Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Pawtucket Red Sox: Pitching could be key to success

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Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Teams across the Major Leagues will often point to the depth they have in their minor league system as one of the barometers pointing to how ready they are to enjoy sustained success. Depth and, perhaps more importantly, the ability to supplement their active roster from within the organization is unquestionably important to each and every organization but often assembled in very different ways. As such, we often see varying degrees of success in this area from one organization to the next.

For the Boston Red Sox, fresh off their third World Series title in the past ten years, there is a seemingly unprecedented amount of depth within their minor league system. This is especially true on the mound, as their projected rotation at Triple-A Pawtucket shows.

The Pawtucket Red Sox held their annual Media Day on Tuesday, announcing their Opening Day roster and simultaneously giving the local media their first glimpse at the collection of talent that will be calling McCoy Stadium home at the start of the 2014 season. Minor league rosters are a fickle beast, often changing with a high degree of regularity as the season progresses due to a variety of factors (promotions, demotions, injuries, etc.). For the Paw Sox, however, they appear primed to at least begin the year with one of the top starting rotations in the International League, driving plenty of optimism for the upcoming season.

Rich Sauveur, the team’s Pitching Coach, has high hopes for the group of arms he’ll have at his disposal to begin the season and has set some modest goals for the group:

I want six of them to go to the big leagues. I want six of them to stay there. [chuckles] I want another ring up there. It’s really just about finding consistency. I think we’ve got a very good staff, I really do. I think it’s a great group. We’ve got a good bullpen too, you should take a look at them as well.  There are some very good arms with some big league experience here. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo, Drake Britton, Rubby De La Rosa, and Chris Hernandez currently project to begin the season in the team’s rotation. Veteran Chris Resop could also factor into the mix as an option and so too could John Ely, once he returns from the disabled list (he’s still recovering from Tommy John surgery, performed a year ago this month when he was a member of the Houston Astros).

Webster, Britton, and De La Rosa are likely the more familiar names from the group. Each spent time in Boston this past season, with varying degrees of success.

Webster made 8 appearances (7 starts) for the Red Sox in 2013, throwing a total of 30.1 IP while struggling to an 8.60 ERA and 1.813 WHIP. Command was a concern (5.3 BB/9) and he was prone to giving up the long ball (2.1 HR/9) but he’s still expected to figure prominently in the team’s future regardless of the role that he ends up filling. Some scouts have speculated that he could be an ideal closer candidate if he’s unable to harness his control problems, but it’s likely too early to write off any chance of him having success as a starter. In 21 starts (105.0 IP) in Pawtucket his results were still encouraging: 3.60 ERA, 1.086 WHIP, 9.9 K/9. Likely taking the ball on Opening Day for the Paw Sox, the right-handed Webster could be the first arm called upon should there be a need for another starter in Boston this season.

Ranaudo will likely be spending his first full season at Triple-A, having split his 2013 season between Portland and Pawtucket. Combined on the year he’d pitch 140.0 innings over 25 appearances (24 starts), posting a 2.96 ERA and 1.136 WHIP. Injuries limited his innings in 2012 and slowed his growth through Boston’s system but he bounced back with a strong year last season, reminding many why he was viewed as one of the top right-handed collegiate arms in the 2010 Draft before he fell to the Red Sox at the 39th overall pick due to signability concerns.

Both Britton and De La Rosa make for unique cases. Each has seen success in the past working out of the starting rotation, where they’ve spent the majority of their minor league careers. Their respective future roles, however, remain uncertain. Much of their experience to date in the Major Leagues has come out of the bullpen, which could ultimately be where they can make the biggest impact.

Making 18 appearances out of the Red Sox bullpen last year, Britton proved effective as a left-handed reliever. He’d pitch to a 3.86 ERA, 1.333 WHIP, and 7.3 K/9 in Boston. Much of his 2013 season was actually spent at Portland and not Pawtucket when he was not with the team in Boston. Britton made 18 appearances (17 starts) on the year, with a 3.77 ERA and 1.373 WHIP across 102.2 IP.

