Results tagged ‘ Miles Head ’

Looking Back on 2011 & Assessing the Off-Season

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are ‘it might have been.’”

It’s truly heartbreaking to imagine what “might have been” had the 2011 Red Sox not suffered their historic collapse. Fans and reporters alike anointed the Red Sox as World Series champions before pitchers and catchers even reported. It wasn’t a positive attitude that permeated spring training last season. It was assumption. This led to the insidious sense of entitlement that plagued the players, fans, and media.

After the overwhelming success the Red Sox had this past decade–two championships in four years–fans and media started to expect championships. Everyone has expectations, but it is the attitude that fans, players, and media have toward these expectations that can affect on-the-field performance.

There is no doubt that Epstein assembled an exceptional team. But I think things started to go wrong when people started to prematurely compare them to the 1927 Yankees before a game had even been played. People forgot that baseball is not played on paper. The 2011 Red Sox suffered from entitlement issues.

The collapse was slow and painful. After an less-than-thrilling April that inspired doubt, the Red Sox turned around and had an incredible summer. I spent many summer nights watching Adrian Gonzalez litter opposite-field doubles; I watched Josh Beckett have his typical odd-year success (including a one-hitter), and I watched Jacoby Ellsbury earn himself second place in the American League MVP race. It was almost too good to be true. When the Red Sox started to struggle in September, I tried not to get too concerned because they always stumble a bit in September. I wasn’t as confident that they’d win the World Series without cornerstone players such as Clay Buchholz and Kevin Youkilis. I was 100% confident they would make the playoffs though.

September 28th, 2011 is a day that will live on in infamy. It was like watching an Aristotelian tragedy, but I doubt that Aristotle himself could write something of this magnitude. I thought I was still bitter about Vladmir Guerrero ending the Red Sox’s 2009 campaign, but I will never, ever be able to erase Robert Andino’s fly ball that should have been caught by Carl Crawford. But I was still confident that the Yankees wouldn’t blow a seven run lead to the Rays.

I still maintain my conspiracy theory that the Yankees blew their seven-run lead on purpose. You don’t just leave a fastball up in the zone to Evan Longoria. I try to be objective as a fan who hopes to be a sports writer, but that was the day I lost my objectivity. I cried. It was an awful combination of disbelief, shame, and shock.

As much as I have always thought that Terry Francona is overrated as a manager, I will not assign the blame to him. I don’t think he managed his pitching staff well (you and I both know that he always leaves pitchers in too long), and I think he plays favorites. Maybe I just love national league baseball, but there are so many times where a bunt would have been effective. And there is no excuse for Jacoby Ellsbury only having 39 steals when he had a career high on-base percentage. (Obviously Crawford should be mentioned when it comes to base stealing, but he had a career low on-base percentage).

I will also not assign blame to Theo Epstein. I know he has made some mistakes with free agents (see: Julio Lugo, Daisuke Matsuzaka, John Lackey, Bobby Jenks, no Carl Crawford is not on this list), but those signings were made with good intentions. Julio Lugo terrorized the Red Sox when he was with the Tampa Bay Rays, John Lackey was dominant in the AL West, and Daisuke Matsuzaka had the same amount of hype as Yu Darvish had this year. I guess the road to hell really is paved with good intentions.This is why I hate long-term contracts though. I don’t know why, but I feel like I’m the only person in favor of incentive laden contracts. It’s risky to base a contract on the past, no matter how consistent the numbers are. Would incentive-based contracts really be that radical? If a player performs as he has been, he’ll get the money he wants. But it’s not fair to pay guys like John Lackey ridiculous amounts of money if he’s not performing the way he did in the past (which is why he earned the contract in the first place). I digress.

I will, however, shamelessly assign blame to the pitching staff. There is no denying that everything went wrong at once. But the beer and chicken incidents that surfaced exemplify the entitlement issues that I talked about earlier. As unacceptable as it was, one has to wonder if the same reprimanding reaction would have occurred had the Red Sox advanced in the playoffs.

Josh Beckett can argue all he wants that the 2004 champions drank whiskey in the dugout. We have to assign context to these situations, though. Kevin Millar encouraged everyone to take a shot of whiskey before Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS to loosen everyone up. Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey, and others lackadaisically drank during the game on days when they were not pitching. I know it only happened once or twice, but from a fan’s perspective, it just doesn’t look good.

Changes needed to be made, and I firmly believe that change will come in the form of Bobby Valentine. I was admittedly skeptical at first (though I was delighted that I no longer have to listen to him on Sunday Night Baseball), but I think that Valentine is the perfect man for the job. Go ahead and complain about his less-than-impressive managerial record (.510), but Francona had a managerial record of .440 when he came over to the Red Sox.

The thing that really corroborated my confidence in Valentine was his attitude towards spring training. There are more PFPs, he has already added two B games (my favorite thing–I prefer them over A games), and players will now ride the bus to away games rather than driving themselves. Baseball is a team sport, and the Red Sox did not play like a team last year. Valentine doesn’t even think, like many of his colleagues, that spring training is too short. You all know that I wish spring training lasted loner, too.

I don’t think that I am the only person that notices the tension that pervades the atmosphere of this year’s spring training. Josh Beckett won’t name the players he had issues with last season, and it’s not hard to tell that Crawford was disappointed with Red Sox owner John Henry’s remarks that he did not support the signing.

