August 19, 2013 at 7:45 AM
FT. MYERS, Fla. -- The focus of Red Sox Nation may rest singularly upon Fort Myers during spring training, but baseball continues nearly year-round at the Red Sox complex at Fenway South. After the major league and full-season minor league clubs depart in late March/early April, the youngest minor leaguers participate in extended spring training (XST)—pretty much what it sounds like—until mid-June. The Gulf Coast League runs from then until mid-September, and the Fall Instructional League (Instructs) finishes the season, running through early October. Last week, with the help of a schedule that had me in Florida anyway on personal business, I took in my first GCL game.
Before I get to my first-hand reports, a bit about the GCL itself for the uninitiated (feel free to skip ahead if you are already familiar). Although the GCL Sox are an affiliated minor league team like any other team up the ladder to The Show, the Gulf Coast League is very different:
- There are very few fans. Pitchers who will not be pitching and are not charting behind the plate sit scattered throughout the stands to fetch foul balls. There were also a few family members of players and a scout or two.
- Games typically take place in the afternoon, although teams will turn the lights on a couple times each season. At JetBlue, there was a pop tent in the stands behind home plate to protect the players charting the pitchers from the sun. The smarter folks in attendance sought shelter under the shaded areas of the park’s seats. (My sunburned arms and face would make clear that I am not among those smarter folks.)
- There are four teams in each division, and teams in the GCL South (the Red Sox’ division) and East play only intra-division games while the eight teams in the GCL Northeast and Northwest, which were split into two divisions this season, will play inter-division. This year, this played out in the GCL South as the teams playing home-and-home two-game sets.
- There is no scoreboard, announcer, or PA system. The press box staff consists of one official scorer. There is a decent chance it was easier to follow what was going on at your high school games.
- The stats are borderline inconsequential. Most players in the GCL are working on the basics of pro baseball, getting used to a routine or simply the increased ability of opposing hitters or pitchers. Context is extremely important in evaluating a player’s performance at this level, if that is even a worthwhile exercise at all.
Thus, a GCL game admittedly feels like a more structured version of Spring Training or XST than a typical minor league game. As one scout who I talked to before my visit put it, the GCL is almost like practice. The scout then jokingly referred to it as T-ball. If you go to enough minor league games, the comparison seems apt.
As for what I was able to see on the field last Wednesday, overall, the Sox put together next to no offense, getting shut out while managing just four singles and a walk. The Orioles’ first-round pick in this year’s draft, Hunter Harvey, came out firing, easily blowing away Bryan Hudson, Joseph Monge, and Wendell Rijo in the first inning, and was only a bit more hittable in the rest of his 3 1/3 innings. Orioles general manager Dan Duquette was present to watch Harvey, and must have come away pleased, although he did miss that first inning.
- Jalen Williams and Pat Goetze made their pro debuts, pitching the first and second innings, respectively. The 6-foot-4 Williams looked the part of the college football recruit he was before signing. His inning went too quickly for me to observe much, but the one hit he gave up, a double by rehabbing Dariel Alvarez, was blasted off the top of the JetBlue Monster, over the hole in the wall in which the stands sit.
- Goetze is a lanky 6-foot-6 right-hander with a bit of a funky delivery. He has a big leg kick, then drops low—for him at least—as he goes to the plate. Typically, we have heard that coaches will let players do what they did before signing in their first year, but I wonder how much mechanical work the team would do on his delivery in Instructs and Spring Training.
- 5-foot-10 Randy Perez seemed miniature following Williams and Goetze. His starting position for his windup was nearly sideways toward the plate, bordering on being in the stretch. He flashed a few very nice breaking balls during his four innings.
- KJ Trader did not look great in his outing, his first in 11 days. He threw exclusively from the stretch, and did not appear to get much power from his lower body, obviously lacking momentum to the plate even to my untrained eye. He also appeared to get a bit rattled after starting his inning with a walk, a single, and a stolen base.
- Finally, Enfember Martinez, a rare Dominican Summer League midseason call-up, looked the 140 pounds he is listed at, if not smaller, although he flashed a nice breaking ball on his lone strikeout.
- Rijo starts from a wide-open stance, his front foot touching the far edge of the batter’s box and his back foot closer to the plate than the middle of the box. He sits low, almost crouching, reminiscent of Jeff Bagwell in his lower half, but more open. From there, he closes to neutral as he takes a very large step to the ball, and on this day at least, a pretty pronounced weight shift had his weight all the way over his front foot by the time the ball came to the plate. The swing looked like it would lead to more 0-for’s, like his results from that game, than the recent success he had been enjoying. Unless he can significantly improve his timing in this stance or changes his batting mechanics, I cannot foresee him hitting for much power at higher levels.In the field, Rijo looked like he had the tools to be a very good defender, but still needed work on fundamentals—which of course could be said for most players at the level. Although he made plays on all of the balls hit his way, I noted on at least one occasion that he played a ball hit to his right with his backhand when he had time to get in front of it. On one steal attempt in the third inning, it appeared that catcher Carlos Coste’s throw beat the runner easily, but Rijo was unable to put the tag on properly and allowed the runner to get his foot in safely. That said, he did show very good range to his left on another play, and flashed a strong arm, although he was not particularly fast turning the pivot on the double play.
- Jon Denney, the club’s third-round pick, singled through the right side in the second for his one hit of the day. He showed a better approach than the batters in the first inning had against Harvey in taking several close pitches and staying back, waiting for a ball he could hit. He was hitting without batting gloves for the first time this summer, due to a nasty blister in the middle of his left hand, the result of leather batting gloves plus the humid Florida air. He was actually hit in the helmet by a pitch in his third plate appearance, but it was a curve that stayed up and he showed no ill effects. (I was able to talk to Denney and first-round pick Trey Ball after the game, so keep an eye out for a piece on ESPNBoston later this week.)
- Center fielder Hudson looked tall with some room to fill out his frame. He was among those who Harvey befuddled early on, but he looked better in later at-bats.
- Monge showed some nice range in tracking down at least one fly ball to right-center, but he also had one very odd play in which he bobbled a base-hit and made a strange-looking throw back to the infield that had absolutely nothing on it. Again, these players need reps on the basics at this level.
- Jordon Austin entered the game as a sub, and he immediately stood out for how built he was compared to the rest of the team. His athletic physique belied his days as a football player in high school. Much like how the recently-traded Brandon Jacobs tapered his body down when he began focusing on baseball, I wonder if he will try to do the same as he climbs the ladder.
- Aneudis Peralta hit from a wide stance with his weight back. He had a pretty nondescript day at the plate, but had several chances at third. His defense was adequate, but he often let the ball play him rather than attacking it, getting caught on an in-between hop at one point on a ball that got by him for a hit.
- For being a very slow baserunner, Jake Davies showed very good ability around the bag at first, making a diving stop in the fifth on one groundball and digging out several low throws. Although he is a college draftee repeating the GCL, his defense fits the bill perfectly at this level, as he gave the other infielders a lot of room for error.
- Nick Longhi did not look particularly comfortable at the plate, but for a player who also projects to see time at first base, he showed a proclivity for playing balls off of the Monster in left, predicting caroms well and getting the ball back in quickly.
- Coste showed a good arm behind the plate, making one throw on a steal attempt from his knees (the aforementioned slow tag from Rijo). He could use a bit more work on his blocking, letting one wild pitch get by him that did not seem to be particularly hard to get in front of from my angle.
- Raymel Flores looked unable to catch up to good velocity at the plate. He did show great quickness at shortstop.
Chris Hatfield is the Executive Editor of SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @SPChrisHatfield.