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April 10, 2015 at 1:20 PM

System Restart 2015, Pt. 5: Upper Level Pitchers

Position at a Glance: Pawtucket enters the season with its strongest rotation in memory and perhaps the best in the minors, featuring four of the organization’s top eight prospects. The wealth of talent extends into the bullpen, with each member a potential candidate for a major league call-up this season if performance merits it. Portland does not have the same top-end talent, but it has several depth options, including a couple arms making intriguing moves to the bullpen.

Burning questions:
Who will step in when there are openings in the major league rotation?
We learned on Thursday that Steven Wright would likely not get the start on Saturday in Yankee Stadium after all. Whether he returns to the PawSox or remains on the major league roster in a bullpen role is unclear. Matt Barnes is the other most likely option, but has yet to be stretched out after getting a long look for the final bullpen spot. One hopes that hewould be ramped up to a starter’s workload by late April. Of the trio of left-handers, Eduardo Rodriguez probably has the advantage early in the season by virtue of his presence on the 40-man roster. Adding Henry Owens (pictured, above) or Brian Johnson would require more roster maneuvering, but that becomes less onerous the farther into the season we get, as both will need to be added to the 40-man this offseason anyway.

Who will get chances in the bullpen?
With Koji Uehara starting the season on the disabled list, both Tommy Layne and Robbie Ross made the major league club out of spring training, but one will likely be sent down once the Red Sox closer is activated, perhaps as soon as the home opener. Brandon Workman, who played a key role in the 2013 bullpen but struggled mightily last season as a starter is now exclusively in the bullpen. Also moving exclusively to a relief role, apparently, is Edwin Escobar, although he has begun the year on the major league disabled list with elbow inflammation. Like the rotation, the Red Sox will almost certainly turn first to one of these arms, followed by pitchers like Heath Hembree and Zeke Spruill, who are already on the 40-man roster, but every pitcher currently on the Pawtucket staff is capable of pitching well enough to earn an opportunity this year, which is why they all were in major league camp.

Is there a roster crunch in Pawtucket? How will that be worked out if all stay healthy once Kelly and Uehara are activated?
Even with Uehara, Kelly, and Escobar beginning the year on the disabled list and alleviating some of the depth pressure, the club does not have a ton of room to maneuver. Keith Couch, currently the PawSox number five starter, could be moved to Portland if Wright rejoins the PawSox, as neither William Cuevas nor Mike McCarthy has a strangle-hold on their rotation slots. In the bullpen, with Dana Eveland accepting a minor league assignment rather than opting out of his deal at the end of spring training, the Red Sox will either need to similarly send a player to Portland or perhaps place one on the phantom DL once one of the left-handers, Layne and Ross, comes back down to make room for Uehara.

Who to Watch
Top Prospect #1a: Henry Owens, Assignment: Pawtucket
Owens is coming off his second consecutive dominant season. The 6-foot-7 left-hander was the 2014 Eastern League Pitcher of the Year, posting a 2.60 ERA and striking out more than a batter per inning with the Sea Dogs. He met with a bit more resistance after his August promotion to Triple-A, but his strikeout numbers remained robust. Despite a fastball that tops out at 92, Owens has consistently delivered high strikeout rates throughout his minor league career with a deceptive delivery and the consensus best changeup in the minor leagues. Command and control will be the key for Owens to make the next step. If he can sustain the drop in his walk rate from last season while also making sure his fastball doesn’t catch too much of the plate, Owens may be in line to make his major league debut sometime in the second half.

Top Prospect #1b: Eduardo Rodriguez, Assignment: Pawtucket
In exchange for 20 innings of Andrew Miller, the Red Sox received the arm with arguably the highest upside in the entire organization. Rodriguez was having an uneven season with the Orioles Double-A affiliate in Bowie, but he turned a corner after the deal after working with Portland pitching coach Bob Kipper. In six starts, Rodriguez allowed only four runs in 37 1/3 innings, striking out 39 and walking only eight, all while flashing a 97-mile-per-hour fastball. He is likely on the same timeline as Owens, but he could get a spot start earlier because of his presence on the 40-man roster.

Top Prospect #1c: Brian Johnson, Assignment: Pawtucket
When the Red Sox nabbed Johnson (pictured), a two-way player at the University of Florida, with the 31st pick in the 2012 draft, they believed that he could develop quickly once he focused exclusively on his pitching. That seems to be exactly what has happened. After a line drive to the face cost him the end of his debut season and most of the following offseason, he had much greater success in 2014 following a full offseason of work. His 1.75 ERA in 20 starts following a short stint in Salem set a Portland franchise record and was the lowest in the Eastern League since 1985. That wasn’t enough to beat out fellow southpaw and rotation-mate Henry Owens for Pitcher of the Year honors in that circuit, but was enough to win the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year award and establish Johnson as a legitimate prospect. 

Top Prospect #1d: Matt Barnes, Assignment: Pawtucket
The top pick in Boston’s ballyhooed 2011 draft, the former UConn Husky struggled with his consistency and maintaining his velocity in the first half of 2014. A dominant stretch in August seemed to put Barnes back on the radar, and he made his major league debut on September 9. A starter throughout his minor league career, Barnes worked out of the major league bullpen after his call-up, and he got a long look in that role during spring training this year for the last major league bullpen slot. Still in his first option season, the Red Sox elected to return Barnes to Pawtucket to have him in the rotation. Barnes could likely have a career as a closer if he does end up in the bullpen, but with a prototypical starter’s build and a three-pitch arsenal, his upside as a good mid-rotation starter remains.