It was always clear to me when I attended spring training that Josh Beckett is the ring-leader. He has an enormous influence over the younger players, and this concerns me because I don’t think he is the greatest example. I think he’s a great pitcher, but I have issues with his attitude.

There is no doubt in my mind that Carl Crawford will bounce back this season. He is the quintessential five-tool player and an incredible athlete. I’m not trying to make excuses for Crawford, but I can understand why he struggled. Transitioning to a big market team is difficult enough, but Crawford also lacked the permanence with his spot in the lineup when he was with the Rays. For some guys that matters, others it doesn’t. I’ve gotten different responses when I have asked minor league players their opinions about this, and that is what makes baseball so interesting to me: it’s all relative.

I can tell that Red Sox players are sick of discussing the collapse, which is fair. But the success of the 2012 Red Sox relies heavily on the players learning from their mistakes, which I think they have. It’s also important to leave the past in the past, and focus on the future. That being said, before I discuss the minor leagues, I’d like to go through a couple of the (major) off-season additions, and how they impact the roster.

Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney

The Red Sox sent Josh Reddick, Miles Head, and Raul Alcantara to Oakland for Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney. I really like this trade, and I think the Red Sox got the better end of the deal. It was tough for the Red Sox to lose Jonathan Papelbon, but we all saw this coming. He kept signing one-year deals, and it was obvious that he wanted to test free-agent waters unlike Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, and Clay Buchholz who signed multi-year deals before reaching free agency for the first time.

Trading for Bailey, who is still under arbitration, was the perfect way to avoid spending a lot of money on closers like Ryan Madson or Heath Bell of similar caliber. Not to mention the fact that Bailey is fantastic when he is healthy. There’s a reason that he was voted 2009 AL Rookie of the Year.

Ryan Sweeney is the perfect guy to platoon in right field with Cody Ross until Ryan Kalish returns to form. I think that trading Josh Reddick shows the confidence the organization has in Kalish. I think that Kalish is Fenway’s future right fielder if he can maintain his health.

Miles Head had an incredible campaign with Single-A Greenville the first half of the season. He hit .338 with 15 home runs and 53 RBIs in 66 games. He struggled, however, when he advanced to High-A Salem where he hit .254, and suffered significant drops in his on-base and slugging percentages. Obviously the pitching becomes a lot more sophisticated in High-A, but if Head tweaks his mechanics a little bit, I think he has the potential for success.

Raul Alcantara is still extremely raw with his mechanics, and the highest level he has pitched in is Short-Season A. It is unclear to me at this point how effective he can be, but he certainly intrigued me when I watched him at extended spring training as well as the Gulf Coast League.

Mark Melancon

The Red Sox traded Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland to the Astros for relief pitcher Mark Melancon. Melancon had a terrific 2011 campaign with the Astros, and he is the perfect set up man. This trade obviously had personal repercussions for me since Jed Lowrie was my first “project,” and Kyle Weiland was my favorite pitching prospect, thus marking the second year in a row that the Red Sox traded my favorite pitching prospect.

Lowrie was always a health liability, and even though Weiland didn’t have success when he was in Boston, he showed a lot of promise in the minor leagues, and I think he will have more opportunity to succeed in a small market like Houson.

The Marco Scutaro trade

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I’m a huge Marco Scutaro apologist. I think he was completely under appreciated during his time with the Red Sox. He didn’t choose the right time to commit his errors. He quietly batted nearly .300 last season, and he has always had a great eye. The Red Sox traded him to the Rockies for the irrelevant Clay Mortenson (though he is a former first round pick). I think the Red Sox could have gotten more for Scutaro, but they got what they really wanted, which was a salary dump, so I digress.

Mike Aviles and Nick Punto will platoon at shortstop. Jose Iglesias is not ready yet after struggling so much at the plate in 2011. No one expects Iglesias to put up numbers like Hanley Ramirez (ignoring 2011) or Troy Tulowitzki. He is heralded for his glove, not his bat. I think that the Red Sox were a little too aggressive in throwing him into Double-A his first professional season. Iglesias undoubtedly needs to see more pitching at the Triple-A level. His glove alone will not keep him in the majors. 

I’m not going to beat around the bush: I do not like Nick Punto. For those of you that wanted Scutaro gone, I’m telling you right now that you are not going to like Punto. He is overrated, and I will NOT be a happy camper if I ever see him facing a left-handed pitcher.

Free Agent Additions:

The biggest free agent additions were probably Cody Ross, Kelly Shoppach, Nick Punto (whom I have already discussed), Vincente Padilla, and Aaron Cook. Ross had a down year last season, but his swing suits Fenway Park, so that will benefit him. He and Sweeney are perfect guys for platoon roles.

Kelly Shoppach is an alright addition for a catcher (he was actually initially drafted by the Red Sox). There won’t be much there with his offense, but he is superb behind the plate. Just wait for Ryan Lavarnway to come up, it won’t be long (I’m assuming he will start the season in Triple-A). It looks like Saltalamacchia will be the leader of the catching staff. I thought he improved A LOT last year–especially in the middle of the season when he actually started to throw out runners.

Vincente Padilla and Aaron Cook figure to be in the battle for the last two spots of the rotation. Daniel Bard, Alfredo Aceves, Ross Ohlendorf, and Andrew Miller also figure to be in those talks.

