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SoxProspects News

May 4, 2010 at 1:23 PM

The Lineup Card: 5.4.10


In today’s edition of The Lineup Card, we’ll look at the catching rotations in the system before breaking down the lineup of one of the top teams in the minor leagues, record-wise.

Will you be my catcher? – Catcher/pitcher pairings in development

(Credit to message board poster Niko (SoxSail) for initially pointing out the info that I've expanded on here.)

Catcher development is uniquely complicated. In addition to the work in the batter’s box put in by every hitter coming through the minors, catchers have their own set of defensive skills to learn. Additionally, the physical toll of the position is something the player development staff must account for. Last season, no full-season Red Sox catcher was behind the plate for more than 87 games, and no short-season catcher in the U.S. donned the tools of ignorance more than 25 times. And, of course, catchers are inextricably tied to the development of the pitchers they work with, a factor that must be considered when teams decide if and when to promote their backstops.

Given this interdependence, it makes sense for a minor league manager to consider pairing certain pitchers and catchers when making out his lineup card, both in terms of performance and development. In particular, we have seen apparently purposeful pairing of Salem’s Ryan Lavarnway, the offensive-minded yin to teammate Tim Federowicz’s defensive-minded yang, with certain pitchers during the season’s first month. Before we consider the ramifications, let’s look at which starters the two primary Salem catchers have caught this year:

Lavarnway: Huntzinger-Huntzinger-Wilson-Kehrt-Wilson-Huntzinger-Wilson-Williamson-Clay
Federowicz: Pimentel-Wilson-Pimentel-Williamson-Clay-Huntzinger-Williamson-Clay-Pimentel-Williamson-Clay-Pimentel-Huntzinger

Not surprisingly, Salem coaches have no problem throwing Federowicz out there with anyone on the staff. However, Lavarnway’s starts behind the plate in the month of April almost all came with Brock Huntzinger and Alex Wilson toeing the rubber, the exception being Jeremy Kehrt’s start that was part of an April 21 doubleheader. This setup allowed Lavarnway to spend his first month of the year getting used to a couple starters, rather than the whole staff, so that he could also concentrate on putting to use the footwork and other techniques he has worked on off the field. There could be certain specific aspects of Wilson’s and Huntzinger’s stuff or command, or their perhaps ability to hold runners, that made them better to pair with Lavarnway in the early going. Finally, by working at first with just two starters, including one who was his teammate last year in Greenville, Lavarnway can improve on aspects of the in-game pitcher-catcher relationship, like formulating and implementing a game plan and spotting mechanical issues.

From all reports, including quotes from Director of Player Development Mike Hazen, Lavarnway has made good progress defensively. Combine that with his SoxProspects Player of the Month performance on the offensive side of the plate in April (.355/.424/.658, 6 home runs), it now looks as though the plan has changed, or at least shifted into phase two: the Yale grad has caught for Fabian Williamson and Caleb Clay for the first time this year to start the month of May. The situation bears watching, as a call-up to Portland by the end of the year would not be out of the question should Lavarnway prove that he can make the necessary strides to be a major league catcher.

What about elsewhere in the system? Here is how the playing time has been split among backstops at the other affiliates:

- In Greenville, 2009 rookie free agent Dan Butler has established himself as the starter, catching 14 of the Drive’s 24 games, one behind Luis Exposito for most games caught in the system. He and Exposito are also the only catchers in the system to start three games in a row at the position. However, he has yet to catch for left-hander Manny Rivera, who has been paired with Michael Thomas three times and Christian Vazquez twice. It is early enough for that to be a coincidence, but keep an eye on the lineup in Rivera’s future starts.
- Until Mark Wagner went on the disabled list on April 30, he and Dusty Brown were almost literally alternating starts. Wagner did get a little bit more run, though, getting the only two back-to-back starting stretches in April for the PawSox and DH’ing four times to Brown’s two DH starts.
- At the Sox’ other cold-weather farm team, Exposito has been the clear starter, while Juan Apodaca has typically started every third or fourth game, with the occasional start at DH. However, perhaps due to his somewhat slow start at the plate (.203/.314/.322 in April), Exposito has been the designated hitter four times in Portland’s last seven games. Getting his mind temporarily off catching may have done the trick, as he is 8 for 25 (.320) with 5 walks, 2 doubles, and a triple in that span. The power has still been a bit slow in showing up, but according to Chris Mellen’s first-hand reports, Expo appears to be working on his plate discipline and seeing more pitches per at-bat, as well as adjusting to the steady diet of breaking balls Eastern League pitchers have been giving him. As he becomes more comfortable in his approach, hopefully the extra-base hits will return, as his power potential is among the best in the system.

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Lineup Breakdown: Salem Red Sox

The Salem Red Sox own the affiliated minor leagues’ second-best record after Monday night’s win at 17-7 thanks to a balanced attack (the team is third in the Carolina League in both runs scored and fewest runs allowed). Here is how the lineup has looked so far.

Lineup:
1. Pete Hissey – CF
2. Tim Federowicz – C/DH
3. Anthony Rizzo – 1B
4. Ryan Lavarnway – DH/C
5. Will Middlebrooks – 3B
6. Oscar Tejeda – 2B
7. Ryan Dent – SS
8./9. RF Mitch Dening, LF/RF Alex Hassan, LF David Mailman
Bench: Jon Hee – SS/3B, Luis Segovia – 2B/SS/3B, Drew Hedman – 1B/RF/LF

Dening, Hassan, and Mailman make a three-man corner outfield rotation (one that Hedman is starting to break into while all three scuffle below the Mendoza Line). Tejeda has been the one to move up the top of the order when Hissey or Federowicz sits. Dent missed six games with a hamstring injury from April 13-18, giving Hee some significant time at short. Hissey and Tejeda, both 20 years old, were the fifth- and seventh-youngest players in the Carolina League on Opening Day.

Rotation:
1. Stolmy Pimentel
2. Brock Huntzinger
3. Fabian Williamson
4. Caleb Clay
5. Alex Wilson
Piggyback Starters: Jeremy Kehrt, Mike Lee
Bullpen: Kyle Fernandes, Mitch Herold, Will Latimer, Blake Maxwell, Lance McClain
Inactive: Leandro Marin

This may not be the star-studded Portland staff, but there are plenty of interesting arms. Leading the bill is Pimentel, the fourth-youngest player in the league. The other four starters are all strong candidates to break out and crack the top 20 at some point, a place some may already have 2009 second-rounder Wilson. Kehrt has stayed on a five-day schedule, while Lee has thrown every fourth day, typically for 3.0 innings. Fernandes and Maxwell should really be in Double-A, but were likely pushed down to maintain as much pitching depth as possible. Herold has arguably been the best pitcher in the system this year, allowing just 6 baserunners in 16.1 innings.