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PawSox in playoff position

The Minor League baseball season is in its final weeks and the Pawtucket Red Sox are right in the mix of the playoff picture. The PawSox are just three games behind first place Syracuse and have a three game lead over Rochester for the Wild Card. As is usually the case at the Triple-A level roster additions and subtractions down the stretch can make a huge impact on the standings, and with Pawtucket playing both the Chiefs and Red Wings to close out their season they could be a deciding factor.

This week has seen a number of moves, the most notable of which was the demotion of Jackie Bradley Jr. The center fielder’s struggles at the plate have been well documented, and the organization finally decided that he needed more time in Triple-A. Mookie Betts was promoted to take his spot in the outfield, and a good performance from him could earn him a starting spot somewhere in the 2015 Boston outfield.

The timing of Bradley’s demotion seems odd as offensive struggles have been a problem all year, but the team will now see what Betts can do with his chance. Bradley has always been a mentally tough player, and his toughness and love for the game will get him back on track soon according to Manager Kevin Boles.

“We talked to him the first day before we even knew he was going to report.” Boles explained. “He said ‘I want to play tonight.’ His frame of mind has been terrific from the jump.”

Bradley hit just .216 with Boston, striking out at a very high rate and looking overmatched at times in the batter’s box. His glove and arm in center field may have been the best in the majors this year, but his offensive growth needed work and Pawtucket may be the best spot for him to this.

“There’s a plan with the offensive approach that’s been laid down and he’s taken to it,” Boles continued. “I’m sure he’s had some disappointment but he hasn’t shown any of that. Knowing what type of athlete he is the adjustment period should be shorter than longer.”

The coaching staff and organization constantly express their admiration for his work ethic and natural talent, so his demotion isn’t a sign that they are ready to give up on the youngster.

With David Ross being activated off the DL, it is not a surprise that Dan Butler was sent back to Pawtucket. Butler is coming off his first MLB stint, and though he failed to record a hit in his 11 at bats the fact that the undrafted catcher worked his way to the big leagues is a credit to his perseverance. Butler will likely see time at both catcher and DH while being a strong candidate for September call ups.

His time at catcher will likely be limited however, as Ryan Lavarnway and Blake Swihart will also be behind the dish. Boles said that all three would play and that they would find creative ways to play them all, but Swihart will likely get the bulk of the time. Swihart has only spent two weeks with the club, but Boles said he and the team are impressed with him.

“We’ve seen him where he can impact the baseball from both sides of the plate. We’ve seen a more consistent approach from the right side of the plate, but he has the chance to be a real impact bat. Defensively he’s shown above average arm strength and a very quick release. He’s not afraid and he’s learning the pitch plan. Guys are taking to him.”

Swihart isn’t the only youngster catching the eye of the team. Much was made of Henry Owens and his dominating debut, but his last two starts don’t look nearly as good on paper. Owens gave up four runs in each of his last two outings, though continued his impressive strikeout numbers.

“I liked his last two starts,” Boles raved. “He showed flashes of real quality stuff. The three pitch mix, being able to throw his change at any point in the count, being able to throw it left on left. The breaking ball is better than everybody advertises. He has a lot of weapons.”

When asked about managing his workload, Boles said that they would keep an eye on it but they didn’t expect it to be an issue because he has been managed well all season.

Another young player the organization is high on is Garin Cecchini. It hasn’t been the easiest season for him, as he has dealt with slumps and position changes. However, August has been a different story as he is hitting above .310 and driving in plenty of runs. Boles attributes this to his adjustments and his familiarity with Triple-A.

“Being familiar with the league he’s made the adjustments and seen how they’re trying to attack him. He’s also taken care of his business too as far as staying back and getting in a better position to hit. Younger hitters tend to drift and get out on their front foot but we are seeing him stay more balanced.”

In other PawSox news, the team welcomed back Steven Wright and said goodbye to Alex Hassan, who was promoted so Boston had more depth on their bench. With Mike Napoli ailing, having someone like Hassan who plays both OF and 1B is a valuable asset.

Matt Barnes continued rolling in his last start, going 6.1 innings giving up no runs while allowing just two hits and striking out seven. He has been dominant since the All-Star break, and on a staff of young pitchers like Anthony Ranaudo and Owens, Barnes has been their best pitcher in the second half.

“Any time you can string together a few good outings its fun,” Barnes said, “but the most important thing is going out and giving quality starts. When you have other young guys performing well it definitely motivates you. We’re all trying to go out there and do the best we can to get up to Boston as fast as we can and help them win. When you have someone pushing you it makes you work harder.”

The PawSox continue their series with the Iron Pigs Thursday as Owens will get the ball looking for his second Triple-A win.

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Positive Preseason for Pats

After last night’s game against the Eagles, the Patriots have completed half of their preseason schedule and we are beginning to see things that bode well for the regular season. Preseason wins and losses along with statistics are numbers that usually don’t provide an accurate representation of how a team is performing, however having watched the two games as well as some practices many things have stood out.

Training camp and preseason always provide the chance to see some unknown talent step up and show what they can do. These players don’t always pan out during the regular season (Zach Sudfeld last year), but many times they prove they can be useful players.