I don’t know if I can see Bard in the rotation. Bard consistently throws 97-100, and relies on the speed of his fastball to get hitters out. He is not going to be able to throw 97-100 for seven (ideally) innings. That being said, his changeup is typically 87-90 mph, so if he has to tone down his fastball for the sake of longevity, he’s going to have to adjust his changeup accordingly. He’s also going to have to use his secondary pitches more. He has a fantastic slider, but he lost confidence in that pitch in his abysmal September. If he can bring back the cutter, I think there’s potential for success. What bothers me, though, is that Bard resembles Aroldis Chapman and Neftali Feliz (both known for their speed), and neither have had success in the starting rotation. (Why the Rangers are trying Feliz there again, I do not know). C.J. Wilson had success in his transition because he didn’t rely as much on his speed as those pitchers do. It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out, but I have my doubts.

Aceves belongs in the bullpen, in my opinion. His long-term relief is invaluable, and he was so effective out of the ‘pen last year. He can be a spot starter as we saw, but I think his spot is in the ‘pen.

If Bard is successful in his endeavors, then Beckett, Lester, Buchholz, and Bard would be an incredible rotation. If it doesn’t work out though, I’ll be nervous. I can’t say much about Aaron Cook and Vincente Padilla until I see them pitch in spring training, and I have no idea why the Red Sox re-signed Andrew Miller. I know he is a tall lefty with a high ceiling, but after a certain point (and a certain WHIP), you just have to let it go.I also cannot explain to you the logic behind the Ross Ohlendorf signing.

This offseason was extremely different from last year’s. There were no high-profile signings, just a lot of low-risk high reward type signings. It reminds me a lot of the offseason going into the 2008 season with the John Smoltz and Brad Penny experiments. Those did not work out. I’m confident in the offense, I feel pretty good about the bullpen, and Daniel Bard is pretty much the determining factor when it comes to my feelings about the starting rotation.

 

 

Series Win is a Step in the Right Direction and Minor League Roundup

The Red Sox may have won their first game–and series–over the weekend against the Yankees, but not everything has clicked in one game yet.

To start out on a positive note, Adrian Gonzalez cemented my approval when he bunted down the third base
line when the Yankees put the shift on him. Gonzalez has one of the most
seamless swings in the major leagues, but I’m a sucker for small ball. I
wonder if that bunt was his intuition or Francona’s.

John Lackey hardly kept the Red Sox in the game on Friday night giving up six runs over five innings on seven hits, but the offense was finally able to string some hits together when it mattered (ie. with runners in scoring position).

Such was not the case on Saturday night. On the eve of the announcement of his four-year contract extension, Buchholz only lasted 3.2 innings giving up five runs (four earned) on eight hits. Somehow, I’m not too concerned about Buchholz getting his act together like I am about some other pitchers. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect Buchholz to put up the kind of numbers he did last year (specifically the ERA), but I do think it’s realistic to anticipate great numbers.

Looking back to 2008, Buchholz is a completely different pitcher. He is far more comfortable with pitching from the stretch, and he commands an aura of confidence on the mound. There is no question he deserves a four-year contract extension.

Going back to the offense, though, the Red Sox stranded around 11 runners on Saturday night. The next night, the Sox left around 15 runners on. This is unacceptable, but the Red Sox were able to get away with it on Sunday night because it was finally a game where they weren’t trailing going into the bottom of the first.

On the bright side, though, Dustin Pedroia collected three hits in each game against the Yankees.

I don’t think anybody was expecting Josh Beckett to have the kind of night that he did, but he really proved a lot of people wrong. Clearly, he is not past his prime. He retired the side in order six out of his eight innings, and retired 14 straight after putting two runners on in the fourth inning.

Beckett’s velocity was great, but it was his off-speed stuff that was really fooling hitters. Nevertheless, he was throwing all of his pitches for strikes. There is no doubt that Beckett has what it takes to find the overwhelming dominance he had in his 2007 Cy-Young-caliber season or his 2003 World Series MVP season. It’s just a matter of executing and throwing all of his pitches for strikes. I don’t think he has turned into the Wakefield or Matsuzaka type of pitcher where he is either really on or really off.

Beckett has a lot to prove or reprove for that matter. There is no doubt that Jon Lester earned and deserved the honor of starting Opening Day, He is the ace of the pitching staff. I still think that Francona moving Beckett from the one-hole to the four-hole was a demotion of some sort. It cannot have been a match up issue with Texas because Lackey has historically struggled in Arlington. 

Perhaps Beckett will fare better this season without the pressure of explicitly leading the Red Sox’ pitching staff. When a team names their starting pitcher on Opening Day, there is an implicit statement that follows: this is the ace of our staff. Well, in his two best seasons to date (2003 and 2007), he was not the Opening Day starter.

I know this is a lot to say after one start. But this flash of Beckett’s characteristic brilliance of old erased all qualms I might have had.

Matsuzaka’s start, on the other hand, only confirmed my qualms. Giving up seven runs over two innings isn’t pretty, but it’s not like I have not seen the Red Sox come back from a 7-0 deficit against the Rays before. It’s certainly easy to blame Matsuzaka, but it is also important to notice that the Red Sox bullpen gave up a combined nine runs after Matsuzaka’s departure (only Alfredo Aceves is pardoned from this mess).

