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January 5, 2012 at 11:15 PM

First Take: Sox announce 12 minor league signings

(Note: With the new year, we’re debuting a new feature called First Take, in which we will analyze organization transactions as they occur.) 

The Move: Red Sox announce the signing of 12 players to minor league contracts with spring training invites: RHPs Brandon Duckworth, Charlie Haeger, Will Inman, Doug Mathis, Tony Pena, Jr., Carlos Silva, and Chorye Spoone; LHPs Jesse Carlson, Rich Hill, and Justin Thomas; SS Pedro Ciriaco, and UT Nate Spears 

The Big Picture: The Sox typically announce such a list of signings around this time each year. I use the term “announce” because many of these transactions were reported already, some as far back as late October/early November in the case of the re-signings of Duckworth, Haeger, Pena and Spears. 

About 10-15 non-roster players – those not on the 40-man roster – receive invitations to major league spring training each year, so expect this list to more or less represent the full list of non-roster invitees (“NRIs”), perhaps with a couple of additions between now and March. From a practical standpoint, these players will really be competing for spots in Triple-A Pawtucket, but injuries could always open the door for one to make the major league club. In fact, when negotiating with minor league free agents, the Sox use examples of recent NRIs like infielder Nick Green, who made the club out of Spring Training as a NRI in 2008 and stayed up for the entire season, and outfielder Darnell McDonald, an NRI in 2009 who has been on the Boston roster for most of the last two seasons, to show the club’s willingness to promote such players to the majors when there is a need. 

The Breakdown: With a multi-player transaction like this, it can be hard to keep the players straight. In an attempt to help, here’s a quick look at these 12 in a few different ways. 

Ciriaco, SS (2B/3B/LF) – Primarily a shortstop, but has also played third base and left field in the majors, and second base in the minors. 
Spears, True UT (Best position 2B) – He was Portland’s starting second baseman in 2010, but last year played all four infield positions and both corner outfield positions. The club loves his versatility. 
Silva, SP – Has been a starter since 2004. 
Duckworth, SP – Has worked primarily as a starter in his career, and anchored the Pawtucket rotation last season. Possible that he moves to the bullpen for a better opportunity to help the major league club however. 
Haeger, SP – Has been a starter for most of his career, with nearly all of his relief appearances coming in 2002 in Rookie ball and in the majors. It’s always tough for knuckleballers to come out of the bullpen and have success, so he’ll start. 
Carlson, RP – Has been a relief pitcher for his entire professional career.
Hill, RP – Once a starting pitching prospect with the Cubs, he was en route to establishing himself as a solid major league bullpen lefty last year before getting hurt. 
Thomas, RP – Drafted as a starter, he moved into the bullpen in 2008 and has relieved since. 
Inman, SP/RP – Had been a starter for his entire career until moving to the bullpen in June last season in Triple-A. It is most likely that he will try to regain some of his lost prospect luster in the bullpen full-time. 
Mathis, SP/RP – Has worked almost exclusively as a starter in the minors, but almost exclusively as a reliever in the majors, albeit a multi-inning reliever. Role will be determined in spring training. 
Pena, SP/RP – Was a stereotypical swingman for Pawtucket last year, starting the year as a reliever before moving into the rotation when a spot opened up midseason. However, his most likely path to the majors is in the bullpen, so expect him to work in relief. 
Spoone, SP/RP – Much like Inman, had spent his entire career as a starter until moving to the bullpen in July last season in Double-A. Role is similarly unclear. 

Options Remaining 
0 – Silva (5+ seasons), Ciriaco, Duckworth, Haeger, Hill, Pena, Spoone 
1 – Carlson (OAW*), Mathis (OAW*), Thomas (OAW*) 
3 – Inman, Spears 
* - Player must clear optional assignment waivers before being optioned. 

In this case, the 12 players can be split into a few different categories for more direct analysis: 

The Redemption Project: Carlos Silva 

The biggest name in the group is Silva, a 32-year-old who was once a well-established major league starter, receiving a four-year, $48-million contract from the Mariners in 2007. However, things took a turn for the worse last season, as he failed to make the Cubs rotation out of spring training and was unceremoniously released, with General Manager Jim Hendry taking some shots at him on his way out the door for his declining ability and poor attitude. Silva caught on with the Yankees soon thereafter, pitching at three levels before being released again in July. 

Given his pedigree, it is entirely possible that Silva could pitch his way into a major league rotation spot out of spring training with the roster as currently constructed, but the chances of that happening will drop significantly if the Red Sox acquire an established starter to slot into the number four spot in the rotation as expected. As a non-roster player, Silva would have to pitch significantly better than the club’s other options that are already on the 40-man roster in order to justify his addition. The most likely scenario has Silva beginning the season in Pawtucket, trying to position himself to be the first option for the Sox should an injury lead to an opening in the rotation, or at least to pitch well enough that a team with an opening is interested when his opt-out comes up.

The Rehabber: Rich Hill 

Hill was released earlier this offseason in order to open a spot on the 40-man roster. At the time, he said he was open to a return to the organization on a minor league contract, but that he first wanted to test the waters and see if he could find a major league deal elsewhere. Apparently, such an opportunity failed to materialize, an unsurprising development given that he underwent Tommy John surgery in June. 

