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April 20, 2010 at 1:35 PM

The Lineup Card: 4.20.10


We’ll continue our week of debuts here on SoxProspects.com with the first edition of The Lineup Card. Here, we will take a top-down view of the Red Sox farm system, focusing on things like player assignments, playing time, lineups and rotations, pitcher usage, and split statistics – basically, anything fit for inclusion. Does the organization consider a player a prospect or organizational player? Is there more than meets the eye to a player’s season-long slash line or hit and strikeout rates? What can we deduce from the latest roster moves, if anything? These are the sort of questions that The Lineup Card will hope, or at least try, to answer. Oh, and there will be a fair number of pop culture references, so be ready for that.

In this edition, we will look at surprising early season assignments, position changes to watch in 2010, and how the “piggyback starter” system is expanding in the organization.

Surprise, Surprise: Unexpected initial assignments

As always, all the educated prognostication in the world could not have nailed every player on every roster to start the year. Which were the biggest surprises?

OF Daniel Nava to Pawtucket: Nava may be 27, but after just 144 Double-A plate appearances, it seemed a fair bet that he would return to Portland, however briefly, to prove that his .364/.479/.568 line there in 2009 was not a fluke. Instead, Nava impressed enough in spring training to earn a promotion to Pawtucket, where he has been the starter in left field, batting eighth. He has been challenged by Triple-A pitching so far, hitting .267/.333/.267 and still searching for his first extra-base hit.

RH SP Stephen Fife to Portland: Another pleasant surprise was the assignment of Fife, 23, to Portland’s rotation as opposed to Salem’s. After getting a late start to the season in 2009 due to shoulder weakness, Fife made eight starts in Greenville and ten in Salem. Fife was good at High-A, but not dominant, so a promotion to begin this year, while possible, was not expected. He has always pounded the strike zone – he walked just 14 batters in 87.1 innings last year – but Double-A will test Fife’s ability to command all of his pitches, rather than getting by on his fastball alone.

LH RPs Tommy Hottovy and Andrew Dobies to Portland, RH RP Blake Maxwell and LH RP Kyle Fernandes to Salem: I group these four together because they really are all in the same boat – a level below where they probably should be, presumably to keep as much depth in the system as possible. With Pawtucket relievers Alan Embree and Joe Nelson holding options to opt out of their contracts on April 30 and June 1, respectively, the call for Hottovy or Dobies up to Pawtucket, and then a call for either Maxwell or Fernandes to Portland, could easily come on those key dates. Hottovy, 28, and Dobies, 27 today, are in their fifth and fourth seasons in Portland, respectively, and Maxwell, 25, spent all of last season in Portland. Fernandes, 24, seemed a sure bet for promotion to Portland like fellow ’09 Salem bullpen-mates Jason Rice and Robert Coello. So, in essence, these placements are all demotions, although Maxwell was the only one to actually move down a level. For their part, all four are responding by showing why they should be promoted, pronto, combining to allow just 4 runs in their first 26.2 innings.

IFs Luis Segovia and Zach Gentile to Greenville, 1B Reynaldo Rodriguez to extended spring training: The book on the 23-year-old Segovia is clear at this point – he brings speed, a nice glove, and great attitude, but zero bat. He is reportedly willing to be a good organizational soldier for one more year, accepting a demotion after playing in Salem in 2009, before moving into coaching. Also 23, the undersized Gentile muscled his way into playing time last year by hitting .281 (albeit with little power) while Ryan Dent and Oscar Tejeda struggled at the plate. But more confusing than their conservative placements is that Segovia and Gentile completely overlap as utility infielders, while the Drive have no backup first baseman for Chris McGuiness, a role Rodriguez could easily fill. Unlike Derrick Loop and Nava, prior signees out of the Golden Baseball League who both debuted in Salem, the Sox apparently felt that Rodriguez was not ready for an assignment to full-season ball out of the gate. Still, do not be surprised if Rodriguez replaces one of the two infielders in a month or so – neither Segovia nor Gentile has any business continuing to serve as the backup first baseman.