Despite Matsuzaka’s consistent struggles, I have a feeling the Red Sox will stick with him because of his contract. I know it’s frustrating to have him on the team now, but there is no doubt that it was a brilliant signing at the time (even though spending millions just to talk to him was ridiculous). The Red Sox don’t win the 2007 World Series without him. He was the Ichiro Suzuki of pitching in Japan. 

There is no doubt that Dan Wheeler has been brought into some tough situations thus far: mop-up duty last night, and lying in the bases loaded, no outs bed that Dennys Reyes made. I think that people have failed to notice Wheeler’s lack of dominance because of these already-out-of-control situations that he has been brought into. He has been tagged for hits in his outings. I think that Wheeler will prove to be a valuable asset down the line, but I think Francona has to define his role a little bit more. 

Minor League Updates

Greenville: On Saturday night, 36th overall pick Bryce Brentz went 3-4 with two triples and a double. Brandon Jacobs went 1-2 with a home run. In his professional debut, 39th overall pick Anthony Ranaudo threw five innings of shut out ball. He gave up three hits, walked one, and struck out four.

On Sunday, Brandon Workman made his professional debut. He gave up no earned runs over two innings. He gave up two hits, walked two batters, and struck out four. Felix Sanchez went 3-5, and Brandon Jacobs went 2-5 with a double and another home run.

On Sunday, Miles Head had an absolute monster game. He went 4-4 with two home runs, a double, four RBI and four runs scored.

 Salem: Salem’s home opener–and Drake Britton’s first start of the season–was pushed back a couple of games due to rain. Britton didn’t have a great outing, but I would attribute this to the weather and the uncertain process of warming up just to sit down again. Salem’s offense didn’t hit much on Saturday, but Dan Butler went 3-3 with a home run.

In their later game (the played a double header), Matt Spring went 2-3 with two doubles.

Portland: On Saturday, Will Middlebrooks went 4-4 with two doubles, a home run, and three RBI.

On Sunday, Stephen Fife, Seth Garrison, and Blake Maxwell shutout Reading. Alex Hassan went 2-3.

On Monday, Michael Lee gave up three hits over 3.2 innings and struck out four, giving up no earned runs. Ryan Lavarnway went 3-5, and Oscar Tejeda, who was off to a relatively slow start to the season, went 2-4.

Alex Hassan has gotten at least one hit in every game so far. Middlebrooks also had a hit in every game until last night’s. Who said the transition from Advanced-A to Double-A was the hardest? Not these guys.

Pawtucket: Tony Thomas, who was competing for a spot in Pawtucket during Spring Training, has hit two grand slams this week. In fact, he has nine RBI in his first three games of the season, and a hit in each of his first three games.

On Saturday night, Matt Fox threw six innings of one-run ball. He gave up four hits, one walk, and struck out four. In his second appearance of the season, Okajima threw another scoreless inning.  He also appeared in a game on Monday in which he threw a scoreless inning. 

Lars Anderson was 3-4 on Saturday.

On Sunday, Andrew Miller started and threw 3.2 innings. He gave up two runs (one earned), walked four, and struck out four. Rich Hill and Clevlan Santeliz combined to throw 4.1 innings of scoreless relief. Hill struck out four.

On Monday, Pawtucket exploded for 15 runs. Ryan Kalish went 3-5, and Juan Carlos Linares went 3-5 with a home run and a double. Jose Iglesias also collected a hit after taking some precautionary rest due to a sore thumb.

Brandon Duckworth threw five innings of shutout ball, striking out three, and giving up four hits. Jason Rice pitched the ninth and threw a scoreless inning, striking out one.

Elsewhere:

On Saturday, Dustin Richardson threw 2.1 innings for the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs. He gave up one hit, one run, struck out three, and walked none. On Monday, he threw 1.2 innings giving up two hits, a walk, but striking out three.

I actually had the chance to catch up with Richardson during a spring training game. He said he wasn’t real excited about
the trade (ie. Andrew Miller trade) at first, but that he was happy and liked the organization. He said he was particularly excited because he thought he had a legitimate shot of making the team out of spring training.

Unfortunately, he was optioned to Triple-A, but I don’t think it will be a bad thing for him. Richardson was brought in sporadically last year and into tough situations for a guy fresh out of Triple-A. He dominated in Pawtucket last year during the first half of the season, leading the team in strikeouts if I remember correctly. Nevertheless, he never pitched the amount of innings in Triple-A that he did in Portland, so a little extra time will only help him. I have no doubt that the Florida Marlins will call him up soon, and when he makes the club, I have a feeling he will stick. The thing is, Richardson is capable of being far more than a lefty specialist. The thing that troubled him last year with the big league club was that they would bring him in, he might face one guy, walk him, and then they would take him out. He mentioned it was tough mentally.

It’s all about confidence with him. If he can get ahead in the count with his first pitch strike, he throws his curveball and changeup a lot more.

Casey Kelly started the season in Double-A for San Diego. In his first start of the season, he threw 4.1 innings, giving up three runs on five hits, and striking out one. Kelly spent all of 2010 in Double-A, but I think he could use some more time there simply because he didn’t dominate hitters last season the way he is capable of doing so. Plus, it was his first full season as a pitcher, so I’m not surprised that he is in Double-A.

Reymond Fuentes has gotten a hit in all of his games so far, and is batting .333 for the Advanced-A Lake Elsinore Storm.