At a Crossroads: Brandon Workman
Though technically a post-prospect, Workman is back in Pawtucket and now exclusively a reliever. Workman impressed when he came up in 2013, playing a key role in the bullpen in the World Series, but 2014 was a struggle. He got a long look in the rotation but was ineffective with a 5.36 ERA in 15 starts. The nadir was a stretch in July and August when Workman took the loss in eight consecutive appearances. On the bright side? The pitcher who holds the franchise record for most consecutive losses is Red Ruffing, who went on to win six World Series rings and is enshrined in Cooperstown.

On the radar:
Steven Wright, Assignment: Boston/Pawtucket – At 30, Wright is old for a traditional prospect, but as a knuckleball pitcher he may be just entering his stride. He has been solid for Pawtucket since being acquired from Cleveland for Lars Anderson, and made his first major league opening day roster, although he may be sent down before throwing an inning to rejoin the PawSox rotation.
Edwin Escobar, Projection: Pawtucket (currently on Boston DL) – Acquired in last June’s deal for Jake Peavy, Escobar seems likely to move to the bullpen full-time in 2015. In his final option year, Escobar should get a shot with the major league club at some point this season if he pitches well.
Heath Hembree, Assignment: Pawtucket – After joining Escobar coming east in the Peavy trade, Hembree (pictured) impressed when he fired four shutout innings of relief in his Red Sox debut. However, he was unimpressive in spring training, and will need to pick things up a bit to avoid getting passed over in Pawtucket’s deep bullpen.
Miguel Celestino, Assignment: Pawtucket – A project when he was acquired—in a deal that included the Bill Hall and Casey Kotchman, giving an indication how long he has been in the organization—the Red Sox have worked hard to turn Celestino from a thrower into a pitcher. After reworking his delivery before last season, Celestino took a big step forward by posting a career-high strikeout rate and career-low walk rate. A minor-league free agent after last season, he re-upped with the Red Sox.
Dalier Hinojosa, Assignment: Pawtucket – Signed before the 2014 season after defecting from Cuba, Hinojosa made strides after a tough start. From June 1 on, opponents hit just .199/.280/.316 against him. Continued strides could vault him to the front of the line for a shot in Boston.
Noe Ramirez, Assignment: Pawtucket –Right-hander throws from a low three-quarters arm slot, and his results have been ahead of his stuff. Since converting to the bullpen before 2013, Ramirez has a 2.27 ERA in 78 games.
Zeke Spruill, Assignment: Pawtucket – Acquired for Myles Smith after being designated for assignment by Arizona, Spruill has exhibited excellent control and has an option remaining.
Keith Couch, Assignment: Pawtucket – One of the workhorses of the Boston system, Couch has appeared in 120 games over the last five seasons and twice been named a All-Star. Although he currently projects to take the fourth turn in Pawtucket’s rotation, he could be the man bumped by the return of Wright, although he could remain in the rotation, or at least a piggyback role, while Barnes stretches back out.
Justin Haley, Assignment: Portland – The big right-hander had a breakthrough season in 2014 when he was able to harness his control. After walking 74 in 124 2/3 innings in 2013, Haley chopped that number to 39 in 130 1/3 innings last year. He is easily the most intriguing arm in the Portland rotation, and probably the only one with even a slight chance of making it to the majors as a starter.
Luis Diaz, Assignment: Portland – Originally signed out of Venezuela in 2008, Diaz has filled out physically while making a gradual climb up the organizational ladder. Though he throws 95, Diaz lacks the true out pitch needed to distinguish himself as a top prospect. He will continue to get opportunities as he continues to pitch well.
Mike Augliera, Assignment: Portland – Due to his advanced pitchability and good control, Augliera has been promoted aggressively after being drafted in the fifth round of the 2012 draft out of Binghamton. He will again be expected to be a workhorse in the Portland rotation, but at this point, needs to show more to move up to Triple-A.
Pat Light, Assignment: Portland – The 2012 second rounder has struggled, but will move to the bullpen in 2012, perhaps where he should have been all along given that projections from the day he was drafted had him pegged for that role. The 6-foot-6 righty out of Monmouth will now have the chance to streamline his delivery and focus more on his 97-mile-per-hour fastball.
Simon Mercedes, Assignment: Portland – Like Light, Mercedes will move to a relief role exclusively this year. He has struggled to find consistency with his release point, but has flashed a plus fastball and curve.
Kyle Martin, Assignment: Portland – The first pitcher in the Red Sox 2013 draft class to reach Double-A, Martin is a polished reliever out of Texas A&M. The 6-foot-7 righty had outstanding strikeout and walk numbers at Salem but struggled with the long ball in the second half, and reports from spring training had him reaching 98, perhaps having finally regained his velocity after a college injury.
Jonathan Aro, Assignment: Portland – Unheralded when he signed in 2011 out of the Dominican Republic, Aro has been outstanding across three levels the last two years. Between Greenville and Salem in 2014, he posted a 2.17 ERA and struck out 98 batters in 87 innings. In Portland, he could be fast tracked if used in a truer bullpen role than the pseudo-piggyback role he has pitched his way into the past two seasons.

Photo Credits: Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, and Heath Hembree by Kelly O'Connor

James Dunne is a Senior Staff Writer at Follow him on Twitter @JamesMDunne.

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