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.