Anthony Rizzo has gotten multiple hits in all of his games thus far save one. He is also hitting .333 with two doubles and a home run for Triple-A Tucson.

The Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

I wasn’t too concerned after the Rangers swept the Red Sox. After all, the Rangers went on to sweep the Mariners–including Felix Hernandez–in their next series.

Granted, the box scores weren’t as pathetic as they were in Texas; though they still are a bit deceptive. Neither Josh Beckett nor Daisuke Matsuzaka had a quality start. They both gave up three runs in their five innings. One could easily argue that a starter who gives up three runs keeps his team in the game and gives them an opportunity to win.

Lasting five innings is what is ineffective. Both Beckett and Matsuzaka had alarmingly high pitch counts in nearly all of their respective innings. This is almost characteristic of Matsuzaka, but it is fairly unusual for Beckett.

What concerns me is not the fact that the Red Sox lost six in a row. What concerns me is that not a single one of their starting pitchers had a quality start. Five bad quality starts in a row is a red flag for any team. If a team loses three close, well played games in a row, it’s frustrating, but not necessarily concerning.

The Red Sox pitching can’t be the only scapegoat. The offense was rather anemic, and struggled to string hits together in important situations. There is no ‘I’ in team, and I feel like the fans, including myself, as well as the media have been focusing on individual players, rather than team as one whole entity.

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is a phrase used to describe the Gestalt theory in Psychology. Essentially, the Gestalt effect is our form-generating sense. When we look at a figure, instead of seeing a bunch of lines and curves, we see the figure itself.

Similarly, I think when looking at the Red Sox, or any team for that matter, its how the team as a whole performs, and not just individual players. With the Red Sox, it is particularly easy to fixate on guys like Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, and especially their high-profile newcomers in Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford.

But baseball is a team sport, and that phrase: “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is especially relevant. Jon Lester may have broken the trend of bad quality starts in the last game in Cleveland, but his offense did nothing to back him up. He threw seven innings of shut out baseball giving up only three hits and striking out nine. Not only did Lester break the trend of bad quality starts, but he also put to rest–at least for now–the qualms that many have of his notoriously bad Aprils.

That game was frustrating because Lester pitched so well, and it was only Daniel Bard’s lead off walk that ended up proving costly. But damn if that suicide squeeze wasn’t beautiful. I always say that small ball wins games, and this was one of the few times that it was not fun to be right.

The Red Sox finally won their first game of the year against the Yankees, but still, all was not perfect. Normally, a start in which the pitcher lasts five innings and gives up six runs is not redeeming, but because of Lackey’s disastrous last start, I suppose it was. Luckily, the Red Sox’ potent lineup finally showed its true colors. The offense was finally able to string some hits together–especially with runners in scoring position.

It’s hard to attribute the Red Sox’ bad start to one thing, but I do think their ten game losing streak during Spring Training had something to do with it. I’ll be the first person to say that I hardly take spring training statistics seriously, but I do take them with a grain of salt.

I hardly kept up with Major League Spring Training, but I did hear the tidbits that the Red Sox lost about ten games in a row, and Kevin Youkilis struggled at the plate. Believe me, I understand that Spring Training is a time to get your timing back, but this was unusual for Youkilis.

Perhaps the Red Sox were a little aloof during spring training, and I think it is possible that it carried over into the regular season. Spring Training is a time to get back into the grind, not to put things in cruise control. If the Red Sox had a slightly better start to the season, I don’t think anybody would think twice about their rather poor spring training, but I think that this is a reasonable speculation.

Things just have to click for the Red Sox; that’s really all it is.

Minor Leagues:

Minor League Baseball’s Opening Day was on Thursday, April 7th. Triple-A Pawtucket, Double-A Portland, and Single-A Greenville all won their home openers. Portland was the first Red Sox affiliate to collect a victory, and I don’t think anybody thought they would win a game before the Red Sox themselves.

Alex Wilson got the Opening Day call for Portland, and had a pretty decent day. Sox Prospects senior scout Chris Mellen was at the Portland game, and commented that Wilson was getting a lot more swinging strikes on his fastball. Wilson spent the second half of the season in Portland last year and struggled, so it is encouraging to see a more sophisticated fastball from him.

Will Middlebrooks, Alex Hassan, Ryan Dent, and Tim Federowicz all had hits in their Double-A debuts. In fact, Middlebrooks’ hit was also an RBI, and Federowicz’s was a home run.

In the first two games, Hassan has raked. Last night he went 3-5 with two RBIs.

Even though this is only once instance, I noticed that Middlebrooks laid off a 3-2 slider, which is something that bothered him during Spring Training.

In Greenville, Brandon Jacobs and Jose Garcia hit back-to-back home runs, and third-round pick Sean Coyle hit an RBI double in his professional debut.

The 36th overall pick, Bryce Brentz hit a grand slam. First baseman Miles Head apparently made a fantastic play in foul territory, barreling over a railing into the dugout, and stayed in the game despite being slow to get back up.

Jason Thompson and Christian Vazquez each hit a triple. Felix Sanchez hit a triple in the second game.

Last night in Greenville, Kyle Stroup threw five innings of one hit ball, striking out six.

On the first pitch he saw in Triple-A, Jose Iglesias hit a single, and hit a second one in his following at-bat. It was especially encouraging to see such a nice debut from him since his offensive skills were the biggest question in placing him in Double-A or Triple-A.