Defensively, the player that really caught my eye early was CB Malcolm Butler. The first time I watched him practice I saw a physical player who wasn’t afraid to compete. He hasn’t only impressed me, but he has impressed the coaching staff. Butler received the start in yesterday’s game and played more snaps than any other corner. He has played well and made plays when given the chance, taking advantage of any opportunity he has received. The question becomes if there is room for him on a team deep at his position. At this point I would be shocked not to see him make the 53 man roster. Kyle Arrington has been seeing time at safety, a position the team is not as deep at, plus Brandon Browner will be suspended the first four games of the season. If he continues to shine, these factors should help him make the week one roster.

Offensively, anyone who has watched a preseason game has noticed WR Brian Tyms. Granted he is playing against second and third team players, but he has shown the ability to get open downfield and the ability to make some circus catches. He too has had a very good camp and has forced the coaching staff to give him more reps, but like Butler he plays a position the team has a lot of depth at. However, I think he will survive cut down day for a reason one usually is not happy about. Tyms will be suspended due to Adderall use for the start of the season, so keeping him would not take up a roster spot. This gives the team more time to decide if he can play and provides insurance should a receiver get injured. Don’t be surprised if Tyms finds his way onto the roster.

While Tyms has been a bright spot for the second and third team offense, the team’s starters, specifically in the passing game, really stood out this week. Last year, Tom Brady and his receivers not named Julian Edelman had trouble getting on the same page for most of the season. While it was frustrating to watch, it is important to realize that most of them were thrown into the fire before they were ready. With a year under their belts, players like Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson should be more consistent and in sync with Brady. Against the Eagles starters in practice and the game, timing with all receivers was there that hadn’t been present all of last year. Look no further than the touchdown to Thompkins last night, as he turned around in the right position at the right time and was waiting for a perfect pass. Add in a healthy Rob Gronkowski and this has the potential to be a Patriot offense more accustomed to years past.

Overall it has been a very productive and positive camp, but there are still some concerns I have that haven’t been answered. One is the depth at tight end. The team has tried several different players out but so far none have produced. Right now the team has the injury prone Gronkowski along with Michael Hoomanawanui, but the team needs at least two more reliable options at the position before I am satisfied. James Develin has the potential to fill in, but the team likely won’t move him from his fullback position. I would also like to see the linebacker depth improve. The team’s defense is poised for a big year, however should Jerrod Mayo or Jamie Collins go down, the linebacker depth could be exposed. This isn’t a major concern, but I haven’t been impressed with the backups at the position.

So far this has been an exciting preseason with lots of surprises and anticipation. With Brady leading the offense and a top defense fully healthy, it should be a season to remember in New England.

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Owens shines in PawSox Debut

July 31 has come and gone, and like any trade deadline for a minor league team the Pawtucket Red Sox roster has seen many changes. With Boston trading away Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, and Felix Doubront, PawSox starters Allen Webster, Brandon Workman, and Anthony Ranaudo were called up to pitch for the Red Sox. While Ranaudo has since been sent back down, Pawtucket’s prospect filled roster received two more prized players to fill their spots.

Pitcher Henry Owens and catcher Blake Swihart both made their Pawtucket debuts together on Monday, a fitting way for the two top prospects to begin their PawSox careers.

“He and I have been together for four years now,” Swihart said pre-game. “There’s a comfort level. He knows what I want and I know what he wants.”

Owens is highly regarded and considered the top Red Sox pitching prospect. While he won’t light up the radar gun he throws in the low 90s with good movement on all his pitches. He also works very quickly, taking very little time between pitches. He did not disappoint in his PawSox debut, going 6.2 innings for the victory allowing two hits and three walks while striking out nine. He struck out the first four he faced and five of his first six.

“I was just excited to get back on the mound,” Owens said after his dominating start. “I had command of all my pitches, and aside from a few I thought I was able to go in and out whenever I wanted.”

“He definitely has the pitch mix,” Boles said of the young pitcher. “He had fastball command with some late life and deception. The breaking pitches were quality and there is a lot to be excited about. The amount of bad swings stood out tonight, especially against this lineup. He was unpredictable and never let them get in a grove. He attacks the zone and has no fear of contact. He’ll throw any pitch at any time. That mound presence and poise is a plus for him.”

“It looked like he was having fun out there,” said Swihart. “He was the same old Henry having fun and competing.”

Owens’ and Swihart’s relationship was evident as they were in a groove all night. The two only disagreed on a pitch one time.

“I disagreed with him once and I walked a guy,” Owens joked. “I probably should have listened.”

Owens’ curveball was his put-away pitch, getting many swings and misses on pitches that fell right out of the zone. The separation between his pitches allowed his fastball to come in looking harder. Hitters aren’t usually late on 92 MPH but that speed consistently jammed them and went right by their bats. Known more for his changeup, Owens made it a point to showcase his curve.

“I’ve been working on it the whole year, not just on the mound but on the days I don’t start.” Owens said.

“He told me people don’t think I have a curveball so hey lets go show them that I do,” Swihart explained. “There it is.”

“It’s always been a weapon,” said Boles, “and the difference in velocity between the pitches is tremendous.”

With Owens producing such a dominating debut, Swihart’s debut flew under the radar. He has enjoyed a lot of success at the Double-A level, hitting .300 with 12 homers, 55 RBIs, and seven steals for the Sea Dogs. Now that he’s with Pawtucket, he will look to build on his success.

“I just have to stay consistent,” Swihart explained. “Consistent at the plate, consistent behind the plate, and helping out my pitchers as much as possible. I have to go out there with the same approach everyday and have fun.”

“He was very athletic behind the plate,” Boles raved. “He wasn’t afraid to take control. He does a lot of things well.”

