Defending Champ PawSox in line for another successful year

by EDDIE PANNONE

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Coming off their 2012 Governors’ Cup Championship season, the Pawtucket Red Sox are ready to get 2013 underway. Last year was not only successful because they won the Cup, but because they were able to send players up to the big league club like Will Middlebrooks, Pedro Ciriaco, and Daniel Nava just to name a few. This year’s club features several up and coming prospects that will no doubt be big leaguers and likely could spend time in Boston this year.

While fans expected to see Jackie Bradley Jr. as the Opening Day center fielder at McCoy, his great spring has led him to start the year in Boston. That doesn’t mean he won’t see time in Pawtucket, however. If he struggles in his first week or two of Major League action, the team will likely send him down to the PawSox once the injured David Ortiz comes back from his heel injury.

Even if he doesn’t come down this year, there is still young talent in the PawSox outfield in the person of Bryce Brentz. Brentz spent most of 2012 in Portland, but came up for the PawSox playoff run and was a key piece to their success. Brentz is a very aggressive hitter with good power to all fields. Being an aggressive hitter he tends to swing at a lot of breaking balls out of the zone, something he will need to work on this season. As he got more and more triple-A at bats last year his patience slowly began to improve, so he will look to continue that trend in 2013. He will be in the middle of the PawSox order this year, and unless injuries happen in Boston he will likely spend most of this year in the minors. His year will probably be 2014 if the team doesn’t resign Jacoby Ellsbury. Bradley Jr. would move to centerfield while Brentz takes over in left. Expect a big year for him with the PawSox.

Other young offensive guns to keep an eye out for are Ryan Lavarnway and Jose Iglesias. Lavarnway ended last year with Boston, though did not have great success. Lavarnway is a solid hitter, but many still question his catching skills. While he has made good strides in this area, he will have to continue to show improvement in triple-A in order to make the Boston roster at some point this year. Jarrod Saltalamacchia isn’t the greatest defensive catcher either, so if he struggles or Boston parts ways with him at some point this year, Lavarnway could see plenty of time in Boston in 2013. Iglesias will start the year in Boston with Stephen Drew on the DL, but once he returns Iglesias will be sent down to Pawtucket. Fans know of his elite defensive skills, but his question mark has always been his bat. This spring, he has looked much improved in this category, putting together good at bats and hovering around .300. If the injury ridden Drew continues to have injury problems, Iglesias will spend many games in Boston and could take over the Major League starting shortstop role.

In terms of young pitching, Pawtucket will show off plenty of talent in Ruby De La Rosa and Allen Webster. Both acquired in the Dodgers mega trade last season, they will start the year in Pawtucket but could easily see time in Boston at some point this season whether it’s in the rotation or the bullpen. De La Rosa has a good fastball that sits in the high 90s and has good movement. His changeup is exceptional and his slider is also good, and all three of these pitches are able to punch batters out. He will focus on sharpening his command in Pawtucket, and is likely going to be the first man called up to Boston should a starter go down. Webster has been described as a Derek Lowe type pitcher, meaning that he gets a lot of ground ball outs. His fastball has great sinking action and sits in the mid-90s, though he has registered in the high-90s this spring. His changeup and slider also are solid pitches that can get hitters to swing and miss. He has had a good spring and will be making his triple-A debut this season after spending last year with Portland.

Except for Brentz none of these players were on the PawSox roster in September during the Governors’ Cup run, and that is a theme that seems to be present up and down the PawSox lineup. More than half the Championship team will not be on the 2013 Opening Day roster, including many key contributors. Offensively, the team lost Danny Valencia, Andy LaRoche, Che-Hsuan Lin, Nate Spears, and Jason Repko. Pitching wise, they lost their three best starters in Nelson Figueroa, Billy Buckner, and Zach Stewart, while closer Josh Fields was claimed by the Astros in the Rule 5 draft. That is the world of minor league baseball, as veteran players are constantly on the move.

However, the team will return many good players that were on the Cup team and players who have spent time in the big leagues. International League MVP Mauro Gomez will return as the team’s first baseman and will continue to be a source of power and run production in the middle of the order. He will likely get multiple call-ups to Boston as he did last year, but he will put up big numbers in his time with Pawtucket. In the outfield, the combination of JC Linares, Jeremy Hazelbaker, and Alex Hassan all will get playing time and the odd man out in the outfield likely will get time at DH. Linares and Hazelbaker were big contributors to the team’s Championship run, while Hassan ended 2012 on the DL. Mitch Maier will also see at bats in the PawSox outfield. Dan Butler will back up Lavarnway behind the plate after catching the majority of games in the playoffs. Infielders Tony Thomas, Ryan Dent, and Jon Hee will compete for time in the infield with new acquisitions Justin Henry, Mark Hamilton, Drew Sutton, Brock Holt, and Jonathan Diaz. Of all these players, Holt is likely to get the most amount of playing time because of his young age and his ability to make good contact.

In the rotation the team returns pitcher Chris Hernandez and knuckleballer Stephen Wright, both of whom started playoff games last year. Hernandez projects as more of a situational lefty at the big league level, but is a solid minor league starter. Wright can be a little inconsistent as a knuckleballer, but has impressed the Red Sox in his short time with the organization. The bullpen should be very strong for Pawtucket, as it will include many of the same guys as last year as well as players with big league time. Jose De La Torre will likely get most of the save opportunities after splitting closer duties with Fields in the playoffs a season ago. He pitched in the World Baseball classic, and is the only player remaining that was acquired via the Kevin Youkilis trade. Alex Wilson also returns after a solid 2012 campaign, and he is capable of pitching in any kind of situation. He has yet to make his big league debut, but that could very well happen in 2013. Pedro Beato and Chris Carpenter also return to the bullpen to along with the newly added Oscar Villarreal, Anthony Carter, Ryan Rowland-Smith, and Graham Godfrey.

While these will be the guys playing at McCoy in the early part of 2013, many other prospects could be making their way to triple-A at some point this year. Top prospect Xander Bogaerts is starting in Portland, but is likely going to play for the PawSox once he proves he can hit double-A pitching. Whether it comes at mid-season or near the end of the year like Brentz last season, expect to see the 20 year old wearing a PawSox uniform in 2013. Pitchers Matt Barnes and Anthony Ranaudo also could see time in Pawtucket at some point this year as these top prospects take the next step towards Fenway Park. Daniel Bard was expected to start in Pawtucket’s bullpen this season, but surprisingly he will start the year in Portland. He will pitch for Pawtucket at some point, but that time is unknown to everyone. He needs to work on his mechanics and his control, and the improvement of these things will be the basis of his promotion.

New manager Gary DiSarcina and the PawSox will take the field for the first time on April 4th on the road against Scranton Wilkes-Barre. Their home opener will be on April 11th against Rochester and aside from other Opening Day Ceremonies, the team will receive their Governor’s Cup rings. This team once again combines good, young talent with experienced veteran players, and this should lead to another exciting year in Pawtucket.

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