Juan Carlos Linares hit a 2 RBI triple in Pawtucket’s home opener. Last night, Yamaico Navarro went 3-4 with two doubles, Ryan Kalish went 2-4 with two RBis, and Lars Anderson hit a double.

On Opening Day, Michael Bowden, who transitioned to the bullpen last season, actually closed the game. He threw a 1-2-3 inning, and threw nine of his ten pitches for strikes. He was also hitting 94 mph on the radar gun consistently.

In Pawtucket’s second game, Jason Rice threw two scoreless innings, striking out three.

Salem’s home opener was rained out last night, but there is a double header this afternoon. Drake Britton will be starting the first one. 39th overall pick, Anthony Ranaudo, will make his professional debut for Greenville tonight.

Stolmy Pimentel is currently throwing for Double-A Portland.   

Tales from Exit 138: Day Two of Minor League Spring Training Games

Today, the Red Sox minor league affiliates played the Twins’ minor league affiliates. Double-A and Triple-A were home, and all the Single-A teams were close by at the Lee County Sports Complex. I decided to make the quick drive over because I wanted to watch Chris Hernandez throw his two innings for Salem.

Kyle Weiland threw on Wednesday. He said that it went well and that he felt good. Will Middlebrooks, who will likely make the transition to Double-A Portland, has been working out with Triple-A Pawtucket.

Kolbrin Vitek and Michael Almanzar impressed coaches with their defensive skills at third base.

Here are how the lineups looked for all of the affiliates:

Lowell:
Vinicio
Bogaerts
Cecchini
Perkins
Perez
Danforth
Colorado
Ramos
Lova
Reyes

Celestino (P)

Greenville (only lineup I was able to get positions for)
Coyle DH
Ramos CF
Brentz RF
Head 1B
Renfroe 3B
Blair C
Holmer LF
Thompson 2B
Garcia SS

Cevenka P

Salem
LeBlanc
J. Garcia
Vitek
R. Rodriguez
Vazquez
Wilkerson
Roque
M. Moanaroa
Robinson

Pressly (P)

Portland
Dent
Hazelbaker
Almanzar
Butler
Mailman
Place
Bermudez
Hedman
Gentile

Pawtucket
Lin
Tejeda
Middlebrooks
Lavarnway
Bates
Padron
Thomas
Hassan
Sheely

Fife P

Lucas LeBlanc (playing for Salem) got some good wood on the ball and induced two relatively deep fly balls.

Catcher Christian Vazquez got fooled on an 86 mph changeup, but tripled to right on the next pitch. He has a strong arm, but needs to work on his accuracy; his throws to second are high.

First round pick Kolbrin Vitek crushed a ball to straightaway center for a triple.

Chris Hernandez piggy-backed Ryan Pressly. In his first inning, he retired the side in order. He started each count with a ball, but followed with a strike. He only gave up a double in his second inning. His off speed stuff looks nasty: it has great movement and drop. He looks fairly advanced.

Hunter Cervenka started for Greenville. He threw only eight pitches to four batters his first inning, but threw 28 pitches to six batters his second inning (though there were two errors).

Miles Head hit a double into right-center.

Twins minor league pitcher David Bromberg was watching the High-A teams. He was the Twins’ minor league pitcher of the year in 2009, where he posted a 2.70 ERA for the Twins’ High-A club. In 2010, he split time between Double and Triple-A, posting a 3.75 ERA.

Sox Prospects correspondent Jonathan Singer reports that Will Middlebrooks was taken out of the Pawtucket lineup in the third inning with an undisclosed injury; though it doesn’t appear to be serious. They will probably take it day-to-day.

Oscar Tejeda crushed a home run (via Chris Mellen).

Ryan Lavarnway threw a runner out at second.

In case you missed it this morning, the Red Sox made some more inevitable cuts. The semantic differences between “optioned to” and “reassigned to” will always elude me. Jose Iglesias, Luis Exposito, Yamaico Navarro, Lars Anderson, and Juan Carlos Linares were among those sent back to minor league camp.

Brandon Workman will pitch for Salem tomorrow. Stolmy Pimentel will pitch for Portland.    

Tales from Exit 138: First Day of Minor League Spring Training Games

Today marks the start of minor league spring training games, which is what I have been waiting for all spring. Up until now, I have busied myself by watching some of the big league games, which I only got excited about when the prospects came in.

If you’re interested in checking minor league spring training, you can check out the schedule here (the link will take you to the Sox Prospects website).

I love minor league spring training games because there will always be multiple games in one day. When the Double-A and Triple-A teams are at the complex, the Single-A guys are away, and vice versa. Today, the Red Sox affiliates played the Orioles affiliates, so the Orioles Single-A affiliates were at the complex today. That being said, Manny Machado, the third overall pick in the 2010 draft, batted third and played shortstop for the Orioles’ High-A affiliate.

Here are how the Single-A affiliate lineups looked today.

Lowell:

Vinicio DH
Bogaerts SS
Cecchini 3B
Loya LF
Perez C
Danforth 1B
Colorado RF
Guerrero 2B
Johnson CF
Reyes DH

Velette P

No, you didn’t count wrong: there are ten players in that lineup. This is why minor league spring training games remind me of the Fall Instructional League. The rules are flexible (ie. innings can end with one out and two men on). I was planning on keeping score of all the games, but I realized that this would be impossible when Drake Britton had the bases loaded with one out and the inning magically ended. The pitchers have a pitch count, or can only face a number of batters per inning, so once they reach or exceed that limit, the inning is over (I learned this from Chris Mellen, the director of scouting and senior columnist for Sox Prospects).

