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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