BOSTON — The 2014 Boston Red Sox Rookie Program concluded Friday after a week of workouts and seminars for 10 promising minor league prospects. It’s now up to each player to implement what he learned.
The Red Sox Rookie Program is designed to prepare up-and-coming minor leaguers for an eventual transition to the majors. The participating players work with the major league staff to learn more about life in The Show, as each player figures to be roughly 12 to 18 months away — sometimes less — from a possible big league call-up.
This year’s participants included five pitchers (Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo, Henry Owens, Noe Ramirez and Dalier Hinojosa), two catchers (Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart), a third baseman (Garin Cecchini), a first baseman (Travis Shaw) and a shortstop (Deven Marrero). A few potentially could push for a major league roster spot later in the 2014 season, and all could factor into Boston’s plans at some point in the near future.
Red Sox Director of Player Development Ben Crockett was among those keeping a watchful eye on the 10 participants this week. Crockett, as well as the players, spoke with reporters at Harvard University on Friday.
Below are some notes from Friday’s Rookie Program availability.
—Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Drake Britton are among those who participated in the Red Sox’ 2013 Rookie Program, which suggests that the camp can be used as a stepping stone toward bigger things in the ensuing Major League Baseball season.
“I think we showed last year with having guys in important roles, both August and September and into the playoffs. … I think all of those things should speak volumes to these guys that hopefully they’re not only in an organization that prioritizes winning, but we’re not afraid to expose guys to tough situations if they’ve shown that they can handle it,” Crockett said.
Bogaerts, Bradley, Britton, Christian Vazquez, Allen Webster, Steven Wright, Dan Butler, Bryce Brentz, Alex Hassan, Rubby De La Rosa and Brock Holt participated in the 2013 program.
–This year marked Christian Vazquez’s second time participating in the Rookie Program. He might be closer to the majors than any other participant.
The Red Sox have a bit of a minor league catching logjam with Vazquez, Dan Butler, Ryan Lavarnway and Blake Swihart all coming up through the system. But Vazquez supplemented his fantastic defense with major offensive improvements in 2013, and it’s reasonable to think that he might be the Red Sox’ starting catcher on Opening Day in 2015.
Crockett said that Vazquez, who has an absolute cannon, is “very close” to being major league ready.
–Oh yeah, don’t expect Vazquez to sport a Mike Napoli-esque beard any time soon — unless he draws it on with a Sharpie.
–Vazquez might emerge as the Red Sox’ starting catcher in the not-so-distant future, but Blake Swihart also has a very high ceiling and could factor into Boston’s catching plans as soon as 2016.
Swihart, a first-round pick in 2011, is extremely athletic. He played third base and outfield in high school, but the Red Sox decided to convert him into a catcher. The 21-year-old now is ranked the fifth-best catching prospect in Major League Baseball, according to rankings recently released by MLB.com.
Swihart is a strong defender — evidenced by him being named Red Sox Minor League Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 — but Crockett also saw improvement in the backstop’s offensive approach.
“Offensively, I think the approach improved quite a bit this year. It will continue to be a focal point for him as someone who is a very good hitter and who feels like he can hit a lot of different pitches,” Crockett said. “I think as he moves up the levels. …. He pretty much became more aggressive to pitches that he can handle a little bit more often, and that’s something that we’re going to continue to try to refine.”
–What does Swihart plan to work on this season?
“It’s kind of a universal answer, but everything. … You’re always learning when you’re catching,” Swihart said. “You might find a new pitcher that you’re catching that day and you have to get comfortable with him, learning his pitches and the pitches that he likes to throw in certain counts. I’ve just got to get comfortable with game-calling, all that.”
–Swihart said that he weighed 165 pounds when he was drafted and now weighs 200 pounds — the product of eating, lifting and working out.
–Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo and Henry Owens all spoke at length about their great relationship and the friendly competition that has developed amongst the trio. Each pitcher is aiming to stand out within an organization that is stacked with young pitching.
–Barnes, a native of Bethel, Conn., who was drafted 19th overall in 2011, went 6-10 with a 4.13 ERA between Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket in 2013, but his 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings marked the best rate among pitchers with at least 100 innings at Double-A or above.
