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ACES HIGH -- Top prospects fill out PawSox pitching staff

February 4, 2014

The prospect-laden staff at Pawtucket this year is a departure from the recent practice of stocking the Pawtucket roster with more experienced minor league veterans, such as Terry Doyle, pictured. PHOTO BY KELLY O'CONNOR

PAWTUCKET – Terry Doyle’s 2013 minor-league season featured as much shuffling as a blackjack dealer.

The 27-year-old Warwick resident spent the first three months with the Pawtucket Red Sox, where he started 11 times and made seven appearances in relief, before getting transferred to Portland on July 5.

Doyle went on to spend the rest of the summer in the Double-A ranks, starting 10 games. He rejoined the PawSox on the eve of the Governors’ Cup playoffs and was a bystander during the first-round series against Rochester. But for the finals against Durham, Doyle was recalled to action for Pawtucket, coinciding with the summoning of Allen Webster to Boston.

It wasn’t the first time Doyle’s fate was intertwined with the organization’s transactions of its high-ceiling pitching prospects. In July, his PawSox spot went to 24-year-old Drake Britton, who is similar to Webster, 23, in that both are viewed as building blocks of future Boston pitching staffs.

In essence, Doyle’s caravan through the upper tiers of the Red Sox’ farm system did more than put additional strain on his car. He had a front row seat to an organizational wave that was awash with so much pitching upside that one conclusion became fairly obvious – the opportunity cupboard for a career minor leaguer looking for work with Boston was bare.

“Coming into the organization last year, I knew they had a couple of prospects who were going to be in Portland between Britton, (Matt) Barnes, (Anthony) Ranaudo and (Brandon) Workman, but I didn’t realize how good those guys were and how good the guys in Triple A were in Webster and (Rubby) De La Rosa,” said Doyle when reached recently. “It’s a bright future, for sure. The depth the Red Sox have with their pitching is amazing. You’ve got eight potential big-league pitchers between Triple and Double A that it’s only a matter of time before they reach the top.”

The typical Triple-A rotation is a mix of experienced veterans and youngsters on a fast track to the majors, but this season’s Pawtucket Red Sox could end up heavily stocking up on one critical ingredient as opposed to barely batting an eyelash in the other’s direction. The PawSox’s past strategy of stocking up on minor-league free agents, such as those walking a career path similar to Doyle’s, appears to be on hold this season, as well as possibly next.

“With free agency, guys take a look at that,” said Doyle, who ended up signing a minor-league deal with the White Sox, the same franchise that selected him out of Boston College in 2008. “The Red Sox have those homegrown guys with so much ability that it’s going to defer guys with less talent to signing with them such as myself.”

With spring training right around the corner, the possibility of the PawSox featuring an exclusively prospect-driven rotation seems to be gaining traction. The best evidence for that observation is to look at the paucity of journeyman starting pitchers the Red Sox have signed this winter.

One player Boston came to terms with is John Ely, a 27-year-old former Pacific League Coast Pitcher of the Year who did not toss a single inning last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Ely has made 133 appearances spanning seven minor-league seasons, 131 coming in a starting role. Given the right-hander’s situation, the Red Sox could end up stashing him in extended spring training with an eye toward giving him additional time to re-build his strength.

Other than Ely and 27-year-old Cuban signee Dalier Hinojosa, the pitchers inked by the Red Sox this winter appear better suited to work out of the bullpen. Two fresh recruits, Tommy Layne and Shunsuke Watanabe, could end up joining forces with familiar faces and holdovers such as Alex Wilson, Chris Hernandez, Brayan Villarreal, Chris Hernandez and Rich Hill.

The Red Sox seem to feel that their sheer abundance of pitching prospects in the high minors will alleviate their need for veteran arms, whether for duty as AAA rotation starters or in call-ups to the major-league club.

“When you bring in older guys, it’s to provide major-league depth and less about filling out the Triple-A rotation. You want guys who can help the major-league team and are ready to do that early in the season,” said Red Sox farm director Ben Crockett. “We hope we’re in a position this season where we can use young players to fill that depth.”

On paper, Pawtucket’s rotation figures to include Webster, Barnes, Ranaudo, De La Rosa and knuckleballer Steven Wright. Of the group, only Barnes is not Boston’s 40-man roster. And Crockett confirmed at last month’s PawSox Hot Stove gathering that De La Rosa is still viewed as a starting pitcher.

“That Triple-A group is one that we hope can support the major-league team this year,” Crockett said.

Of course if the Red Sox wish to return Workman and Britton to the rotation after both spent time contributing out of the bullpen at the big-league level, it’s not unthinkable that both could get stretched out post-spring training in Pawtucket. It’s also possible that at some point this summer, the PawSox could be rolling out the welcome mat for 21-year-old Henry Owens, yet another top-flight pitching prospect and someone who Doyle got to see up close during his Portland stint last summer.

“Henry might not be in Pawtucket until the second half of the year, but he’s got unbelievable pitching ability,” raved the former Red Sox minor leaguer. “He’ll be there sooner rather than later.”

What comes as exciting news for fans of both the Pawtucket and Boston Red Sox – that the system is stocked with a plethora of young starting pitching – can ironically be a harsh reality check for the athletes themselves, since it necessarily limits each of their own individual opportunities to make an impact.

“To get to the big leagues, it takes a lot of luck and timing. With the Red Sox, the Pawtucket rotation is absolutely going to be stacked,” Doyle said. “That’s a talented rotation that I’m not going to want to face if I’m an International League hitter.”

Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03

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