OF Alex Hassan to Salem: This was not too surprising to the SoxProspects staff following our trip to Fort Myers two weeks before rosters were set, as Hassan looked very good. There was an outfield spot in High-A that needed to be filled by one of either Hassan, Jeremy Hazelbaker, or Shannon Wilkerson, but for the 22-year-old draftee out of Duke to take said spot would have been a stunner back in December. Hassan was not even drafted to play outfield – the club followed him in the Cape Cod League after drafting him as a pitcher, but changed course and decided that he had a better future in the outfield than on the mound. To essentially jump straight past Greenville, one short stint in ’09 as an injury fill-in notwithstanding, is impressive. For now, I view this as different than the similarly surprising assignment of first baseman/outfielder Drew Hedman (also skipping Greenville), which appears to be the case of an organizational player going where the system has a bench role to fill. Hassan has made six starts, and appears to have settled into a platoon in left field with David Mailman over the past week, as Mailman has gotten off to a 2-for-22 start.

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The Next Movement: Position changes

The start of a new season also inevitably brings position changes, some surprising, some not so. There have been no earth-shattering moves this season (like, for example, last season’s Aaron-Bates-in-left-field experiment), but there are a few of note:

Yamaico Navarro, Portland, shortstop to third base: The obvious reason for the move here, of course, is the presence of defensive savant Jose Iglesias at shortstop in Portland. The 22-year-old Navarro was a fine enough fielding shortstop, but as he continued to add bulk, a move to either third or second seemed likely. For now, Navarro will slide over to third, where the power he displayed in spring training keeps him a viable option to stay at the position down the road. Baseball America made an intriguing suggestion that Navarro could move to second base instead, but with that spot in Boston filled for the foreseeable future, third base makes sense for now.

Oscar Tejeda, Salem, shortstop to second base: A former top-ten prospect in the system, Tejeda, 20, struggled at the plate for two seasons in Greenville. Perhaps to finally tap into his potential, Tejeda will get two changes of scenery, sliding over to second base and being promoted to Salem. BA predicted a position change here as well, listing the 2006 IFA signing at third base on its organization depth chart, but his bat profiles better at second, as unlike Navarro he lacks the requisite power to play at the hot corner. Perhaps able to relax a bit more after moving off of short, Tejeda has started hot, posting a .375/.381/.600 line in his first ten games.

Ryan Dent, Salem, second base to shortstop: This is not quite a position change so much as it is a lack of an expected change. Dent, the system’s 2009 Defensive Player of the Year, had been pegged for a move to second base from shortstop as long as he has been in the system – in a 2008 Q&A, he all but said his future was at second. But after continued defensive improvement last year in Greenville, where he played about two-thirds of his games at second base, he played nothing but short following a promotion to High-A. He is a clear choice for the short list of breakout candidates in the system this year, particularly if he can prove he can stick at shortstop defensively.

Ryne Lawson, Portland, starting pitcher to relief pitcher: This late-round college draftee’s trajectory through the system has been hard to get a grasp on. In 2008, he went from stagnating in the bullpen at Low/Short Season-A to a member of the Double-A rotation, seemingly overnight. Last year, Lawson struggled in that rotation. This year, at age 24, he will try to get things back on track in a traditional bullpen role.

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This Little Piggy: Piggyback system expands to begin 2010

Dating back to the days of Abe Alvarez, the Red Sox have kept low-round draftees’ innings down in Lowell by limiting them to short stints, often of just 2-3 innings, a luxury the organization had with the expanded 30-man roster at that level. However, often the Red Sox would pair such prospects with a “piggyback” starter, a pitcher also working on a starter’s five-game schedule who would enter in relief and pitch a typical starter’s innings.