“I gained a lot of confidence in my curveball, a lot in my changeup,” Barnes said. “In my first year, I kind of just threw the ball more than pitched. This past year, I really learned how to come in and read counts, read swings, read hitters, the game, things like that, and when to incorporate certain pitches.”
–What does Barnes think about Owens?
“Owens is a goofball. He’s a great guy,” Barnes said. “He obviously has a ton of talent. He’s got one of the best changeups I’ve ever seen, great curveball, attacks hitters, he isn’t afraid to go after somebody. He shows a lot of poise for a young pitcher, especially coming out of high school, which is something that’s kind of rare and explains a lot of his success so far in the minor leagues.”
–Owens said that he has learned a lot from watching Barnes and Ranaudo, particularly in the weight room.
“In high school, it was almost like I’d lift to look good, not lift to play good. Beach muscles,” Owens joked. “But seeing them in the weight room really focus on attacking their legs and getting their core strong, stuff like that, I think it’s all benefited me in some way.”
–Owens, drafted 36th overall in 2011, recently was ranked the No. 2 prospect in the Red Sox organization behind Bogaerts. The 21-year-old left-hander ranked second in the minors in 2013 with 169 strikeouts — the most in the Red Sox system since Clay Buchholz’s 171 K’s in 2007.
“I think he probably had to learn in his first year that his stuff is very good and that he can throw it in the strike zone and get guys out really effectively. And I think that’s something he made a nice adjustment with in his second full season,” Crockett said. “He just pounded the strike zone more. It’s still something that can be improved for him, but I think he gained a lot of confidence coming out of his first year instructionally, and then had a good spring training and then really was able to springboard that into this past year.”
–Owens, who stands at 6-foot-7, admitted that it’s hard to keep his long, moving body parts in sync during his delivery. The southpaw said that he’s focused on getting stronger, though.
Owens said that he was drafted at 181 pounds and that his current weight fluctuates between 210 and 215 pounds.
–Ranaudo, the 39th overall pick in 2010, certainly reestablished his value last year after a disappointing 2012 campaign that was plagued by injuries. The 24-year-old went 8-4 with a 2.95 ERA in 19 starts with Portland. He led the Eastern League with a 1.09 WHIP and .204 opponent batting average.
Ranaudo’s production at Portland earned him a late-August promotion to Pawtucket, where he went 3-1 with a 2.97 ERA in six appearances (five starts).
“[His transition was] as seamless as you could hope for, particularly in a situation where he is probably well over the number of innings he had thrown the year before and there was probably some fatigue setting in a little bit toward the end of August and in Pawtucket,” Crockett said. “Despite that, he was really consistent with his routine and really pounding the strike zone and continued to have a lot of success at Pawtucket. He seemed very unfazed by that promotion. He really stuck to what he had done well in Portland and it served him well in Pawtucket.”
—Travis Shaw certainly possesses plenty of power. His 35 home runs over his first two full minor league seasons trailed only Bryce Brentz’s 36 among Red Sox minor leaguers. The 23-year-old first baseman regressed a bit in 2013, although Crockett still took away some positives.
“He’s someone we certainly think can swing the bat. He’s a very good defender at first base and with the ability to play third base, so I think going into the Fall League and taking what he had learned during a tough Double-A season and taking a step forward was very good to see,” Crockett said.
—Garin Cecchini, whose plate discipline allowed him to post a minor league-best .443 on-base percentage in 2013, was lauded by Crockett.
Cecchini, who admitted that he can “sniff” the majors right now, plans to soak up as much knowledge as possible during spring training while also working on his defense.
—Dalier Hinojosa was an intriguing participant in the program. The 28-year-old Cuban defector is entering his first professional season in the United States after nine seasons in Cuba’s Major League Serie Nacional. The Red Sox still are trying to get a good look at him in person.
“He’s been really good in this program. He’s really been excited to learn. He’s been very outgoing and has gotten along with the group very well, really kind of seeking information,” Crockett said. “He’s confident in what he’s doing, but he really wants to be a part of the Red Sox. He wants to learn the way that we’re doing things so that he can effectively integrate them in the big leagues when that time comes.”
–Hinojosa, who could factor into the Red Sox’ bullpen plans later in the 2014 season if the need arises, made clear that he won’t be intimidated by pitching in Boston, as he has plenty of experience pitching in big games in Cuba.
Photo via Facebook/Dalier Hinojosa