By Eddie Pannone
Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka, recovering from a sore elbow and wrist, made his second rehab start for the Scranton Wilkes-Barre RailRiders against the PawSox. After a 41-pitch effort May 21 in which he threw three scoreless innings, Tanaka looked to extend his workload in hopes of a quick return to New York’s rotation.
While he did look healthy in his start, he looked far from being an ace.
Tanaka got off to a rough start in the first, as his first pitch was lined off the right field wall by Jackie Bradley Jr. for a double. Despite loading the bases with no outs, he was able to escape with just one run allowed on a Travis Shaw sacrifice fly. His command was not great, though he was able to fight out of the jam with two strikeouts.
His second inning provided even more hard contact from PawSox hitters. After a walk to Deven Marrero, Humberto Quintero hit an outside fastball hard down the right field line, though was thrown out at second base. A hard ground ball from Mike Miller scored Marrero, bringing Bradley to the plate again. This time, he smashed a Tanaka pitch hard over the RF wall for a home run. The third and final inning of his outing proved to be his best, as he retired the side in order.
Overall, the stuff and command were not there for Tanaka. While topping out at 93 M.P.H., he was not fooling Pawtucket hitters with anything and many pitches were up in the strike zone.
Tanaka, through his interpreter, said after the game that he felt “absolutely fine” despite a less than stellar performance.
“Obviously I wasn’t at my best, missing some spots and giving up hits,” Tanaka said. “I’m just trying to go out and pitch to best of my abilities. There will be ups and downs as you go through the season, but I have to focus on being at my best.”
In regards to where he will pitch next, that decision has not been made yet. If his results were better, there was a good chance that this would be his last rehab outing. While he feels ready to contribute for the Yankees and throw all his pitches without restriction, that decision will not be up to him.
“I’ll see how I feel tomorrow and talk with the manager and trainers, but they will make the decision,” Tanaka said. “I was happy I went 65 pitches and felt strong, plus my slider was much better than last outing.”
Whether at the major league or minor league level, Tanaka will likely be on a pitch count of around 85. The decision will come down to whether the Yankees feel those 85 pitches can help their big league team.
I think I’m a pretty patient person when it comes to slow starts in baseball. Early slumps get over analyzed just because they happen early. The same slump can happen in July and no one bats an eye because a player may have hit well up until then. As a point of reference while hitting below .200, I thought Mike Napoli should be allowed to work out of his two month long slump. He had a track record of being streaky, quickly going from tough stretches to carrying an offense. It seems like that is finally paying off for Boston.
So like I said I think I’m pretty patient. However, we are close to June now. At some point we have to accept certain things with this club and not just hope they turn around. The starting rotation problems have been documented and exposed since spring training. The cliché used was that the team had “five aces,” though in reality they had collected a group of solid middle-of-the-rotation guys. Regardless of what you call them, they have all underperformed. Now comes the hard question: why? Each person has a different reason.
Clay Buchholz has always been up and down, and while currently pitching well it would surprise no one if he got lit up in his next outing. Inconsistently from start to start has plagued him his entire career and there are no signs pointing away from this yet. Rick Porcello’s struggles come as a bigger surprise to me than anyone else. Obviously moving from a pitcher friendly park in Detroit to the hitter friendly Fenway doesn’t help (his two worst starts came at Fenway to the Orioles and Angels), but that isn’t everything. Porcello relies heavily on keeping his sinker down, and he when he struggles that pitch stays up. It should be as simple as cleaning that up for him to get on track. Wade Miley may have turned a corner coming over from the National League, as his command has and outings have been much improved. He won’t be an ace, but I have confidence he will be at least a solid pitcher going forward.
If it were up to me, I would continue to roll with these three pitchers going forward. But that still leaves three other pitchers who have made starts for the Sox this year: Justin Masterson, Steven Wright and Joe Kelly.
It is here where my patience has run thin.
Masterson is currently on the disabled list with a shoulder injury, though this was more of a reason just to give him some time off. He did not perform well in many of his starts, showing mediocre stuff and mediocre control. A permanent move to the bullpen would do him and the club a lot of good. Making him a long/situational reliever would allow him to focus less on the length of his outings and more on regaining his form and confidence. It would also let the impressive Matt Barnes to pitch more meaningful innings late in games.
Wright has done a nice job this season filling in for the Sox, but that is really all he is: a fill in. Relying on him every fifth day is a dangerous proposition and one I don’t think they are comfortable with.
Kelly’s struggles are something I think have to be worked out in the minor leagues. There is no question the stuff is there, but poor command and pitch selection have done him in. At this point, it is fair to question how much impact his former catcher in St. Louis Yadier Molina had in his success. Molina is such a gifted game caller and influence on his pitchers that his absence is a legitimate concern. It is clear watching Kelly that his ability to master the art of pitching and pitch selection are lacking. Letting him learn these things in Pawtucket could go a long way in his development.