As for De La Rosa, he spent the bulk of the 2013 season at Triple-A after missing most of 2012 while recovering from his own Tommy John surgery. He’d be limited to just 80.1 IP on the year, making 24 appearances (20 starts), while posting a 4.26 ERA and 1.407 WHIP. His strikeout rate dipped to 8.5 K/9 on the year, as he had stretches where his control hadn’t yet fully returned. He’d add another 11 appearances in Boston, with mixed results.

Often overlooked when discussing the organization’s pitching depth, Hernandez is still just 25 years old and does give the team another left-handed option with some experience. He’s pitched well at each stop in the minor leagues but has struggled in Pawtucket in parts of the past two seasons, bouncing between the rotation and bullpen. He’d make five starts at Double-A last season, posting a 1.64 ERA and 1.091 WHIP. Once he was bumped to Pawtucket he’d make 24 appearances (16 starts) with a 5.72 ERA and 1.769 WHIP. While he’s not among the team’s top prospects by any means, he’s still able to provide value with the innings he’s able to throw (127+ in three consecutive seasons).

That mix also doesn’t include Matt Barnes, who Sauveur was quick to point out would be returning in just a few weeks (he wouldn’t bite when asked about who’d be pushed out of the rotation at that point). Barnes will begin the year on the disabled list thanks to a sore shoulder that limited him to just one inning of work during Spring Training, an injury that the organization has admitted they are being overly cautious with.

The 23 year old spent the bulk of the 2013 season with Double-A Portland, where he made 24 starts and pitched 108.0 innings to a 4.33 ERA and 1.463 WHIP, adding an impressive 11.2 K/9. He did make one start with the Paw Sox late in the season (5.1 IP, 0 ER, 3 H, 7 K). Ranking in the top half of many of the major prospect lists entering the 2013 season (#40 on Baseball America’s Top 100; #38 on MLB.com’s), Barnes’ stock has taken a slight step back overall (he fell out of both lists heading into this season) but he’s still viewed as one of the more promising arms within the organization.

On it’s surface the group may not appear overly impressive if you look strictly at the numbers – given the mixed results that some had the past season – but their collective promise (i.e. upside) makes them collectively one of the stronger rotations in the International League. Just look at how they fared when the team’s top prospects were ranked heading into the 2014 season.

Jay Blue took a stab at ranking the team’s Top 15 prospects here at GOTC back in early December. His rankings included Barnes (#4), Webster (#6), and Ranaudo (#7).

Baseball America ranked Webster (#4) and Barnes (#9) on their Top 10.

The folks at SoxProspects.com have Webster (#6), Ranaudo (#7), Barnes (#8), and Britton (#11) on their overall (Top 60) system rankings. Their list even includes three players who should factor into Pawtucket’s bullpen success, a group including Brandon Workman (#9, currently in Boston’s bullpen), Dalier Hinojosa (#25), and Alex Wilson (#31).

None of this, of course, even notes the possibility that Henry Owens – universally considered the top arm in the organization’s minor league system – will eventually work his way into the mix at Pawtucket. He’s slated to begin the season at Double-A and could force his way onto the Paw Sox roster by midseason.

Rich Sauveur was noticeably optimistic when asked about the collection of arms that he’ll be able to work with this coming season in Pawtucket, lending credit to the excitement this team is facing heading into the season as they try to win another Governors’ Cup. They came close to a repeat championship last season, finishing the year with an 80-63 mark (1st in the North Division and the second-best record in the entire International League) only to lose the finals to the Durham Bulls.

Much of the offense that lead this team to the playoffs a year ago returns and the pitching staff appears to be even stronger. They may have lost their championship a year ago, but they watched their parent club win the World Series just a few weeks later – with the help of a number of former Paw Sox alums. The group should be primed to challenge for the title once again this season thanks to the strength of this pitching staff, even taking into consideration the fact that a number of these arms will make their way up to Boston over the course of the coming season.

Sauveur just hopes they get the chance to prove why they ought to stay there.

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Tags: Boston Red Sox Pawtucket Red Sox

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