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January 16, 2015 at 8:56 PM

Rookie Development Program easing transition for young players

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Every offseason, the Red Sox hold a week-long program designed to help transition a number of players who are on the cusp of the major leagues. 

The 2015 Rookie Development Program took place at Harvard Stadium this past week. Ten players were chosen to attend the camp, including outfielders Rusney Castillo, Mookie Betts (pictured), catcher Blake Swihart, left-hander Brian Johnson, infielder Sean Coyle and outfielder Henry Ramos. Also chosen were pitchers Edwin Escobar, Heath Hembree and Eduardo Rodriguez, all of whom were acquired at the trading deadline in 2014. The newest member of the organization to attend was right-hander Zeke Spruill, who was traded to the Red Sox from Arizona in December.

The program addresses all facets of life in the major leagues. The day generally consisted of workouts every morning, focused on fundamentals and conditioning. The players also learned about life both on and off the field through a number of seminars and guest speakers, including the likes of manager John Farrell, general manager Ben Cherington, major league coaches and players, as well as speakers from the Red Sox’ mental skills and medical departments. The program also includes community work, such as visiting Jimmy Fund patients and painting murals with members of the Red Sox Scholars program.

The group selected to attend the program generally consists of players from a few levels, usually ranging from Double A to the majors. This year, it also included four players who are relatively new to the organization. As much as the program is about integrating minor leaguers into the majors, it's also about creating some familiarity for young and new players before spring training begins.

"You've got four or five guys who are new here to the organization as of or since July 31 of last year," Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett pointed out. "It’s also guys learning the organization. Not just the transitions, but also learning us as an organization." 

In comparison to previous years, the group selected to attend this January’s Rookie Development Program was comprised of a relatively experienced bunch. Half of the 10 attendees had already gotten a taste of the majors, with Betts, Castillo, Escobar and Hembree all making appearances for the Red Sox in 2014, while Spruill has logged a total of 34 innings in the big leagues with the Diamondbacks. At last year’s camp, Jackie Bradley Jr. was the only player who had any MLB experience at the time.

“[Having an older group] definitely gives it a little bit of a different flavor,” said Crockett. “Having guys with experience in the meeting sessions, [they’re] able to talk about what their first couple of days were like and what that meant for them. [It’s] great for participation, great for guys to have some perspective and get some new information that might help them in their second stint up or as they’re trying to establish themselves.”

"It’s good in these meetings that we’re having, getting [more experienced players'] input on everything and how they went about their business when they were up there, and I know it’s helping out a lot," said Swihart.

Though he just turned 22 in October, Betts, the second-youngest player in the program, is able to provide some insight on playing in the major leagues to his former minor league teammates. Betts already has 52 big league games under his belt, more than any other development camp attendee. But even though he’s gotten a taste of major league life, the program is still beneficial to Betts.

“I think [the program is] going to help a lot,” Betts said. “I got to talk to the front office guys, I got to meet new people, so I know I’ll come into spring training more familiar with faces and I’ll feel more comfortable.”

Former teammates are taking advantage of Betts’ presence at the camp.

“Just talking with some of my former teammates who have made their debut and rooming with Mookie during this whole process, it’s fun,” Johnson said. “He kind of tells you some stories. I feel like my transition will be a little bit easier because of him.”

With so many young players making their major league debuts in 2014 and playing large roles on the team, the Rookie Development Program serves as a good time for both players and front office members to reflect on what they’ve learned from the previous season, and figure out how to apply those lessons going forward.

“I think with this program you’re getting a lot of feedback from guys, and [it’s] just [an] opportunity to talk about it more, and to be as prepared as they can, and to focus as much as they can on the things they can control on the field,” Crockett said. “I don’t know that that’s a new message necessarily, but I think it’s one that’s been reemphasized by some of the challenges and successes that were had in the big leagues last year.”

For some, a big part of the development camp is adjusting to actually being in Boston. After spending the fall in Arizona and Puerto Rico, the Cuban-born Castillo finds that it takes some time to get used to the climate.

"At first it just comes down to trying to adapt but after spending a week here now… it’ll take some time to adjust and acclimate, but we’re on our way,” Castillo said through a translator.

The Rookie Development Program is designed to do just that: help young players on their way to the majors.

Photo credit: Mookie Betts by Kelly O'Connor