PAWTUCKET — Summarizing the 2012 Pawtucket Red Sox, just one word springs to mind.
Yes, this season’s club will be remembered for earning a second straight postseason berth, a first for this proud franchise since 1996-97. Yet the route that manager Arnie Beyeler along with his coaches and merry band of interchangeable parts followed in order to play baseball beyond Labor Day is, putting it mildly, unique.
The domain that is minor-league baseball lends itself to change. At its very core, the nature of the beast is to see players come and go, leaving teams in a state of metamorphosis from Opening Day until the final out is recorded. If anything, the turnover, whether grand or small, assures that one of the gateways to a pleasurable fan experience – the cost-effective game program – remains on the cutting edge.
Recently, those who have passed through the turnstiles at McCoy Stadium have probably given more than a passing thought to digging deep in their pockets for loose change. Can’t tell who’s on the team without a scorecard? Certainly that longstanding sales pitch holds plenty of merit as the PawSox head into the playoffs with a squad that bears little resemblance to the one that ended to the season’s first half with the second-best record in franchise history.
In a nutshell, the 2012 PawSox hit all the high notes when it came to moving players to the parent club, such an exodus paving the way for reinforcements to join the ranks. Everything that happens at the top level tends to create reverberations throughout the farm chain, which was certainly the case here.
Thanks to Boston’s never-ending injury binge, Mauro Gomez and Pedro Ciriaco went from depth pieces to 40-man roster contributors. Thanks to Kevin Youkilis landing on the disabled list, young Will Middlebrooks was able to take a blowtorch to the “third baseman of the future” label he was anointed with and emerge as Boston’s present day solution at the hot corner.
“There’s a lot of guys who weren’t on the map when the year started and they’ve gone out there and produced and done a nice job,” notes Beyeler.
Opportunity can take on many shapes. Daniel Nava received a second chance to prove that he was more than a one-swing wonder. Two promising players viewed as possible links to Boston’s future – shortstop Jose Iglesias and catcher Ryan Lavarnway – received call-ups well ahead of the Sept. 1 date that allows MLB teams to expand their active rosters.
There’s also opportunity that awaited Mark Melancon after the reliever got off to dreadful start in Boston. Knowing what he had to do in order to return to the majors, Melancon was lights out in Triple A on his way to racking up a PawSox-best 11 saves. That’s called an example of someone understanding that getting sent to Pawtucket was an opportunity to iron out the rough edges.
One tale that definitely deserves revisiting is that of former World Series champion Scott Podsednik, who seemed stuck in quicksand before joining the PawSox in early May after the 36-year-old hit .197 in 23 games with Lehigh Valley. Coupled with strong play with the PawSox along with the prolonged absences of Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford in Boston, Podsednik returned to the big leagues for the first time in two seasons, performing at a clip that could make him an appealing free-agent target this offseason.
“At the end of the day we’re trying to support the major-league team and we’ve had some guys go up there and hold their own,” stated Red Sox farm director Ben Crockett.
Added Beyeler: “You never want to see guys in the big leagues get hurt, but it’s nice when guys down here see those opportunities and are put in a situation where you find out whether they’re good enough to play up there.”
The PawSox featured plenty of players who graduated and have done their best not to look back. Yet what about the fates of the players already in Triple A? It goes without saying that if Pawtucket had a full compliment of players, chances are infielders Tony Thomas and Jon Hee would not have lasted as long at their present address as they did. Both were able to parlay patience into steady playing time, a turn of events made possible due to the winds of change that swept through the clubhouse.
Opportunity was also waiting to be seized upon when speaking about the pitching front. By late July, Brandon Duckworth and Doug Mathis, the remaining vestiges of the starting staff that opened the season, had relocated to Japan. A few weeks later, onetime phenom Mark Prior was informed that his services were no longer required.
Restocking the cabinet with dependable arms at such a late juncture didn’t prove too worrisome for Pawtucket. Take away one bad outing and Nelson Figueroa has been a stabilizing force after coming over from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Fireballer Josh Fields has filled the void of late-game strikeout artist that was created by the departure of Junichi Tazawa.
Since August 1, the PawSox have received eight players from Portland, a hearty sum that has allowed Pawtucket to make a serious run at the franchise record for players used in a single season. The first pitch thrown by righty Mike MacDonald on Sunday night earned the latest call-up the distinction as the 69th different PawSox player to suit up for the ball club this season. The high-water mark is 70 and has been reached on two occasions (1995, 2006).
“You want to try to find the right balance of putting a player where he has a chance to compete and have success,” said Crockett about the impetus behind promoting 20-something outfielders Bryce Brentz and Jeremy Hazelbaker from Portland with so little time left in the season. “There are always going to be moving parts within a farm system that you’re going to be juggling, but at times guys deserve opportunities to be pushed.
“Sometimes everything works out well with an injury or vacancy that allows for a pretty good fit. Other times you’re able to move a couple of guys at once, which we’ve done this year, or the player is able to dictate the move due to performance,” Crockett continued. “We’ve had a lot of turnover at the Triple-A level and Arnie along with (pitching coach) Rich (Sauveur) and (hitting coach) Gerald (Perry) have done a real good job in getting the most out of the players while at times piecing things together and continuing to garner wins.”
As Beyeler expressed, it truly does take a village to get through a minor-league season, meaning there are plenty opportunities just waiting to be seized.
“Everybody in the organization has always said that it’s going to take 40-60 guys get through the season, win some games and get where you want to be,” said the skipper. “It seems that way every year.”