Greenville

Coyle 2B
Federowicz C
Brentz RF
Head 1B
Renfore 3B
Jacobs DH
De La Cruz CF
Schwindenhammer LF
Meneses SS

Wheeler 1 (the lineup said Miller was going to be the starting pitcher, but apparently, Dan Wheeler got some innings in).

Salem
F. Sanchez CF
Gibson SS
Vitek DH
Rodriguez 1B
Blair C
Wilkerson LF
Peterson RF
Rogue 2B
Kang 3B

Britton P

Apparently, Britton’s fastball was hitting 90-95 mph. Britton had the bases loaded in the second inning at one point, but there were a couple of sloppy defensive plays that can only be cured through repetitive fundamental drills. Britton struck out two in the first inning.

The lineups are kind of indicative of which level the player will be at once the season starts, but such is not always the case. Federowicz won’t be playing in Greenville; it is likely he will start the season in Portland.

Coyle is advanced enough to skip Lowell and star the season in Greenville. Coyle is very solid defensively at second base. Biggest thing he needs to work on is turning the double play cleanly with the runner sliding into second.

 Cecchini is likely to start the season in Lowell, which surprised me at first, but I think it’s the right thing to do simply because he was injured all of last year. As he said in our interview, he essentially hasn’t seen pitches since last April. It would be extremely difficult to skip Lowell given his injury.

Chris Hernandez will pitch for Salem tomorrow (which he was excited about); Workman pitches Friday, and Ranaudo on Saturday. Stolmy Pimentel will also pitch Saturday. 

At the complex, I had the chance to speak with Alex Speier, a sportswriter for WEEI. I really appreciate his taking the time to talk to me. Alex does a great job covering the minor league guys as well as the major league players. I also had the pleasure of meeting Chris Mellen and Jon Singer, two scouts for the Sox Prospects website.

I have also really enjoyed meeting some of the family members of the players. Hunter Cervenka’s grandmother (affectionately known as “Granny” by everyone), Miles Head’s parents, and Lucas LeBlanc’s family were all watching the games today. Lucas has an adorable son named Dawson. 

Chris Cameron and Mike Antonellis (you can follow him on twitter here) have been kind enough to let me do some freelance work for the Portland Sea Dogs. I wrote an article about Will Middlebrooks, which you can read here. On Mike’s blog, you can read my article on Derrik Gibson here, and my article on the decision between going to college and playing professionally here.

One more notable thing. A year ago today, Ryan Westmoreland had a surgery that changed his life. Today, he took batting practice. I have seen him take batting practice a few times, and I’m being completely honest when I say that if I knew nothing about the Red Sox, I wouldn’t be able to tell that he had that kind of surgery. I had the pleasure of meeting his girlfriend, Charlene (you can follow her on twitter here. They are on a remarkable journey, and their perseverance is admirable. A lot has been written about his mentality of taking it day by day, and when you think about it, that’s what the best baseball players do. They take it day by day, inning by inning, pitch by pitch. This is exactly what Westmoreland is doing. 

Red Sox Instrux 2010

I swear, every time I go to a baseball game, I don’t really have any idea what I’m doing. I go to baseball games with the sole purpose of interacting with at least one player, but it’s not like I have some strategic plan that I follow each time I go to a baseball game. To be honest, going to baseball games has become kind of a stressful experience (in the absolute best of ways) for me because I never know what to expect going in. The outcome is certainly worth the uncertainty.

The Fall Instructional League is essentially a rookie league populated by guys from the Dominican Summer League, the Gulf Coast League, and the Lowell Spinners (short season Signle-A ball). In other words, there are a lot of draft picks. This is absolutely raw, unrefined baseball talent, and this league serves to refine essential baseball fundamentals. Many of the draft picks signed late, so they have little to no experience in professional baseball–maybe nine games in the Gulf Coast League (a rookie league).

Here is a brief look at the 2010 Red Sox Draft:
First Round:
-Kolbrin Vitek (20th overall)
Compensatory Picks
-Bryce Brentz (36th overall)
-Anthony Ranaudo (39th overall)
Round 2
-Brandon Workman (57th overall)
Round 3
-Sean Coyle (110th overall)
Round 4
-Garin Cecchini (143rd overall)
-Round 5
-Henry Ramos (173rd overall)
Round 6
-Kendrick Perkins (203rd overall)
Round 7
-Chris Hernandez (233rd overall)
…Round 10
-Jacob Dahlstrand (323rd overall)
Round 11
-Lucas LeBlanc (353rd overall)

The only guys who weren’t at the Fall Instructional League on Sunday when I was there were Anthony Ranaudo and Brandon Workman. Workman was to arrive the next day for a slightly different strength conditioning program.

There was very little information regarding the Fall Instructional League. There were some rumors regarding who would be there. Casey Kelly, Ryan Dent, and Ryan Westmoreland all confirmed via their Twitter accounts. An actual roster was posted a few days before the league began by Sox Prospects. This helped me out because I was able to do some basic research, and perhaps more importantly, figure out where these practices (and games) were taking place. The only thing it didn’t tell me was what time everything was taking place. I basically had to blindly assume that the practices would start some time between nine and ten. All I could hope was that I was not embarking on a five hour round trip for nothing.