Swihart is always trying to grow at the position, and has received advice from Jason Varitek on being an everyday catcher. Whether it be hitting or preparing for a game, Varitek was able to help him.

“Tek is like an encyclopedia,” Swihart said. “You can ask him anything and he knows the answer.”

In other PawSox news, Bryce Brentz was activated from the DL this week after missing over two months with a hamstring injury. In two games back he hasn’t missed a beat, going 5-9 with a home run to dead center field Monday night.

“He’s been tested,” said Boles. He was getting to some balls in left and busting it down the line. It’s nice to have him back.”

Also, Garin Cecchini left Monday’s game after getting hit with a throw in the face running down the line. According to Boles, he avoided serious injury.

“He’s OK. The ball hit off his jaw but all signs point to him being fine.”

Pawtucket finishes their home stand tomorrow afternoon at 12:05.

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PawSox Offense on a Roll

What a turnaround it has been for the PawSox offense. After being one of the worst offensive teams in the International League for the first few months of the season (a league low .236 average), the Pawtucket lineup has been firing on all cylinders. The team’s average has jumped up over .250 in just 26 games and they are now in the middle of the pack in terms of team runs scored.

Much of this success stems from the surge of Alex Hassan. Like many of his teammates, Hassan got off to a slow start but has been red hot over the last two months. He’s hit .361 combined in June and July while driving in 21 runs. His success comes after he spent time in Boston, where he had seven at bats and recorded his first big league hit. Hassan, not known for his power, has brought his game to a new level over the last week. He hit homeruns in four straight games, tied for the second longest stretch in PawSox history. He was also able to build a 12 game hitting streak where he hit .425 with 10 extra base hits.

Hassan isn’t the only PawSox hitter playing well. Since being sent down on July 7, INF Jonathan Herrera has got a hit in every game he’s played for Pawtucket, including four multi hit games. Andres Torres has also found a rhythm recently, raising his average over 60 points since June. Travis Shaw continues to drive in runs in the middle of the order while Deven Marrero has impressed not only with his bat, but with his glove at shortstop.

The offense will also benefit from the return of Mookie Betts, who was sent back to Pawtucket when Shane Victorino was activated. Betts is still working on his transition to the outfield, so sending him down makes sense for the organization. Betts hit .235 with Boston including his first big league home run, and went 0-4 in his first game back with Pawtucket. While those aren’t the numbers many expected of the future star, the organization has still been impressed with him.

“He’s in a good spot mentally,” manager Kevin Boles said of Betts’ demotion. “He was very engaging in center, moving the other outfielders around. His timing is going to be off a little just because he’s had some time off. It’s nice to see him back in uniform because he’s a high energy kid.”

Boles also said that the plan is to use him in center, right and second base to maintain his versatility.

Pawtucket’s young starters have continued to impress at the Triple-A level and are showing that they are close to outgrowing this stage of baseball. Anthony Ranaudo, Allen Webster, and Brandon Workman have continued to push the organization to find places for them on the big league roster. If and when Jake Peavy gets traded, Workman will likely be the first one summoned to fill the rotation spot since he has the most big league success of the three. Webster and Ranaudo have yet to pitch for Boston this year but certainly deserve a chance.

Ranaudo has been arguably their best pitcher and one of the best pitchers in the league this year. In his last 11 starts, he has an ERA under 2.00 and has gradually worked his pitch count higher and higher. He recorded another quality outing Sunday, continuing his career best run.

“I’ve been in a pretty good routine lately and everything’s feeling good,” Ranaudo said after the game. “I would have to say this is one of the best stretches of my career.”

“He pitched very well,” Boles said of the outing. “He commanded the zone, utilized his mix of pitches and was very efficient. We are very impressed with how he’s handled himself here this season.”

With the trade deadline approaching, it will be interesting to see where they fit into the organization’s plans. They can trade some of their veteran starters to make room for their young pitchers, or they can package some of these arms in a trade. Whatever they decide to do, it’s clear that these pitchers have to be tested at the big league level with some Major League team.

Will Middlebrooks is continuing his rehab from a finger injury with the PawSox, as he has played both third base and DH in recent days. The fact that he played a full game at third on Saturday is a good sign as throwing and fielding had given him problems in the past. At the plate he has looked better than he has in any of his other rehab stints and his timing seems to be getting back to normal.

“He’s squared some balls up,” Boles explained. “It looks like he’s more comfortable at the plate and in better game shape playing the full nine innings. His timing and his approach have really come along.”

In other PawSox news, the team was represented at the I.L. All-Star game by reliever Tommy Layne. Layne pitched in the game and made two nice plays on balls hit up the middle. He replaced Ranaudo on the team, who sat out due to precautionary reasons. Catcher Christian Vazquez was also named to the team, but did not play since he was promoted to Boston. Another PawSox player taking home an award this week was pitcher Steven Wright, who was named I.L. pitcher of the week after a dominating performance against the Clippers.

Pawtucket remains in the hunt for the I.L. North Division title and are near the top of the Wild Card. The team starts an eight game road trip tomorrow in Syracuse as they look to gain ground on the first place Chiefs.

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Where to Go Now?

By designating AJ Pierzynski for assignment today, the Red Sox unofficially announced what many fans had figured out for some time now: they aren’t contenders in 2014. They are throwing in the towel. Waving the white flag. Call it what you want. But it’s clear, and John Farrell said as much, that they are going young the rest of the season to see what they have in the system. After Pierzynski was designated for assignment, highly regarded prospect Christian Vazquez was called up to split catching duties with David Ross. This was to be expected as the team originally signed Pierzynski as a bridge to Vazquez.