Hill claims that he might be ready for spring training. Although such a quick return from Tommy John is atypical, it is not impossible. Fans will remember that Hill was very effective in his brief time in Boston last year before being injured. Still, in order to break camp on the Boston roster, Hill will have to show that he is clearly a better lefty option out of the bullpen than Doubront, Miller, and Franklin Morales, a tall order this soon after Tommy John. The more likely scenario is that the club takes a conservative approach to his rehab that starts him at lower levels of the minors, perhaps first at extended spring training before progressing through the minors up to Triple-A, making him a potential option in Boston around midseason. 

The Guys with Options and Service Time: Jesse Carlson, Doug Mathis, Justin Thomas 

These three will likely compete for the honor of being the Scott Atchison Memorial Taxi Squad Reliever, given that Atchison himself is now out of options. Carlson, Mathis, and Thomas each have one option remaining, and although they technically would need to clear optional assignment waivers to return to the minors, as we learned during Atchison’s time, this is really just a formality. All have spent parts of at least two seasons in the majors as well, meaning they could be expected to be called up on short notice without having the “star-struck” experience that some rookies do in similar situations. 

Carlson, who missed all of 2011 after rotator cuff surgery, was a key part of Toronto’s bullpen in 2008 and 2009, making 142 appearances over those two seasons for the Blue Jays. In 2010, however, he made 45 of his 65 appearances in Triple-A. Mathis spent his entire career with the Rangers organization until last season, when he pitched in Triple-A for the Giants and A’s before finishing his season with the Samsung Lions of the Korean Baseball Organization. He has almost exclusively been a starter in the minor leagues, making 121 of his 128 appearances in that role, but he has worked out of the bullpen in 39 of his 45 major league appearances. Perhaps he could find a better rhythm working as a reliever for an entire season? Thomas, meanwhile, has pitched pretty well in Triple-A since first reaching the level in 2008 (17-7, 3.67 ERA in 201.0 innings), but he has gotten shelled in the majors (30 hits and 12 runs in 17.0 innings) and will need to shake the “AAAA” label. His best chance to reach Boston is likely to pitch well for Pawtucket throughout the season and hope for an opening in July or August. 

The Speed and Defense Guy: Pedro Ciriaco

Players like Ciriaco who can field their positions well and can run like crazy tend to find ways to stick on Triple-A rosters. Ciriaco's role on the PawSox seems unclear, but he seems pretty clearly to have a role, at least as infield depth at that level. With both Jose Iglesias and Will Middlebrooks on the 40-man, and Spears also a possible major-league call-up, Ciriaco could slide into a starting spot if any of those three are called up to Boston. However, he quite likely begins the year behind those three, playing perhaps two or three times a week.

The Returners: Brandon Duckworth, Charlie Haeger, Tony Pena, Nate Spears 

Duckworth, Pena, and Spears were key members of the Pawtucket roster last season, while Haeger joined the Portland rotation midseason and was poised to make a playoff start for the PawSox if necessary until the club was eliminated from the International League playoffs. 

Duckworth was a consistently good, not great, member of the Pawtucket rotation, and it is most likely he will reclaim his rotation spot this year. However, there is a chance that he could move to the bullpen if the club considers him a better depth option for the major league club in such a role. He did pitch out of the bullpen for Pawtucket in the playoffs last September, although that came after an extended layoff of more than two weeks from his last start. 

Pena moved into the rotation and ate up a ton of innings in the second half of the season after pitching in relief for the first half. His projection for 2012 is similar to Duckworth’s, as he might be put in whatever role positions him best to contribute to the major league club if needed as a depth option. After working as a reliever for Aguilas in the Dominican this winter, it is most likely he takes as spot in the 'pen in Pawtucket to start the year.

Spears will enter his third season in the organization. In 2010, he was arguably the MVP in Double-A Portland as the club's regular second baseman. Last year, he was poised to be a core member of the PawSox after an outstanding spring training in which he caught the eye of Sox Manager Terry Francona, who praised his efforts in major league camp on a regular basis, but a number of injuries kept him from getting on track much in Pawtucket, although he did make his major league debut in September. Given the projected composition of the Pawtucket roster, expect Spears to slot in as the club’s starting second baseman, although his versatility could see him play pretty much any position on the field should the need arise due to injuries or other roster moves. The Sox will also be unafraid to call upon him if the need for a utility player arises at the major league level, especially given that he has all three of his options remaining. 

Haeger, a knuckleballer who spent the first half of 2011 pitching for Triple-A Tacoma (SEA), slotted in to an opening in the Portland rotation after signing to eat innings for a struggling Sea Dog club that eventually finished 59-83. The Sox rewarded him with a playoff promotion to Pawtucket, where he would have made a playoff start had the club not been eliminated from the International League playoffs. In the past, part of the utility of knuckleballers like Charlie Zink was to prepare catchers for the possibility of catching Tim Wakefield at the major league level (although it warrants mentioning that Zink threw a much different knuckleball than Wakefield and threw it far less often). However, Haeger will need to earn a rotation spot in Pawtucket on his own merit with Wakefield gone, and given that the club went through the trouble of re-signing him, expect him to get that opportunity. 

Still Looking for a Shot: Chorye Spoone, Will Inman 

Inman, a former Top 100 prospect in 2007 and Futures Game participant in 2008, moved to the bullpen for the first time last season after suffering through a rough start in the launching pad that was Tucson. In more comfy pitching environs, he represents something of a dark horse and a low-risk investment for the Sox. Spoone is the most likely of the 12 players to begin the year in Portland, rather than Pawtucket, with a mere 34 innings above the Double-A level, in part due to injuries that all-but cost him the 2008 and 2009 seasons. Like Inman, he moved to the bullpen for the first time last year, and that likely presents the best option for him to finally break through to the bigs.