PAWTUCKET â€“ The 2014 season for the PawSox is upon us, and with it brings the promise of intrigue and discovery. Who will produce enough to get summoned to Boston? The answers will start to reveal themselves beginning with Thursdayâ€™s season and home opener against Lehigh Valley.
Until the answers begin to trickle in, here are five items one scribe plans to closely monitor in the early going:
1). A spin-off of Threeâ€™s Company
In Ryan Lavarnway, Dan Butler and Christian Vazquez, Pawtucket features a trio of catchers. At Tuesdayâ€™s media day, pitching coach Rich Sauveur went out of his way to declare all of them as big-league caliber. Bestowing plaudits aside, the bigger question is how exactly first-year manager Kevin Boles plans to divvy up the playing time for the three players, all of whom are on Bostonâ€™s 40-man roster.
The potential for a logjam were somewhat alleviated when Lavarnway began taking up first base during spring training. Such a move was done due to the organizationâ€™s crowded catching situation at the upper levels. The dependable Butler and defensive whiz Vazquez were ticketed as Pawtucketâ€™s tag team with the talented Blake Swihart lurking in Double-A Portland.
â€śLittle first base, little catching, little DH. Iâ€™m not sure of the exact numbers, but weâ€™ve got three catchers who need to play. We all have to get at-bats so it will be divvied up somehow,â€ť said Lavarnway, who at Tuesdayâ€™s workout fielded grounders at first base under the supervision and guiding hand of PawSox coach Bruce Crabbe.
â€śIâ€™m having fun. Itâ€™s a new opportunity and I think it will do nothing but add value,â€ť said Lavarnway about learning a new position.
Said Boles, â€śWith Lavarnway getting the versatility at first base and someone being plugged into the (designated hitter) spot, theyâ€™ll definitely play. All three of them have something different to offer, but theyâ€™ll all get an opportunity.â€ť
2). Hot start at the hot corner
Different players, different years and different circumstances, but follow the looping curveball for one second.
Two years ago, Will Middlebrooks parlayed a blistering first month with the PawSox into a big-league promotion. He slugged nine home runs and batted .333 in 24 Triple-A games. What also aided Middlebrooksâ€™ cause was that Boston needed a starting third baseman after Kevin Youkilis landed on the disabled list.
Fast forward to 2014. Once again, Pawtucket features an up-and-coming third baseman in Garin Cecchini, a newcomer to Triple A. If Middlebrooksâ€™ struggles of a year ago carry over into this season and Cecchini encounters smooth sailing in his PawSox debut, whatâ€™s not to say the Red Sox will at least entertain the thought of turning to the 22-year-old Cecchini?
To be fair, Middlebrooks and Cecchini are not cut from the same cloth. Middlebrooks has the raw power factor working in his favor, but Cecchini is more disciplined at the plate, a claim backed by his .417 on-base percentage in 279 minor-league games.
â€śEveryone can say you donâ€™t have power, hand speed or blah, blah, blah, but itâ€™s about staying consistent and helping your team win,â€ť said Cecchini. â€śIâ€™m not a power hitter, but Iâ€™m a good hitter. All I need to do is be good.â€™
3). To start or to relieve?
Some eyebrows were raised when Drake Britton was not named one of Pawtucketâ€™s five starters. The openings appeared to be there with two presumed candidates â€“ Matt Barnes and Steven Wright â€“ on the disabled list to begin the year. Instead, the organization elected to go with Jeremy Kehrt and Chris Hernandez following rotation headliners Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo and Rubby De La Rosa.
Are the Red Sox transitioning the 24-year-old Britton to a permanent bullpen role because thatâ€™s where the organization views him long term, or is this relocation effort being done as a safety precaution in the event something happens to a lefty reliever up top?
Craig Breslow is scheduled to rehab for the PawSox this week while Andrew Miller, the only southpaw reliever at Boston manager John Farrellâ€™s beck and call at the moment, is coming off a short-circuited season due to a broken foot.
All 18 of Brittonâ€™s 2013 big-league appearances came in a relief capacity following 18 starts between Portland and Pawtucket. To explore the point further, Brittonâ€™s six games in Grapefruit League action were all in relief.
If Britton does wave goodbye to starting duty, he will become the latest in a number of Red Sox pitching prospects to undergo a reclassification of mound responsibilities upon reaching the Triple-A level. One such example is Alex Wilson, the onetime minor-league starter who was moved to the bullpen at the beginning of the 2012 season.
4). Avoid getting tangled in a spiderâ€™s web
Thereâ€™s prestige in getting the pitching nod for the first game of the season. It also can be viewed as a double-edged sword.
In handing the ball to Webster for Game 1 of the 144-game Triple-A slate, the Red Sox are sending a message that in the event that injury fells a member of Bostonâ€™s starting staff, the promising right-hander figures to be the first reinforcement summoned.
If that proves the case, letâ€™s hope for his sake that the deer-in-the-headlights look that have defined his past Boston forays are behind him. Webster posted an unsightly 8.60 ERA in eight games (seven starts) for Boston last year and wasnâ€™t much better in spring training (6.11 ERA and a .304 opponentsâ€™ batting average in five starts).
Thereâ€™s no question that Webster has big-league caliber stuff. The question remains whether his arsenal can get big-league hitters out on a consistent basis.
5). New sheriff in town
There is so much player turnover in a minor-league club that often the teamâ€™s personality reflects that of its manager. Boles understands this as well as realizing he has some pretty big shoes to fill. The last four men to manage in Pawtucket â€“ Ron Johnson, Torey Lovullo, Arnie Beyeler and Gary DiSarcina â€“ were able to parlay their work ethic and communication skills into big league coaching gigs.
The 39-year-old Boles now gets his shot in Triple-A after spending the previous three seasons managing in Portland. One notable advantage Boles owns is that heâ€™s already managed many of the current players on Pawtucketâ€™s roster. How he relates to the veterans and dealing with the constant comings and goings this level is known for figures to be the biggest challenges.
â€śI have so much respect for him,â€ť said Cecchini, who played under Bolesâ€™ stewardship last season in Portland. â€śHe brings that winning attitude and someone who wants to help out players and get them to the big leagues. Thatâ€™s all you can ask.â€ť
Fortunately for Boles, he has Crabbe along with Sauveur and hitting coach Dave Joppie to lean on during this period of transition.
â€śWeâ€™re all going to mix into each otherâ€™s groups and make sure that the players are getting as much attention as possible,â€ť stated Boles.
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