With the trade deadline approaching and plenty of desirable players, more trades and moves are bound to be coming. There are several different ways they can go come July 31, but here’s what I would like to see done.

Trade Jake Peavy and John Lackey

It is all but assured that Jake Peavy is going to get traded. In the final year of his contract, he is a veteran starter that could fit nicely into a fourth or fifth starter role on a contending team. Peavy himself acknowledged that trade rumors are real and with so much young depth at pitching, there won’t be room for him next year. Since they won’t be signing him anyways, it only makes sense to get something for him.

Lackey is a bit more of a long shot, but I think a move that should be done. He has been very good for the Sox since coming back from Tommy John surgery, playing a big role in the World Series Championship and winning back the Boston fans. He too will help any contender’s pitching staff, and has an interesting contract. Due to his Tommy John surgery, Lackey will only make league minimum next season (around $500,000). There may not be a bigger bargain in baseball for that price and that lack of salary could lead to a better prospect return for him.

Promote Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, and Anthony Ranaudo

Moving Peavy and Lackey opens up room in the rotation for some of the young pitchers the Sox have. Workman, Webster, and Ranaudo have all performed well this year and are ready to show that they can play at the big league level. While one of these pitchers (Rubby De La Rosa as well) will have to move to the bullpen for the time being, the important thing is that they get big league innings under their belt. The organization can use the second half of the season to determine if these prospects are part of their future or whether they can be packaged in a bigger trade down the road. This would also allow room in Pawtucket’s rotation for another young pitcher, Henry Owens.

Trade Koji Uehara, other bullpen/bench pieces

As much as this one hurt me to put in, there is no point in keeping Uehara around this year. He will forever be a Boston legend based on last year’s remarkable run, but the reality of the situation is he is an aging pitcher on the last year of his deal that you will probably have to overpay to resign. As the best relief pitcher on the market, the Sox could get a nice package for him as he will bolster any bullpen that he’s in. Other bullpen parts like Andrew Miller, Burke Badenhop, or Craig Breslow would also be nice additions to a contender. The team has options in triple-A (Drake Britton, Alex Wilson) to replace the players they would lose in any bullpen trade.

The bench could also see some moves, the most likely being Jonny Gomes who is a free agent after the year. His value may not be high, but he is still a useful player capable of helping a good team. Mike Carp has more value, but fits in better long term with the Sox.

Trade Stephen Drew, put Xander Bogaerts at shortstop, Will Middlebrooks at third

It didn’t work out. At all. It’s time to admit the mistake and move on. When the team signed Stephen Drew, the team was struggling to get big hits. Drew is known for his defense and his offense has been problematic, so this signing from the get go was a mistake. And I like Drew as a player. But he is holding the organization back right now. Whether it is by trade or release, Drew’s time in Boston should come to an end.

If the team truly believes Xander Bogaerts is the shortstop of the future, they will make this move. With nothing to lose, the organization needs to let him grow at the position he knows and loves. We will never know how he can do there if he never plays. This also allows the team to play Will Middlebrooks at third base once he comes back healthy. He needs to show that he can be consistent at the major league level again, and the second half of 2014 could give him this chance.

Sit Shane Victorino for the remainder of the year, play Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts everyday

Every time Shane Victorino takes one step forward in his rehab, he takes two steps back. What started as a hamstring injury has turned into a back issue now and his return continues to get delayed. What is the point of getting him back now and risking injury again if this season is a loss? The outfielder, who has had injury problems in the past, should remain out of the lineup for the rest of the year and make sure he is fully healthy.

With no Victorino, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts will have the chance to play everyday for the rest of the season with no threat of playing time being taken away. Bradley can continue his offensive improvements while Betts can get accustomed to big league life without as much pressure.

It isn’t the season that anyone expected, and I know I wasn’t expecting this team to become sellers at the deadline. However being in the situation they are in, I think these are the best moves to help build the next great Red Sox team.

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Hot June for PawSox

After much of the season struggling to get the offense going, the Pawtucket Red Sox started to figure things out in June. The team posted a 17-12 record, including six straight wins to end the month. Several players have picked up their pace at the plate, leading to a monster home stand for the offense.

Alex Hassan, who really struggled for the first two months of the season, had a tremendous June at the plate. The outfielder hit .367 with 13 RBIs and 11 extra base hits to go along with a .465 OBP. This was by far his best month of the year, as he failed to hit above .222 in either of first two months of the year.

Hassan’s hot hitting comes after his first big league call-up. Hassan was recalled on May 30 and was sent back to the PawSox on June 8. He appeared in two games with Boston, recording his first big league hit.

Carlos Rivero was another key member of Pawtucket’s June surge, driving in clutch runs all month long. He drove in 22 runs, including hitting .478 with two outs and runners in scoring position. The shortstop was up and down from Portland in the early months but has established himself as a productive part of this lineup. He was recently named I.L. Batter of the week for his production at the plate.

They were just a few of the hot hitting PawSox. Travis Shaw, Ryan Roberts, and Christian Vazquez have put together strong campaigns all season long and the team will look to ride this wave of offense into July.

The PawSox added veteran outfielder Andres Torres to their roster recently to improve the organizational depth at the position. Much has been made of Boston’s outfield struggle, so the speedy Torres may be able to make an impact for them if he plays well in Pawtucket. Torres was scheduled to play in his fifth game Tuesday but was replaced before first pitch with a cramp.

