something in my life. Both Wakefield and Varitek said it was the most difficult decision they had ever had to make, and Varitek said he was going to miss his teammates the most.

I know this isn’t really the same, but I felt similar sentiments as I left for college. It’s not like I had a decision to make on whether or not to go to college, but leaving for it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I’ll give you this analogy: teammates to baseball players are my best friends to me. The end of high school was always imminent, but I never actually fathomed leaving my best friends because it was something too painful for me to consider. Similarly, the end of a baseball career is imminent, but I don’t think a player ever really fathoms retiring until it actually happens. Saying goodbye to something that significant is extremely difficult. Their press conference in which they announced their retirement was their closure. And I made sure I had closure with each of my closest friends as we began to leave. Both Varitek’s and Wakefield’s gratitude to their teammates and to their fans goes without saying. It can’t be put into words because words aren’t good enough. I’m a firm believer that actions speak louder than words, and the way that Varitek and Wakefield played on the field is indicative of how much they truly loved the sport.

It’s hard to put those feelings into words. I remember the last night I spent with my two closest friends. We just sat in silence when it came time to leave because there were absolutely no words that could express the unconditional love and the amount of gratitude that I had for them. We grew up together. We were together during the best times of our lives and also the worst times, and nothing can break that bond. And while things around us may change, things between us do not.

I feel like there’s a similar dynamic with a team. Varitek and Wakefield were the paradigms of what it meant to be Red Sox players. They went through the highs of two championships, and the lows of a collapse of historic magnitude, and a heartbreaking end to the 2003 season, among others. They penned their way into Red Sox history with significant contributions both on and off the field.

Varitek is the perfect example of a player whose effectiveness goes beyond his statistics. He led the team with an air of unique professionalism, and he has developed countless young, homegrown pitchers into fundamental pieces of a dominant rotation.

As Walt Whitman once wrote,

“O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won.”

It’s going to be very different for me to watch a team without Wakefield and Varitek. It seemed like Wakefield pitched nearly every game I attended, and Varitek’s humility is something I have always admired. I have intense respect for the both of them, and I know that their legacy as players will inspire the next generation.