Last year, the Red Sox took this idea and expanded it to Greenville, but rather than only pairing a piggyback starter with a true starter whose innings were being intentionally kept low, the piggyback starter was now, in essence, the sixth, seventh, or even eighth starter in the rotation. The benefit is obvious – with a philosophy of developing future major league pitchers as starters for as long as possible, the organization was no longer limited to just five starting pitchers at each level of the system. Exhibit A of how this could pay off is Fabian Williamson, who began the season in 2009 as a piggyback starter but pitched his way into the rotation and was the Drive’s number two starter in the playoffs. On a conventional five-starter, seven-reliever pitching staff, Williamson would likely have either pitched as a true reliever to start the year or began in extended spring training, perhaps never impressing enough to move into the true rotation and have the breakout season he did.

This year, the Sox have already utilized piggyback starters at all four full-season affiliates. With both Boof Bonser and Daisuke Matsuzaka on rehab assignments, Kris Johnson and Randor Bierd began the year piggybacking Adam Mills and Michael Bowden, respectively. Bierd has already moved back into the rotation with Bonser sidelined once again, and when Matsuzaka returns to Boston, Johnson could do the same. In Portland, with Casey Kelly on a short pitch count in his first full pro season on the mound, Eammon Portice, the system’s 2009 strikeout leader, has followed him in long relief. Salem’s Jeremy Kehrt and Mike Lee, and Greenville’s Kendal Volz, Pedro Perez and Pete Ruiz all began the year as piggyback starters, while Jeremiah Bayer's two recent 4.0-inning relief appearances for the Drive suggest he may be moving into such a role as well. With promotions, injuries, and the mid-season “vacations” the organization gives many of its starting pitchers, expect to see most, if not all, of these pitchers starting at some point.

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Finally, we will close out each edition of The Lineup Card with two regular features, our Lineup Breakdown and Stat of the Week.

Lineup Breakdown: Portland Sea Dogs

Lineup:
1. Ryan Kalish – LF/RF
2. Che-Hsuan Lin – CF
3. Nate Spears – 2B
4. Luis Exposito – C
5. Lars Anderson – 1B
6. Yamaico Navarro – 3B
7. Jose Iglesias – SS
8. Chih-Hsien Chiang – DH/LF
9. Jason Place – RF/DH
Bench: Matt Sheely – LF/RF, Ray Chang – 3B/2B/1B, Juan Apodaca – C
Inactive: Jon Still – 1B (TIA)

There has been a pretty set batting order so far in Portland, acknowledged by many as one of the most prospect-laden clubs in the minor leagues. Lin has played nearly all of the center-field innings, with Kalish filling in on his one off day so far but alternating between left and right field otherwise. Chiang was the opening day designated hitter, but he has played six games in left compared to just five in right for Place. Two short-term injuries, a two-day sit for Kalish with a bad shoulder after diving for a ball and a wrist problem for Navarro that has kept him out of the Sea Dogs’ last three games, have led to significant playing time for backups Sheely and Chang in their stead. With Jon Still on the temporary inactive list, there is no obvious backup for Anderson, but Chang has filled in there.

Rotation:
1. Felix Doubront
2. Ryne Miller
3. Kyle Weiland
4. Stephen Fife
5. Casey Kelly/Eammon Portice
Bullpen: Jason Rice (closer), Bryce Cox, Andrew Dobies, Tommy Hottovy, Ryne Lawson, Robert Coello, Santo Luis

As the 2009 Sea Dogs Pitcher of the Year, Doubront is the ace by default in a rotation featuring four of the system’s top seven pitching prospects. Kelly’s pitch count has limited him to 5.0 innings in two starts combined. Cox was one of the club’s two closers last season – T.J. Large was the other before his promotion to Pawtucket – but fireballer Rice has taken that mantle, earning both of Portland’s saves on the young season.

Stat of the Week: 22

That is the number of stolen bases in 12 games for the Greenville Drive, led by Jeremy Hazelbaker’s 9. Following closely are the similarly speedy Wilfred Pichardo (4), Reymond Fuentes (4), and Derrik Gibson (3), and although he recently went on the disabled list, Shannon Wilkerson (1) will also steal some bases when healthy. This flows naturally from the Red Sox’ recent tendency to focus on acquiring athletic, toolsy players in the draft and international free agent markets. Expect a record level of larceny in Greenville this season, and at each level in seasons thereafter if this group stays together.