“His right calf cramped up,” manager Kevin Boles said. “He was coming off the field and he said it cramped up so we are going to air on the side of caution.”

In an effort to improve this depth further, third baseman Garin Cecchini has seen time in left field.

“He’s had some pretty good jumps and reads,” Boles said of his new left fielder. “He was a little jumpy tonight but overall he’s been pretty good. We’re impressed.”

The organization has shown they aren’t afraid to move around their top prospects from position to position (Mookie Betts for example), so expect to see him receive time at both third and left.

“We are going to move some pieces around as you saw tonight,” Boles said. “We had pieces all over the field.”

Pawtucket’s starting rotation received a lot of hype heading into the year, and as we pass the midway point of the year they have lived up to all of it. Allen Webster and Anthony Ranaudo have been their two best pitchers all year long and they lead the team in almost all pitching categories. Matt Barnes and Rubby De La Rosa also pitched well in this rotation, with De La Rosa coming back down from Boston to pitch Tuesday. It wasn’t the easiest outing for him in his return, going 5.2 innings giving up eight hits and five runs while striking out four, but four of those runs came in the first with some shaky defense behind him.

“He threw some good fastballs down in the zone,” Boles said of his outing. “We didn’t play defense behind him in the first inning and I thought he should have only given up two runs. He settled in and kept battling. He went a little heavy on his off-speed and I thought he could have established his fastball better just to make his changeup even better.”

“I felt good physically, my arm was loose and my body felt great,” De La Rosa said after the game. “My mindset is good and I just want to come here and work.”

All of these prospects are ready to make an impact at the big league level, the only question is how they get there. With the trade deadline approaching, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Sox made a move involving their starters. This could mean trading someone like Jake Peavy to make room for a young pitcher in their rotation. We already saw them move Felix Doubront to the bullpen to accommodate Brandon Workman. The other option is packaging these pitchers in a bigger trade to help the big league team.

Mike Carp (foot) and Will Middlebrooks (finger) continued their rehabs at McCoy, with Middlebrooks beginning his second 20 day rehab after a setback. Middlebrooks was out early before the game throwing, hitting, and fielding and served as the DH Tuesday night.
He went 1-3 with a triple while Carp was 0-3 as the first baseman.

“Their main concern is seeing pitches and getting their timing down,” Boles explained. “We just want to get them through the workouts and at-bats healthy.”

“I was feeling good, seeing the ball well when I was shut down so that was frustrating,” Middlebrooks said of his recent setback. “We are starting over so hopefully I can get back to where I was before. My timing was a little off tonight. My throwing is getting better. It’s tough for it to not be sore but at the same time you have to test it. Hopefully I can put the glove on in a game in a couple days.”

Pawtucket will close out their home stand Wednesday and Thursday against the Red Wings before hitting the road for a ten game trip. Barnes will start on Wednesday and Webster will toe the rubber Thursday. Both games are at 6:15.

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The Rise and Fall of Daniel Bard

Daniel Bard during the 2012 season (picture courtesy of Boston Globe)

In 2010, Boston Red Sox fans believed they had found their future closer if Jonathan Papelbon chose to pursue other opportunities. At the time, this 24-year old reliever was coming off his rookie season, wowing scouts and fans with his upper-90’s fastball and command of the strike zone. Hailed as the reliever of the future, the 6’4’’ right-hander from Houston, Texas showed no intimidation on the mound, giving fans a glimpse of a bright and optimistic future.

Four years later, Daniel Bard is on the way out of another professional organization, getting released by the Texas Rangers on Thursday. During the 2014 season, Bard pitched with the Hickory Crawdads of the Class-A South Atlantic League. In four appearances, Bard went 0-0 with a 175.50 ERA (13 runs in 0.2 innings), walking nine batters while only striking out one hitter.

Bard’s situation, which quickly deteriorated after his peak in 2010, has drawn comparisons to the collapses of other notable pitchers, such as Steve Blass, Dontrelle Willis, and Ricky Romero. However, unlike the sudden declines of those three pitchers, Bard’s drop-off was in the making for the majority of his professional career, leading to his severe inefficiencies after the 2010 season.

THE RISE

Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, a young Daniel Bard was a force on the mound. After dominating as a pitcher at Charlotte Christian High School, Bard was drafted in the 20th round by the New York Yankees. Ultimately, Bard chose to honor his commitment to play at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, joining one of the nation’s prestigious college baseball programs.

Thrown into the Tar Heels rotation as a freshman in 2004, Bard dazzled with his velocity and command, going 8-4 with a 3.88 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 95 innings. Bard was named the best freshman pitcher in the country by Baseball America. Despite a rough sophomore season (7-5, 4.22 ERA), Bard emerged as one of the best draft prospects in the country in 2006, winning nine games with 94 strikeouts in 101.1 innings of work.

With an arsenal of pitches that could carry him far in the professional ranks, Bard was considered a commodity in the 2006 MLB Draft, ranking with teammate Andrew Miller as some of the draft’s top prospects. However, Bard fell to the end of the first round, getting scooped up by the Boston Red Sox with the 28th pick.

Intending him to become a frontline starter in the big leagues, the Red Sox had high hopes when they assigned him to the Greenville Drive of the South Atlantic League in 2007. Control problems and the shorter transitions between starts plagued Bard in 2007, as he went 3-7 with a 7.08 ERA and just 47 strikeouts (as opposed to 78 walks) between Greenville and the Lancaster JetHawks. His fastball usually averaged at a consistent speed of 97 miles per hour, but his inability to throw for over five innings was a major concern for Red Sox scouts.

