PAWTUCKET – After ending a 28-year Governors’ Cup drought last season, the Pawtucket Red Sox will defend their title while holding true to the organization’s No. 1 creed — put players in a position where if an opportunity arises in Boston, they’re ready to answer the call.
While there are several notable returnees from the 2012 International League champions, the winds of change have once again swept through the manager’s office, with Gary DiSarcina becoming the fourth different skipper to pilot the PawSox in the last five years. During Tuesday’s Media Day at frigid McCoy Stadium, the 45-year-old Massachusetts native let it be known that he’s eager to get down to business.
“We had a team meeting before, and just to look around and to see 25 bodies as opposed to 60, it’s a little bit more intimate and you can connect with the players more,” DiSarcina said. “Being around them the five or six days of camp, it’s tough to get a feel of who they are. It’s the dog days and some of them have been sent down. You have to give them some breathing room.
“To be in one room and go out and have a good workout – I don’t care if it’s cold or warm – we’re going to go out and have fun,” he added. “I’m excited to be around them. It’s a good bunch of guys.”
The key with this season’s Pawtucket ballclub isn’t whether it can successively duplicate last season’s magical and unexpected playoff run. Like in Boston, it’s about assembling a squad that’s not top-heavy in one particular area. Striking the right chord between up-and-comers and veterans is one place to start. There’s also making sure there are enough players who can put the ball in play and complement a pitching staff whose mission is direct – get outs.
In all areas except perhaps team speed, this Pawtucket squad figure to hold a distinct advantage over their opponents on most nights. What that in mind, here is the Opening Day edition of the 2013 Pawtucket Red Sox.
“Great arms,” smiled catcher Ryan Lavarnway. “I wouldn’t want to face us.”
At the front end of the rotation, knuckleballer Steven Wright gets the nod for Thursday’s opener in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre against the newly re-named RailRiders. Acquired from Cleveland in exchange for Lars Anderson last July, the 28-year-old Wright says he found out management’s decision to give him Game 1 honors last weekend from pitching Rich Sauveur and roving pitching coordinator Ralph Treuel.
To go from someone who flutters pitches like a butterfly to a youngster whose fastball generally resides in the mid 90s and a changeup that normally tops in the high 80s, is what awaits I.L. foes when Allen Webster takes the mound. Chris Hernandez is the group’s lone lefthander, with Warwick resident Terry Doyle looking to emerge as a local success story. The fifth spot is still up for grabs with fireballer Rubby De La Rosa and Graham Godfrey expected to merit consideration.
Of all the players mentioned, Wright and Godfrey are the elder statesmen. Each are 28 years old.
“To get the chance to start the game is an honor when you consider the rest of the guys on the staff,” said Wright. “Webster, the guy’s lights out and is going to be fun to watch. Hernandez had success last year, and Doyle, Godfrey, and De La Rosa are big names.”
One of the unsung heroes of last year’s playoff push was Jose De La Torre, who holds the distinction as the lone player the Red Sox have to show for the Kevin Youkilis trade with the White Sox last June (De La Torre was acquired by Boston for Brent Lillibridge, who was one of the players Boston obtained from Chicago in exchange for Youkilis). The 27-year-old De La Torre recorded three saves in the postseason and could very well find himself in the mix for the closer’s job again.
The pool of ninth-inning candidates also includes hard throwers Pedro Beato and Chris Carpenter. Alex Wilson could also see late-game action as the former starter continues to explore a relief role. Oscar Villarreal holds the distinction as the oldest member of Pawtucket’s staff, as the 31-year-old suited up for former PawSox manager Ron Johnson last season in Norfolk.
Jeremy Kehrt served as both a starter and a reliever last year for Double-A Portland with a full-time bullpen gig awaiting him this year. Anthony Carter and Graham Godfrey are two newcomers to the organization and figure to provide DiSarcina and Sauveur with enough coverage in the event something unforeseen happens.
“We’ve got a big-league bullpen,” Lavarnway notes.
Lavarnway did his best to put on a happy face Tuesday, as deep down, he probably would’ve rather broken camp in the big leagues. But he likely knew he was fated for an encore at McCoy when Boston signed veteran David Ross during the offseason.
Nevertheless, PawSox fans should be pleased to get a chance to witness the prolific power hitter anchoring the local lineup. Like any player with substantial Triple-A experience, Lavarnway will look to stay sharp and hope that his chance to return to the big leagues is imminent.
“I’m excited for the opportunity that this year brings and hopefully continue to get better and make myself the player that I can be,” Lavarnway said.
Asked how he plans to divvy up the catching chores between Lavarnway and another player who’s on the 40-man roster in Dan Butler, DiSarcina replied, “The thing we have here is that our game times in the early going are all different. We go from 6:05 to 12:05 to 7:05 to 1:05, so it’s not fair for Ryan or Dan to go out there and catch every day. You burn them out. You’ve got to think long-term and keep them fresh.”
The PawSox were informed to keep their 25-man roster under wraps until Tuesday afternoon. It made perfect sense after DiSarcina introduced a fresh face. First baseman Brandon Snyder joined Pawtucket Tuesday after opting out of his deal with the Texas Rangers last week. The 26-year-old and author of 2,673 career minor-league at-bats will hold down the fort until word regarding the designated Mauro Gomez.
The only infielder from last year’s team is Jon Hee, who can play everywhere in the infield. Drew Sutton is back for his second tour of duty with Pawtucket; the 29-year-old hit .300 in 76 games between the PawSox and Red Sox in 2011. Justin Henry is another versatile sort who batted .300 and stole 22 bases for Toledo a season ago. Jonathan Diaz and Mark Hamilton are also part of the infield mix.
When promising talent Jackie Bradley Jr. earned a spot on Boston’s roster, he paved the way for Jeremy Hazelbaker to start the year in Triple-A as opposed to Portland. The 25-year-old Hazelbaker expressed appreciation that he wasn’t caught in a roster squeeze. He spent the bulk of last season in Portland before joining Pawtucket in time for the playoffs.
“Going strictly on where I was during spring training, I expect to be a top-of-the-order guy,” said Hazelbaker. “Still, that’s for Gary to decide. Wherever my name’s at, that’s where I’m going to be and I’m fine with that.”
Hazelbaker will be joined by familiar faces J.C. Linares, Alex Hassan, and Bryce Brentz. Linares has a knack for getting on base, while Brentz is a highly regarded slugger. Of all of them, Hassan may have the best opportunity to reach Boston due to his 40-man roster status.
There is so much turnover in a minor-league clubhouse that often the team’s personality and public face becomes that of its manager, just like a college team. Even though he’s coached at other levels in the minors, DiSarcina said he understands why Triple-A baseball is regarded as a different animal.
“We’re learning (Red Sox manager) John (Farrell’s) program and the way he does things and his philosophy,” said DiSarcina about what he took away from spending extensive time in preseason camp. “I’m excited to go through the ups and downs and the good times and the bad times and try to be as consistent as possible.”