At this stage of baseball’s offseason, the headlines are typically reserved for the big-ticket acquisition and the occasional blockbuster trade.
Behind that glitzy curtain is where you’ll find new Red Sox farm director Ben Crockett. His mission is to replenish the upper levels of the farm system with players who will hold down the fort in Triple-A Pawtucket, ready to contribute if injury besets one of the major-league starters.
As always pitching remains the most sought-after and essential commodity. To that end, Boston has stocked the cupboard with signings of pitchers Justin Thomas, Jesse Carlson, Doug Mathis and Will Inman, according to Baseball America’s transaction report. The quartet figures to provide PawSox manager Arnie Beyeler with adequate coverage in the bullpen followed by opportunity in spring training to win a job with the parent club.
Mathis is intriguing based solely on his 2011 season. He split 17 starts between the Triple-A affiliates of the Athletics and Giants after getting released by the Indians at the tail end of spring training. The 28-year-old right-hander took his skills across the Pacific Ocean with the Samsung Lions of the Korean Baseball Organization, where he posted a 5-2 record and a 2.52 ERA.
Mathis, Thomas and Carlson, who grew up in New Britain, Ct. and pitched for UConn, have previous pitching experience in the majors. Inman will suit up for an American League affiliate after spending his first seven pro seasons toiling in the Brewers and Padres’ organizations.
“It seems that we’ve made some progress but we still have some room to make more moves,” said Crockett, who assumes a role within Boston’s baseball operations department previously held by Mike Hazen and Ben Cherington. Hazen was named assistant general manager following Cherington’s appointment to team GM.
“Everything that you do is based on the major league team’s needs,” Crockett said, echoing a sentiment made by his predecessors. “We’re trying to make sure we have depth throughout.”
Staying with pitching, Tony Pena Jr. and Brandon Duckworth will also be back with the PawSox as will knuckleball artist Charlie Haeger, who was in line to start Game 4 of the Governors’ Cup opening-round playoff series against Lehigh Valley had Pawtucket been able to stave off elimination. Haeger was assigned to Double-A Portland upon joining the Red Sox in late July.
Pena Jr. headed to the Dominican Winter League with the intent of continuing to get stretched out as a starting pitcher after making the transition from the bullpen midway through last season. To date, the son of former Red Sox catcher and current Yankees bench coach Tony Pena has made 23 appearances (all in relief) with Aguilas Cibaenas, going 1-0 with a 3.20 ERA. Pena Jr. has been used in somewhat of a specialized role, his last 10 appearances spanning a total of five innings.
Pawtucket’s staff could also feature familiar faces Andrew Miller, Felix Doubront and Michael Bowden. All three are out of options.
The Red Sox have been quiet when it comes to inking position players. Such inactivity is an indication that – barring a trade, of course – that right side of the infield will consist of first baseman Lars Anderson and second baseman Nate Spears. The left side has the potential to one day play side-by-side in Boston with third baseman Will Middlebrooks and shortstop Jose Iglesias.
The 23-year-old Middlebrooks is doing just fine after injuring his thumb during the Arizona Fall League, reports Crockett.
“He’s back to full offseason-work mode and is on track to be ready to go for spring training, probably even before that,” Crockett said.
Catcher Ryan Lavarnway is also back to full strength after an illness limited his stint in the Venezuelan Winter League to five games. Joining him behind the plate will be Luis Exposito.
“He got some care (in Boston) and after not too long was just fine,” Crockett said when asked about Lavarnway. “We don’t anticipate any kind of issues with him. His offseason hasn’t been impacted.”
The story with Ryan Kalish is continued progress, but Crockett threw up the caution flag when asked whether the outfielder would be ready to go for spring training, mentioning that Kalish has yet to face live pitching. Kalish’s 2011 campaign was cut substantially short due to shoulder/neck ailments.
“Everything’s been pretty positive thus far. It’s only been a couple of months since [undergoing neck surgery] but I think he’s probably where we want him to be and hoped he’d be,” Crockett said. “He’s strengthening his range of motion. It’s not gotten to the point of baseball activities as of yet but will certainly be a part of the process going forward.”
Expected to flank Kalish in the outfield are Daniel Nava and Che-Hsuan Lin. J.C. Linares was able to get 18 at-bats in the Arizona Fall League following a 2011 season that was short-circuited after tearing a ligament in his ankle, which required surgery.
Crockett hinted that the Red Sox have plans to announce the organizational staff alignment within the player development system for the upcoming season “pretty soon.” In an ironic twist, it’s expected that Gerald Perry will replace Chili Davis as Pawtucket’s hitting coach. Davis succeeded Perry in Pawtucket and will do so again in Oakland after the A’s chose not to rehire Perry. This will mark Perry’s third stint with the PawSox after occupying the hitting coach position in 1998 and as recent as 2010.
EXTRA BASES: Save the date for Friday, January 13. That’s when the PawSox’ annual winter production at McCoy Stadium, better known as the Hot Stove social gathering, is scheduled. The 35th edition will run from 6-9 p.m. Included is the opportunity for fans to pose for pictures and receive autographs from players Brandon Duckworth, Alex Wilson, Luis Exposito and Alex Hassan. Manager Arnie Beyeler will also be on hand to answer questions on what kind of team he expects to field in 2012.