Despite a bump on the road to success, Bard was eager to re-apply himself when the Red Sox converted him to a reliever after the 2007 season. Signs of a bright future in the bullpen came when he pitched for Honolulu in the Hawaiian Baseball League that winter. There, he made 16 appearances, striking out 15 batters while finishing the season with a 1.08 ERA.

When Spring Training concluded in 2008, scouts and fans saw a revamped Bard take the mound, shining in relief with a greater emphasis on his fastball. Assigned back to Greenville to start the season, Bard began his meteoric rise through the farm system, stunning hitters with a greater command on the mound. Between Greenville and the AA Portland Sea Dogs, Bard had become a late-inning maestro, striking out 107 batters in 77.2 innings of work.

Quickly, word got out about the efficiency and success of Bard, who was aiming to make his big league debut in 2009. Bard began the 2009 campaign with the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox, striking out 29 batters in 11 appearances. Ultimately, on May 13, 2009, Bard made his MLB Debut against the Los Angeles Angels, throwing two scoreless innings in an 8-4 loss.

It didn’t take long for Bard to become a mainstay in the Red Sox bullpen, as he made 47 appearances during his rookie season. Serving as an eighth-inning compliment to Papelbon in close games, Bard impressed with the command on his fastball and changeup, leading many fans to think they had found their answer of a future without Papelbon.

In terms of professional success, Bard had no better season than the one he had in 2010. In a career-high 73 appearances Bard had gone 8-4, posting an impressive 1.93 ERA with 76 strikeouts to his credit.  Before September 1, 2011, Bard was continuing to shine in the Red Sox bullpen, going 2-5 with a 2.03 ERA and 63 strikeouts. It looked like the future would be bright, since Papelbon was eligible for free agency after the season. However, as the future dictated, that would not be the case.

THE FALL

In Greek mythology, a former king named Sisyphus was punished for extreme deceitfulness. His punishment was to try to push up a heavy boulder over the peak of a mountain. However, even though he came very close to pushing the rock over the hill, it kept falling back, erasing all the progress of the mortal man.

Bard’s collapse has drawn parallels to Sisyphus’s struggle, in the sense that

Daniel Bard during the 2011 season (picture courtesy of WEEI)

he built up such a solid base of respect across the baseball world, only to see it collapse in an instant. For some pitchers, it would take years for signs of decline to be apparent. However, for Daniel Bard, all the signs of a collapse were apparent after September 1, 2011.

In that fateful month, Bard went 0-4 with a 10.64 ERA in 11 appearances. Batters on opposing teams saw a newfound vulnerability conveyed by Bard, and capitalized in big at-bats during Bard’s appearances. Although Bard’s inconsistencies paralleled the dramatic collapse by the Boston Red Sox at the end of the season, his future performances demonstrated that he could not shake off the horrors of September 2011.

The usual prescription for a pitcher coming off a subpar season is to work hard during the offseason, building up strength and command in the weight room and in practice facilities in the hopes that dominance can be restored.

However, Bard believed the answer to his problems was to reestablish himself as a starting pitcher. Even though he had a 7.04 ERA in the limited time as a starter during his professional career up to that point, Bard was convinced that his pitches had the capacity to go through a quality starts within a five day rotation.

Luckily for him, new manager Bobby Valentine, who had a limited understanding of the pitching roles of each Red Sox reliever, felt that Bard could be a starter with the Red Sox in 2012. Despite the loss of Papelbon to the Philadelphia Phillies that preceding offseason, Valentine disregarded Bard’s potential as a closer for the Red Sox, instead allowing him to tamper through the rotation.

In the most peculiar intra-organizational swap, an established reliever entered the starting rotation while a solid spot-starter (Alfredo Aceves) was pinned as the closer. Both the declines of Aceves and Bard crossed paths in 2012, as the two hurlers could not efficiently adjust to their new roles for the Red Sox.

As soon as the 2012 season began, Bard struggled mightily, going 5-6 with a 6.22 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 17 appearances (10 starts). After Bard was optioned back to Pawtucket in June 2011, his effectiveness in the bullpen could not be resurrected, as his command was virtually nonexistent in 31 appearances. Bard possessed a 7.04 ERA with Pawtucket, seeing his strikeout-to-walk ratio balloon under 1.00 for the first time since his failed attempt as a starter…when he first pitched in the Red Sox organization in 2007.

Bard’s ineffectiveness in 2012 was still prevalent when he returned for the 2013 season. The Red Sox gave him one last chance in the big league bullpen, but Bard looked like a shell of himself on the hill, walking two batters and possessing a 9.00 ERA in two appearances before getting a demotion to Portland.

After posting horrific numbers with the Sea Dogs in 2013 (0-1, 6.39 ERA in 13 appearances), the Red Sox designated Bard for assignment in September. Bard, who was once going to be one of the great relievers of the future for the Red Sox, had seen all of his accomplishment-laden career fall through the cracks of a harsh society known as professional baseball. As hitters began to see the vulnerability in the previously untouchable fireballer, they capitalized on Bard, never giving him a breathing chance to regain his command on the mound.

No longer in Red Sox organization, Bard was ultimately claimed off waivers by the Chicago Cubs, whose vice president was former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein. Bard never pitched for the Cubs organization, and was non-tendered by the team in December 2013.

