Unlike some years, Pawtucket isn’t a place where Boston stocks the team with a bunch of career minor leaguers.
Granted, there’s a sprinkling of veterans on the pitching staff. But at the minimum, the 2012 PawSox have at least six players who are considered legitimate prospects – players who are expected to contribute to Boston if not this season then in the near future.
Topping the list is third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who’s rated by Baseball America as Boston’s No. 1 prospect and who last season was promoted to Pawtucket from Portland on August 19 and later was rated the Eastern League’s best hitting prospect.
“He’s like what you draw up,” said PawSox manager Arnie Beyeler. “He’s a big, tall, athletic kid who uses the whole field. He struggled when he came up here last year after a successful Double-A season (.302, 25 doubles, 18 homers, 80 RBI). But it’s good to go through some adversity in the minors instead of the majors.”
Beyeler got another up-close-and-personal look at Middlebrooks when he managed him at Scottsdale in the Arizona Fall league.
“After seeing him, it was like ‘This is what we’re waiting for,’” said Beyeler. “We had some pretty good hitters on the team (one was Nationals’ stud Bryce Harper) and he realized ‘I can hit with those guys.’
“He’s very athletic and can catch and throw the ball. He’s a young guy who needs to face veteran pitching … needs to see some sliders. He’s an impact guy. He’s going to be along for the ride.”
Just a few feet to Middlebrooks’ left is shortstop Jose Iglesias who, according to Beyeler, “was major league ready, defensively, when he signed. He’s probably the best I’ve seen defensively.
“But Jose has things to work on defensively that most people don’t notice because they’re caught up in the flash and dash … things like relay stuff, positioning and the speed of the game that he needs to experience.”
That being said the primary question regarding Iglesias is can he hit well enough to force Boston to find a spot for him on its roster?
Ironically, while he hit only .235 in 101 Pawtucket games last year he hit .333 in 10 games with Boston. Of course, 10 games isn’t enough to determine whether he can hack it in the majors, especially before pitchers draw up a book on him.
“He’s getting deeper into counts better and driving the ball,” said Beyeler. “The quality of the at-bat is what we’re looking at. He needs at-bats and needs to play.
“We’re talking about a kid who, because of injuries, hasn’t had 1,000 at-bats (618 to be precise). But his eye-hand coordination is exceptional.
“It’s going to happen,” continued Beyeler. “We have to be patient. The last thing we want to do is throw him up there and he’s overmatched. We need to give him some time to get his feet under him. Every time he goes to the plate he gets more comfortable. He’s going to help out Boston sometime this year – maybe for a week or a month or longer.”
At the opposite end of the offensive spectrum is catcher Ryan Lavarnway who became the odd man out when Boston signed Kelly Shoppach.
Lavarnway split last season between Portland and Pawtucket and hit a combined total of 32 home runs.
And in spring training with Boston he hit .429 with a .488 OBP plus a .486 slugging percentage in 35 at-bats.
But the knock on Lavarnway is he needs to improve his defense plus his game-calling.
“The bottom line is when you have a young prospect it means he hasn’t got it done yet,” said Beyeler. “He can block. He can throw. Is he the best arm in the system? No. Is he the best blocker? No. But he’s a big, strong kid who can last through a season.
“He’s a great kid who knows how to play the game and can hit. Take the whole package and it’s a pretty impressive package.”
Lavarnway will be on the receiving end of two talented pitchers, Alex Wilson and Junichi Tazawa.
Wilson was voted Boston’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year when he combined to go 10-4 with a 3.11 ERA in 25 starts between Portland (21) and Pawtucket (four).
In addition, Baseball America rates Wilson as having the best fastball and slider among Boston’s minor league pitchers.
“From a stuff standpoint, he’s the ‘stuff guy’ on the staff,” said Beyeler. “He’s a young guy with a power arm. He’s a power stuff guy. And the bottom line is you need stuff to get guys out.
“He’s an inexperienced guy who hasn’t pitched a lot. But he’s got some arm strength and a wipeout slider. He’s trying to develop a changeup. We want to keep him in the rotation. If not, he’s a front-end bullpen guy.”
Tazawa has overcome the effects of Tommy John surgery which forced him to miss the 2010 season. And after being signed as a starter, Boston’s converted him to a middle reliever.
“He’s a four-pitch guy (fastball, curveball, splitter and slider) who commands the ball,” said Beyeler. “He’s an aggressive pitcher and doesn’t nibble (in 166 career minor league innings, Tazawa’s walked 43 and fanned 153 batters). He finds another gear when guys get on base.
“He’s a guy who’s knocking on the door and was impressive once against the Yankees (in an August 2009 start he beat the Yankees, 14-1, as he tossed six scoreless innings). He’s shown he can do it on the big stage.”
Perhaps the outfield equivalent of Iglesias is center fielder Che-Hsuan Lin who’s made a habit of turning potential hits into outs — and is now headed to Boston to replace Jacoby Ellsbury, who is expected to hit the disabled list on Saturday.
“He’s a plus outfielder with a plus arm,” said Beyeler. “He’s not the fastest runner but he knows where the ball’s coming down.
“He’s getting better at the plate. He had a good winter with a team in Taiwan and took that into the spring. He’s always done a good job with plate recognition. But almost to a fault, we need to get him to swing the bat and drive the ball.
“He’s a defensive hitter,” added Beyeler. “We need him to be more aggressive.”
EXTRA BASES: For the most part, the rest of Pawtucket’s starting lineup has Lars Anderson at first base, Nate Spears or Pedro Ciriaco (who also plays shortstop) at second, Daniel Nava or Alex Hassan in left field and either Jason Repko or Josh Kroeger (who also can play first) in right … Mauro Gomez, who last season hit .304 with 34 homers and 90 RBI for the Gwinnett Braves, is the DH but also may play first base … Pawtucket’s starting rotation consists of Wilson, Brandon Duckworth, Ross Ohlendorf, Aaron Cook and Justin Germano … Besides Tazawa, the bullpen will include Tony Pena Jr., Will Inman, Doug Mathis, Chorye Spoone and Doug Mathis … Somewhere down the road Pawtucket should regain the services of outfielder Ryan Kalish, whose 2011 season was derailed in late April because of shoulder and neck injuries.