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In Downs, Groome, plenty of promise in Sox' taxi squad

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Bloom

While the Boston Red Sox are the worst team in the American League through a third of the 60-game season, there is some talent in the taxi squad. Team president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom, above, was at McCoy Stadium to watch a scrimmage over the weekend.

Let’s play nine innings with a series of thoughts/observations as McCoy Stadium continues to serve as the home base for the Red Sox taxi squad:

1). If initial impressions count, one of the youngsters the Red Sox received from the Dodgers in the Mookie Betts trade had a long way to go.

“My first look at Jeter [Downs] was [the initial] spring training. To be honest with you, I saw a lot of sloppiness in his technique and mechanics,” said PawSox coach Bruce Crabbe, whose forte is working with infielders such as Downs. “I think he respected my honesty and candor and we were able to establish a pretty good relationship. We started a nice working routine.”

The first day of summer workouts at McCoy featured Crabbe hitting grounders to the 22-year-old Downs.

“We picked up where we left off after getting separated for 3-4 months,” said Crabbe. “He’s been onboard with everything we’ve talked about. There’s honesty and communication that I’m not sure he’s felt comfortable with in the past. Where he needed to be has really resonated.”

Whether it’s second base or shortstop, the talent that Downs possessed was never up for debate, per Crabbe.

“There’s still a ways to go. The way he goes about things needs to be professionalized, but that’s youth,” said Crabbe, “He’s been asking for more work.”

Stated Downs, “Almost every day now, myself and [Crabbe] will go out for early work. I want to be elite on both sides of the ball.”

Sounds like everything is simpatico between the teacher and student.

***

2). One day when we look back at Jay Groome’s development, the step he took last Monday may be remembered as significant.

Taking part in his first sim game, the lefthanded pitcher recorded four outs, three via strikeout, in two innings. He encountered some ups and downs while facing seasoned hitters – seasoned being the key word. All in all, it was a good learning experience that figures to serve him well as he continues to move forward.

Had Groome, who turns 22 next Sunday, been privy to a normal MiLB season, chances are he would have been assigned to Single-A and matching wits against those reading the beginner’s guide to understanding plate discipline. In these pandemic times, a pitcher who has missed time due to Tommy John surgery should view his time at McCoy as a preview of coming attractions.

“This gives him a taste of what the upper levels are like,” said PawSox manager Billy McMillon. “There’s a lot to like about Jay and hopefully he uses this as a stepping-stone.

***

3). Crabbe has stood behind the mound and served as the umpire for the simulated games, a role that he’s embraced.

“The big thing I like is being close to the infielders and talk to them about plays that happen. We have conversations going on the whole time,” said Crabbe. “I volunteered to take the abuse from the pitchers and the hitters, but I’d rather be there than standing at first base and yelling across to the third baseman.”

The sim games have rarely featured more than one outfielder, hence Crabbe has been forced to make judgment calls on flyballs.

“It’s not live and die, but you do the best you can and go from there,” said Crabbe.

***

4). Connor Wong was another farmhand the Red Sox acquired from the Dodgers as part of the same trade that sent Betts to Hollywood. In terms of catchers believed to have upside, Boston was thin in that department, particularly at the upper levels of the farm system. Acquiring Wong, 24, helped change that narrative.

Wong spent quite a bit of time at Fenway Park during last month’s summer camp, an opportunity that afforded him the chance to work with former BoSox catcher Jason Varitek, now the club’s special assistant/catching coach. From the sound of it, Wong has taken full advantage of learning from someone who flashed signals to Boston pitchers for 15 seasons.

“Tek’s awesome. He’s one of the best,” said Wong. “I don’t know if the feedback is good. Just keep doing what I’m doing and let them know how I feel so he can help me in any way possible.”

***

5). It was surprising to learn that Jonathan Lucroy had cleared waivers and accepted an assignment to join the taxi squad in Pawtucket. At age 34 and with 11 years of MLB experience under his belt, it wouldn’t have been a shock to see him call it a season, head home, and regroup with an eye towards 2021.

“I cleared waivers, which means no one wanted me. I’m here to continue to work to get better,” said Lucroy.

The fact that Lucroy been showing up to McCoy over the past few weeks is an ode to his professionalism that hopefully rubs off on the younger members of the taxi squad.

“Anything that I see, I try to help them,” said Lucroy, the oldest player currently working out at the Triple-A venue. “I’m trying to help the pitchers with their pitch calling. That may not help me as a hitter, but if they get to the big leagues, maybe my help will make them successful.”

Lucroy has made it a point to make himself open and available for dialogue should Groome have specific questions.

“I don’t want to smother anybody and force myself on people. If I see something on the field, I’ll say something once and leave it alone,” said Lucroy. “They call me dad [in the McCoy clubhouse]. I don’t want to start dad’ing them. If guys want to come talk, I’ll do my best to help them anyway I can.”

***

6). Kudos to the production wing of the PawSox front office for getting the players to agree to wear cameras in an effort to take fans on a behind-the-scenes look. The clips have also been a hit, witnessed by the behind-the-plate view offered by Wong that registered 35,000 Twitter hits.

“After we saw the Red Sox’ catcher camera during their sim games [as part of last month’s Summer Camp at Fenway Park], we asked Connor if he would be down to do it and he was very willing,” said Tim Quitadamo, PawSox Manager of Productions.

The experiment in bringing fans closer to the action has included wiring infielder C.J. Chatham during warmups and an intrasquad scrimmage. Outfielder Jaren Duran also threw on the camera. Per Quitadamo, either clubhouse manager Josh Liebenow does the asking or a direct message via Twitter is sent to the player.

Too bad we don’t see more unique camera angles at the MLB national broadcast level. Instead, we have Fox toying with virtual fans who disappear when the action dictates to switch to another camera.

***

7). Broadcasting sim games doesn’t sound like the life of the party, yet PawSox broadcasters Josh Maurer, Mike Antonellis and Jim Cain deserve much credit for fashioning an on-air presentation that’s informing and compelling. Think along the lines of an afternoon sports talk show crossing paths with MLB Network’s “Quick Pitch.”

***

8). The Red Sox are giving Kyle Hart a second chance to make a first impression after the lefty bombed in his MLB debut last Thursday. Granted, summoning positive adjectives when referencing Boston’s pitching staff these days is a tall order, yet Hart figures to only benefit from being around a big league environment for several straight days as he prepares for Wednesday’s start against the Phillies.

Sending Hart back to McCoy after struggling against Tampa Bay would have done more harm than good.

***

9). One of the topics on a recent Zoom call with Rich Gedman was whether the PawSox hitting coach has kept in touch with players he’s offered tutelage to in recent seasons but saw their 2020 campaign thrust into uncertainty due to the pandemic. Think along the lines of infielder Jantzen Witte and outfielder Cole Sturgeon – guys who were in Fort Myers when the initial spring training was shut down and didn’t get summoned when Boston announced who was part of the player pool for summer camp.

“In all fairness, I feel somewhat embarrassed to tell you that I haven’t talked to them, although with baseball guys, once you get in the same room and have been around each other, it doesn’t take long to catch up,” said Gedman. “There’s a lot of responsibility on those guys to keep up with their baseball tools while trying to make a living.”

Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03

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