Daniel Bard signed with the Texas Rangers in 2014, only to be released after posting a 175.50 ERA with Class-A Hickory (picture courtesy of Texas Rangers)

However, Bard had an opportunity for big league redemption when the Texas Rangers signed him for the 2014 season. With an inconsistent bullpen, the Rangers hoped Bard would rediscover his form, and lead the bullpen to success in 2014.

Despite the hopes and optimism conveyed by the Rangers organization, Bard could not carry his weight during his rehab assignment with Hickory. Even though the South Atlantic League is not historically known for offensive production (the league batting average is .260), Bard’s struggles reached a peak during his four appearances with the Crawdads.

In four appearances, Bard walked nine batters, including four in one game against the West Virginia Power on June 7. He struck out a hitter in the game, but that was the only upside he could muster during his time with Hickory. With a 175.50 ERA in four games, it was apparent that Bard had completely lost his ability to pitch in the professional ranks, gradually becoming a feigned reminder of what could have been for one of the most promising relievers in baseball.

SIGNIFICANCE OF BARD’S DEMISE

In essence, Daniel Bard’s roller coaster ride through professional baseball had many extreme ups and downs. Whether it was peaking as one of the top young relievers in the MLB, or significantly dropping to one of the most inconsistent pitchers on the professional circuit, Bard had experienced many things that altered the perception of his professional career.

Similar to Blass, Willis, and Romero, Bard’s collapse was sudden and

Steve Blass, the 1971 NL Cy Young Winner, suffered from yips, which has plagued Bard since 2011 (picture courtesy of Baseball Almanac).

unexpected by many. However, as his experiences and expectations clashed in September 2011 (since then, he has had a 7.87 ERA), he was never able to regain the motor skills that made him successful, making him another victim of yips (a.k.a. Steve Blass Syndrome). Even if another professional organization gives Bard a shot in the future, it will be difficult for him to shake off the inefficiencies that have plagued his professional career. Essentially, the heightened expectations and confidence within Bard’s ability made him vulnerable, leading to an unprecedented and tumultuous decline.

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Three Sox rehab in Pawtucket

With a Friday night rainout spoiling plans in Pawtucket, Saturday’s PawSox lineup featured three rehabbing members of the Boston Red Sox. Game one of a doubleheader at McCoy Stadium saw Clay Buchholz (knee), Shane Victorino (hamstring), and Will Middlebrooks (finger) all begin their rehab assignments with Pawtucket.

Buchholz started out rough against the Charlotte Knights, allowing a first inning run while getting hit hard. His second and third innings were much better, retiring the side in order on 11 pitches each inning. After a solo home run leading off the fourth he set down the next three hitters he faced, though Buchholz would not make it out of the fifth after allowing another solo home run.

He ended his day giving up three runs and four hits over 4.2 innings pitched while throwing 62 pitches. The Knights did have some hard hits off him, but he struck out five and didn’t walk anyone. His stuff was good, clocking his fastball in the low 90s and putting good movement on his breaking pitches.

“I thought he was impressive,” manager Kevin Boles said of Buchholz’s performance. “He had quality stuff, quality delivery and maintained a good tempo. The ball came out of his hand well.”

“Overall I felt really good with everything,” Buchholz said after the game. “I wanted to get out there and throw all my pitches. My command was good and when I missed I was able to correct it. That’s what I struggled with my last couple of starts up there.”

Buchholz also felt good physically and said he would be heading to Boston to determine his next course of action. “I’d rather go right back up there,” Buchholz said when asked if he needed a second rehab start. “I think I can.”

Victorino went 0-2 in the game playing five innings in right field. He looked healthy running hard down the line and making plays in the outfield. Middlebrooks was 1-3 as the DH, striking out and hitting a single to right field.

Pawtucket’s offense was quiet in game one, mustering just four hits in the 3-0 defeat. Christian Vazquez was the lone bright spot, going 2-2 with a walk. Carlos Sanchez and Blake Tekotte produced the only Charlotte runs of the game, each hitting home runs. Sanchez also scored after hitting a triple in the first. Dylan Axelrod pitched well in the victory, allowing no runs on fours hits and three strikeouts over five innings of work.

The PawSox scored first in game two, as the team capitalized on a two out error in the third inning. After Sanchez booted a ball at second base, Carlos Rivero drove home Mookie Betts with an RBI single to give Pawtucket a 1-0 lead. Betts added on to the lead with a two run homer that just cleared the left field wall. His second home run of the season gave Pawtucket a 3-0 lead they would not relinquish. Betts continues to impress at the triple-A level, which is no surprise to Boles.

“He gets a lot of attention and I think he’s handled it well,” Boles said of the young prospect. “He’s able to separate off the field and on the field, separate offense and defense, make adjustments and play quality defense. We’re really excited about him and he’s handled the transition well.”

Anthony Ranaudo continued to pitch well, battling out of any jams he got into. He went 5.2 innings, allowing four hits and no runs while walking one and striking out four in the win.

“Keeping his fastball down is key for him,” Boles explained, “because his other pitches play off that. He showed a quality breaking ball and a good changeup. He gave us what we needed.”

“I made some mechanical adjustments two weeks ago,” Ranaudo said, “and it helped me to repeat my delivery. I was able to have better command of my fastball.”

The PawSox will close out their series with the Knights Sunday as Felix Doubront makes his second rehab appearance with the team.

