July 22, 2010 at 7:15 AM
We’re only a week out of the All-Star break, but this past weekend saw the number of relievers used by the Red Sox jump to 14 (and that’s not counting position players Bill Hall and Jonathan Van Every, or Alan Embree, who never got into a game). With such high turnover, it's only a matter of time until the front office gives a look to Portland reliever Jason Rice, a player who has been a really impressive find for them. A starter in the White Sox system before the Red Sox selected him in the Triple-A Phase of the 2008 Rule 5 Draft, Boston moved Rice and his mid-90’s fastball to the bullpen to stay. After finishing with a 2.44 ERA in 70 appearances with High-A Salem last season, Rice has posted a 2.79 ERA and notched 10 saves en route to being named a 2010 Eastern League All-Star. Jason took some time to talk to SoxProspects.com’s Jon Meoli about his progression towards the big leagues.
Jon Meoli: What it was like playing in the Eastern League All-Star Game yesterday. What did the experience mean for you as a player?
Jason Rice: Yesterday was my first All-Star Game as a professional. I never imagined anything quite as fun in the game of baseball than an All-Star Game. As a kid, you see those guys in the big-leagues make an All-Star team and you can only pray that you get that chance one day. But when it happens in real life, and you see all those fans cheering for you and you’re playing with all these other guys from other teams that have busted their butts to do well for the first half of a long season, you just go out there and strap it on at 7 o’clock and have some fun.
JM: Even though your team didn’t win, you were lucky enough to get into the game and do well, too.
JR: It was a great blessing to even be selected, but to say that I’ve pitched in an All-Star game - let alone a Double-A All-Star game, because that’s just a phone call away from the big- leagues. And to go out there and play with the best of the best on a team full of guys that are that close as well is a real honor.
JM: We usually follow the players from the moment they’re drafted until the moment they get the call up to Boston, but as a Rule 5 player it was different for you. What was your career like before you came to the Red Sox organization?
JR: I came up with the White Sox, and they drafted me out of college. I was actually converted, I was a catcher in college and started pitching once I signed. The Red Sox picked me up in the Rule 5, but before that I’d had some struggles and bounced around between being a starter, a reliever, and a closer with the White Sox organization. But they gave me my first opportunity to play professional baseball and I’m very grateful to that organization and every staff member there.
JM: You mentioned that you bounced around between the rotation and the bullpen. As a new pitcher, were they just trying to stretch your arm out?
JR: Now that I have six years under my belt, I can see that when you come in young they want to build up your innings. Whether you’re a first-rounder or last-rounder, they want to get you out there and see how you perform. They want to see you work through things. It’s a part of development in this game and growing up and maturing as well.
JM: Now that you’ve settled in the bullpen, is this where you want to be?
JR: I love it. I’ve always been a guy that wants to go in the game at that critical moment and get the job done to help the team get a victory. It doesn’t matter whether I was a catcher with the bat, or now as a pitcher. I really love it.
JM: You mentioned that you’re really just a phone call away here in Portland. Do you keep an eye on what’s been a pretty shaky bullpen situation up in Boston?
JR: Everyone knows what’s going on up there. It’s not a secret, they have SportsCenter and all that stuff that lets you know what’s going on with anybody. But I can’t control that stuff. The only thing I can take care of is doing what I can between the lines here. I can’t control any decisions that they make up top, I just try to go out and give it 110% everyday, and I’m ready if they need me.
JM: You’re one of the hardest throwers in the system. Has your velocity been something you’ve added in the bullpen, or were you throwing hard as a starter as well?
JR: As a starter, I was anywhere from 90-94 on a consistent basis. As a reliever, it’s short stints and you can go out there and let loose depending on how it feels that day. Velocity doesn’t dictate much in terms of where I’m at, I just stick with the philosophy of going out there and getting the hitter out. I have confidence, but I really just want to get that guy out.
JM: Has there been anyone on the coaching staff who has helped you improve and take you closer to that next level?
JR: To be honest, that’s what the coaches, staff members, and scouts are for. They evaluate us everyday as ballplayers. They’ve grown up around this game and been around guys like us for years, but all you can really do is be yourself. I try to be myself and go out and have some fun.
It hasn’t been one coach who’s helped me here, but the whole organization. I turned my career around tremendously coming from the White Sox to being here. The Red Sox are a team that are going to win every night. They take care of their players and treat everyone with respect and just want you to go out there and enjoy yourself.
JM: Can you talk about the community work you’ve been trying to do in Portland?
JR: I try to stay in the community as much as possible. Growing up, I looked at professional athletes and wondered “Hey, what is that guy doing today?” You want to know how these guys are spending their free time, so I like to take a little time to talk to kids. I try to tell them that I’m a small guy, so everything I have I’ve worked for. You can do everything you put your mind to. But you see the guys who are 6’7”, 6’8” up in the big-leagues throwing 100 MPH, but you don’t have to be that big. It’s all about heart.
JM: Luckily, you have a pretty large fan base in Portland to work with. What do you think about the passion of the fans you’ve encountered so far?
JR: It doesn’t matter if you’re Josh Beckett or Daniel Nava, who was an undrafted free agent that I was lucky enough to play with last year. Red Sox Nation treats you all the same. They know the guys are going to go out there and give it their all to win every day, and the fans support them. That’s really all you can ask for.
JM: And finishing up, are there any teammates in this organization that have impressed you above anyone else?
JR: I have to say everybody, really. I’ve actually learned more from the guys I’ve played with in this organization than I have in my whole career. Just how they go about their business and how they do things, everyone here is top notch and you learn from that.