As I drove into the Red Sox Minor League Complex–a place I had not been to for five months–I noticed a sea of red uniforms a couple of fields over. The grueling two-and-a-half hour drive over boring alligator alley suddenly became a small price to pay.
IMG_5539.JPG
I was absolutely enthralled from the moment I set foot upon the complex. The majority of the players were gathered on one field, focused on an intricate drill that focused on what I would call situational fundamentals. The coaches would yell out a situation. “One and two with two outs,” for example. The pitcher would pretend to throw home, and then the coach would hit the ball somewhere. It was up to the players to adjust accordingly, and make the call as to what should happen.

The coaches would get angry if the players weren’t communicating with each other. The players would switch out nearly every play, and then would wait in line until next time. This was far from fundamentally sound. In fact, first base was overthrown more than once, and the cutoff man was occasionally missed. This observation is not meant to criticize–far from it. This observation made me realize the point of this league: to refine the fundamentals. As I said before, a lot of these guys have little to no experience with even the lowest level of professional baseball. This league is to prepare them for it.

On the other fields, the pitchers were working on pick-off drills. This was perhaps my favorite drill of the day because I had never seen anything like it. Even though I have heard from more than one pitcher that pitching from the stretch is something that is far from natural, I had no idea that this was how they learned. I assumed that it just came from in-game practice, but these guys were working on both how they turned and their pick off throws. It was absolutely fascinating.

I was very patient when it came to talking with players. I did not want to be rude and interrupt their practice, so I waited until they were at least en route to another field. I was familiar with names, but unfortunately I was not as familiar with faces. I decided not to risk embarrassing myself by addressing somebody by a name that was not his own, so I ended up asking for everyone’s name. I hope that they weren’t offended that I didn’t know exactly who they were or what they had done up to this point. Most of them were extremely friendly. I suppose the chocolate peanut butter cupcakes didn’t hurt.

The first guy I talked to was Garin Cecchini. I did not get a chance to talk to him for a long time because he was en route to another drill. He said he was really happy to be there, and I could tell that he was absolutely thrilled. He had only played about nine games in the Gulf Coast League, so he was clearly there to get more experience under his belt. He was wearing a brace around his knee, and I noticed that he was experiencing some pain during the infield drills. He said that he had had surgery recently, but he felt fine. I’ll ask him more next weekend.

Then I talked to Lucas LeBlanc. He hasn’t played in any GCL games because he signed so late, but he had played in a summer league. He was committed to LSU following the draft, but chose to play professionally. He said that he still had some angry voice messages and text messages saved on his phone. He had no regrets, and he said that he was really happy with his decision so far.

I had the longest conversation with Sean Coyle, and we spoke for about five minutes. He is a utility infielder, but projects to play second base in the organization. He likes to hit first or second in the batting order, and is confident with his speed on the base paths. He is projected to go to Greenville next year, and played very briefly in the GCL. I asked him the biggest thing he has learned so far and he said to just stay relaxed. He said that he anxious a lot this year (understandably so) and that he just needs to relax and take it easier. He also mentioned that he had played in summer leagues for the past four or five years with wooden bats, so the transition hasn’t been too hard. His brother is currently at UNC-Chapel Hill, which is one of the schools I’m applying to.
Thumbnail image for IMG_5543.JPG
I missed a couple of the players going in after batting practice, but some stayed behind to kill a snake and tie it to a bat. Miles Head was kind enough to pose for a picture with his prize.

The last guy I talked to was Bryce Brentz. He is a pretty funny guy. Since he was drafted out of college, I also brought up the difference between aluminum and metal bats. He said something to the effect of that the outfielders are able to position themselves better when it comes to hits off wooden bats. That’s something I had not heard before.

On my way home, I f
ound it kind of odd that I had bought an audio recorder the day before, yet I didn’t use it once that day. I didn’t even ask for a picture with any of these guys. I guess it just did not feel right at the time, and I’m glad that I didn’t. Sunday was a day for me to put myself out there, and merely introduce myself to the players. It would have been awfully awkward to whip out a recorder and tape these informal interviews. I’ve decided that I only want to use the recorder during a formal interview or a press conference. Otherwise, I feel like the presence of a recorder would take something away from the conversation.

Overall, I was impressed–not with their fundamentals, but with their attitudes. From what I could tell, they were all very driven and ambitious. I could tell that it was absolutely surreal for the guys who didn’t have professional experience yet. I’m sure this feeling wares off after a while, but it was just a pleasant ambiance to be a part of.

They have a game against the Twins (at the Twins) next Saturday, and I will be going back. I plan on scoring the game, and I will sit next to somebody with a radar gun and track pitches. I would also like to conduct a formal interview with one of them (or all of them), if they oblige. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to look into the strength conditioning program as well. 

I am also hoping to get a chance to say hello to Ryan Westmoreland, who is also rehabbing. I didn’t see him on Sunday because I think he had gone in relatively early. I think it is absolutely remarkable that he is there, but I have to say, I’m not surprised. The second he got out of surgery, he pretty much had himself convinced that he was going to be back on a baseball field, and he has worked hard to make it happen. Judging from his tweets, he seems absolutely thrilled to be there, and that’s all that matters.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.