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PawSox pitchers shine, bats slump in May

May hasn’t been the easiest month for the Pawtucket Red Sox or their offense. Coming into Wednesday’s game, the team was just 10-16 though only three games out of first place. This includes losing 8 of 9 and 11 of 14. During this stretch the offense hit a measly .231 and for the season they are bottom five in the International League in runs scored. Offensive woes have been an issue all season long for the PawSox, but they were able to survive early on with solid pitching and defense.

When looking at why this team isn’t scoring runs at the level that they should, I look at the middle of the order. These are the guys that are in the lineup pretty much every day and were expected to carry the load. Bryce Brentz, Corey Brown, Brandon Snyder, and Alex Hassan are the top RBI men in the lineup, something that should have been expected coming into the year. After all Brown has been a very good power bat throughout his minor league career, Snyder spent time with Boston last year, while Brentz and Hassan are both entering their third year with the PawSox. However all of these players, while driving in runs, are hitting below .230, striking out a ton, and simply not getting on base enough. It isn’t realistic to think that they will all hit .300, as that’s not the type of hitters they are. But they are all capable of hitting better than they have.

Injuries to Boston’s roster have taken players like Brock Holt, Ryan Lavarnway, and Daniel Nava out of the PawSox lineup, and a hamstring strain has Brentz on the DL. With them out, the production of the players named above will be important for this team’s success. They have the players to get it done, they just have to go out and do it. The team’s bats will hopefully get a boost from recently promoted Travis Shaw. Shaw hit very well in Portland, pounding 11 home runs while hitting .305. Though not a top prospect, his power could spark some life into this team.

One player that has produced well all season long is top prospect Garin Cecchini. The third baseman has hit at .288 while driving in 18 and leading current players in on base percentage. While there doesn’t seem to be room on the big league roster for him this year, he is a serious candidate to open 2015 as Boston’s starting third baseman. When Will Middlebrooks got hurt earlier in the year, the organization felt Cecchini needed more at bats with Pawtucket so he could develop as a hitter. He has done a good job progressing this season and if the team moves Middlebrooks, it could open the door for him in Boston.

On the pitching front, Allen Webster has had a great year thus far. He has controlled his sinker, leading to less walks and more double plays. His success is crucial to Boston, and with Clay Buchholz on the DL it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take his spot in the rotation. He remains a top prospect, but the time is now for him to make an impact.

Anthony Ranaudo is in the same position as Webster, a top prospect who is pitching well and needs to show he can make an impact. So far you can make the case he has been the best starter in a loaded PawSox rotation. He leads all starters in wins, ERA, and strikeouts while being second in innings pitched. Webster is still ahead of him on the depth chart because of his big league experience, but he should crack the MLB roster at some point this year.

With so many young, impactful arms like Webster, Ranaudo, Rubby De La Rosa, Matt Barnes, and the recently promoted Brandon Workman, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Sox package some of these pitchers for a proven star to help the big league team. There isn’t room for everyone in the organization, and top prospect Henry Owens is on his way up. These are players at the right age to make an impact for some team, and it makes no sense to waste these years in the minors for any party involved.

Looking ahead, the PawSox will have Stephen Drew as he continues to work his way back to Boston. He will likely alternate between shortstop and DH and should be on pace to rejoin the Red Sox June 2 in Cleveland. Pawtucket will finish their home stand Thursday against the Braves with Drew likely being the DH.

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P-Bruins fall in Seven

The Providence Bruins saw their 2014 season end in similar fashion to 2013. Unfortunately, that is because for the second straight year the team fell to the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins in game seven of their second round series. Granted this year’s loss was not nearly as painful, (last year’s squad blew a 3-0 series lead as the one seed) their loss still hurt in a different way than last year.

After Niklas Svedberg played a tremendous game six to force the decisive game seven, he was pulled after giving up four second period goals. Down 5-0 late in the second period the P-Bruins looked all but done. However, the team continued to fight. David Warsofsky scored a shorthanded goal in the final minute to make things 5-1 and that sparked a furious third period comeback. Ryan Spooner netted a goal just 23 seconds into the period, followed by two Alexander Khokhlachev goals to cut the score to 5-4 with ten minutes left. Despite having some good chances in front of the net, the Bruin’s comeback would not be enough.

In addition to a tough loss, the Bruins were without several key players due to injury. Joe Morrow, Justin Florek, Zach Trotman, Matt Fraser and Anthony Camara all missed time in the series, leaving holes both in the top lines and top defensive pairings. Bobby Robins also missed three games due to a suspension for leaving the penalty box during and on ice altercation.

Despite the loss, the Bruins pulled off an unbelievable comeback in game four of the series. Down 2-1 with a pulled goalie, Spooner one-timed a pass from Seth Griffith for a goal with 0.6 seconds left on the clock. Cory Kane scored the game winner 6:31 into overtime and at the time tied the series 2-2.

While it will be the Penguins that move on to face St. Johns, the young players on the P-Bruin’s roster gained valuable backs-to-the-wall playoff experience. With six of their top seven playoff scorers younger than age 23 or younger, (Spooner, Khokhlachev, Griffith, Craig Cunningham, Morrow, and Warsofsky) it is good for Boston that players they regard highly have played in that kind of environment and have had success doing so.

This team no doubt helped its parent club in Boston this year while being competitive. Their roster was full of talent that can help either the Bruins or some other NHL team in the future. While all of this talent won’t be around next year, several will be back while others may get their chance to help out in Boston.

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