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February 25, 2011 at 9:12 AM

2011 Prospect Previews: Jason Rice and Jeremy Hazelbaker

The ninth installment of the Prospect Previews series focuses on one prospect pushing towards the highest level of the Red Sox system and another working to carve a path to the high minors in 2011.

Jason Rice
Position: Relief Pitcher
2010 Team: Portland Sea Dogs
2011 Projected Team: Pawtucket Red Sox
Opening Day Age: 24

Strengths: Despite his smaller frame, Rice is capable of generating excellent velocity with his fastball and likes to use the offering to his advantage. Generally sitting 92-93 MPH, he’s able to reach back when he needs to and can hit as high as 96 MPH when the situation calls for it. Rice also throws a two-seam version of his fastball, showing some run down in the zone and a little bit less velocity from the straighter four-seam fastball. When on with his fastball command, he can be very tough to hit and produce a lot of late swings, while also slicing through the corners of the plate in spots that batters have little chance of making hard contact against. His fastball is especially effective when thrown up and under the hands of right or left-handed hitters. Possessing an aggressive attitude on the mound, Rice isn’t afraid to come right after opposing lineups and likes to challenge opponents up in the zone with his heater. A former starter in his early career, he’s taken well to a full-time role as a reliever and has the potential to be a contributing piece of a major league bullpen with continued polishing of his arsenal.

Development Needs: Rice lacks a refined second pitch and is extremely dependant on his fastball. In instances where he does not have as fine of command, he tends to consistently get behind batters and they can sit all over the offering, producing hard contact against him. Rice throws a high 70s curveball, but it is primarily a look pitch and he does not appear to have enough confidence in the offering to use it for anything other than a wrinkle before going right back to his fastball. Tightening up his curve to get consistent snap with his wrist and gaining trust to use it to get outs will go a long way for him to be successful against the more advanced hitters he will see a level up in the Red Sox system. At times, Rice rushes his delivery and this is the root cause of his spells of wildness. His front shoulder typically flies open and it causes his fastball to sail out of the strike zone. Further work with keeping himself under control on the mound should allow him to limit the instances of his control deserting him and outings where he labors considerably to get through innings.

2011 Outlook: Invited to Spring Training in the major league camp, Rice will get valuable exposure to how big league pitchers go about their routines, while also getting a chance to test his arsenal against the best competition he has seen to date. After returning to minor league camp, most likely in the earlier round of cuts, Rice will be in line for a placement with Pawtucket’s bullpen once the season gets underway. After proving himself in Double-A during the 2010 season, the next step for him is to show that he can consistently get batters out in the International League. More use and trust in his curveball is a key driver in making this happen. If Rice can keep hitters from sitting on his fastball by creating better deception with his curve, he should maintain his high strikeout rates at this level. After settling in to his placement in Triple-A, a good sign that Rice is keeping his delivery under control will show with a reduction in the amount of walks issued and more at-bats where hitters have to earn their way on base. After joining the Red Sox organization in 2008 via the Triple-A phase of the Rule V Draft, he’s solidified himself within the system and offers the major league team another potential contributing bullpen piece down the line. With further refinement of his arsenal and putting the finishing touches on his package, Rice has a chance to push himself in line for major league consideration over the course of the summer.

Jeremy Hazelbaker
Position: Outfield
2010 Team: Greenville Drive
2011 Projected Team: Salem Red Sox
Opening Day Age: 23

Strengths: An athletic and lean outfielder with some room left to pack on a little bit more muscle, Hazelbaker brings a package of plus speed and solid-average power potential to the baseball diamond. Hitting from the left side of the plate, he gets out of the batter’s box extremely well and has shown to be far ahead of the curve in the low minors with his base stealing instincts. With a slight upper cut to his swing, Hazelbaker can generate some good lift, especially when turning on inside pitches. He shows strong power in batting practice and has started to translate that power into game action. After having a rough time adjusting to professional pitching when signing with the organization in 2009, he began to make strides with his pitch recognition and approach during the 2010 season. Hazelbaker is much more willing to go deeper into counts, rather than jumping at the first fastball he sees close to the strike zone. Relatively new to the outfield, his speed gives him excellent range at any of the outfield positions, and the potential to round into a capable defender with continued experience tracking balls off the bat.

Development Needs: Hazelbaker has some holes in his swing that he needs to address as he moves up the ranks of the system. He also displays some over-aggressiveness in deciding which pitches to attack once he gets himself into a count where he can do some damage. Both issues lead to a lot of instances of no contact at-bats, meaning a focus on making more contact is a must for him to project as a major league player upon reaching the upper levels of the minors. Hazelbaker struggles with balls on the outer third of the plate and either rolls over or swings through them with frequency. He’s made improvement with hitting the ball the other way, but further attention to go with offerings and use his hands will allow him to expand the zone where he can handle pitches. Defensively, despite having plus speed and excellent range, Hazelbaker looks best suited for a corner outfield spot unless he can make strong strides with his route-taking and judgment in center field. Although accurate, his arm is about average and looks to play up best in left field, which is going to put a greater emphasis on the offense he can produce. Hazelbaker most likely profiles as a fourth outfielder or late inning replacement as he gets to the later stages of his development track.

2011 Outlook: Hazelbaker appears to have the inside track on breaking camp with the Salem Red Sox and manning one of the starting outfield spots. A placement in High-A this season is going to be a good test for him to make some further adjustments and produce better levels of contact against more advanced pitching. Now in his second full year with the organization, 2011 can shape up as a season of bigger strides for Hazelbaker as he has a better idea of his plan at the plate and more experience seeing the expanded repertoires of professional pitchers. The biggest positive development sign to look for is a reduction in the amount of strikeouts he logs, which should enable him to produce more solid contact and take consistent advantage of the backspin he creates when squaring the ball up. He has the potential to produce strong extra-base hit totals and hit his fair share of home runs at this level if he can continue to work at picking better pitches to attack. Looking to carve out his track within the organization, Hazelbaker has a clear set of goals to work on in 2011. With more polish of his hitting skills, he can move more quickly towards the next level this season to prove he’s a prospect trending into the organization’s outfield depth in the upper minors.