Make of this what you will, but on Tuesday afternoon the only pitcher taking batting practice (really bunting practice for a potential NL game) was Henry Owens. On the same day Kelly went 1.2 IP allowing seven earned runs, Owens pitched six innings for Pawtucket, allowing just one earned run. Eduardo Rodriguez, who for my money has been the best pitcher for Pawtucket this season, pitched one day before Owens and has also been spotted bunting this season. Should the organization decide to demote Kelly, those two would line up perfectly to replace him.
I don’t think Owens is ready for the big leagues yet, as he still has some command issues I’d like to see worked out. Rodriguez is very close to being ready as his command and stuff have shown he deserves a shot in the bigs. The fact that they line up close with Kelly and that general manager Ben Cherington was present at Owens BP hint at something coming.
Will these moves solve all of the Red Sox problems? No. But luckily in a division that is up for grabs, it doesn’t have to. It just needs to give them a better chance to win.
By Eddie Pannone
PAWTUCKET, R.I. – It is nice to win at any level, but Triple-A baseball is all about preparing players for the big leagues. Whether that means young prospects preparing for an extended look at the big league level or veterans looking to regain their form, minor league baseball allows clubs to work on things that can’t be done when trying win on the biggest stage. Look no further than what the PawSox have done in May as an example.
Start with the recent demotion of Allen Craig and Robbie Ross. Both have had success at the MLB level, but both have struggled mightily since being acquired. With expectations high and room for error minimal, it is a challenge for these players to get back on track. That is why being sent to Pawtucket could do them a world of good.
No matter how he hits Craig will receive regular at bats for the PawSox, something that was never the case with Boston. Manager Kevin Boles said that he will hit in the heart of the order and play left field, right field, and first base for however long he is with the team.
“The main thing for me to focus on isn’t the surprise of getting sent down,” Craig said, “but the fact that I have an opportunity to play ball and get everyday at bats.”
For Ross, being in Triple-A will allow him to pitch multiple innings on any given night without necessarily worrying about results.
“We’ll probably use him with a little bit more length so he can throw all his pitches,” Boles said. “We don’t have a set schedule, but he threw shorter innings up in Boston and in order to get in his full mix we may extend his outings.
Rusney Castillo is the opposite of these guys, as he is still fighting to show he can be an impact major leaguer. He will get every chance to prove himself after signing a 7-year, $72.5 million deal with club, though the start of 2015 hasn’t exactly gone as planned. An oblique injury cost him time in spring training and a shoulder injury cost him time in April. Now healthy, Boles and the PawSox are trying to ease him back.
“This is kind of his spring training because of all the time he missed,” Boles said. “We are just trying to get him settled in and comfortable.”
While trying to get him settled, Boles said the team will mix up their usage with him. He will hit in a variety of spots in the order and may play all over the outfield in order to increase his major league versatility. Versatility has been a key for the PawSox all season, as they have tried almost every position player at a new spot.
Also of major league note, pitchers Henry Owens and Eduardo Rodriguez were spotted taking batting practice before Tuesday’s game. The organization wants the young pitchers to practice bunting should they need to do it Boston. This doesn’t mean that those two are on the fast track to Boston as the team is preparing all pitchers just in case they are needed.
PAWTUCKET, R.I. – To say Allen Craig’s time in the Boston organization has been disappointing isn’t exactly a breaking news story. Acquired with Joe Kelly as part of the John Lackey trade last year, Craig has hit .130 in 53 games with the Red Sox and never had the chance for consistent playing time. His frustrations reached a new level Sunday when the team optioned him to Triple-A.
“You could say I was surprised,” Craig said before his first game with Pawtucket on Tuesday. “Going back down to the minor leagues I was a little surprised by that, but it is what it is.”
With Jackie Bradley Jr. earning his way back up to Boston and Shane Victorino being activated, Craig was going to see even less at bats than he had before. Now he will immediately slot into the heart of Pawtucket’s order where he can play everyday, something the team feels will help him get back on track.
“He is going to be in the middle of our order and have everyday at bats for however long he is here,” manager Kevin Boles said. “He’ll play first base, left field and right field, but we want to talk to him about where he feels most comfortable so he can settle in.”
“The main thing for me to focus on isn’t the surprise of getting sent down,” Craig explained, “but the fact that I have an opportunity to play ball and get everyday at bats.”
While disappointed he isn’t helping the major league club, Craig knows he can still produce and is doing his best to remain positive.
“I’m always going to remain professional,” he said. “This game can be hard at times and everyone knows that. You have to handle situations the right way and I always try to keep that in mind. The results haven’t been there and I acknowledge that, but I also have perspective that it has only been a short window of my career that I’ve struggled.”
Predicting where Craig fits in the organization is hard given their glut of outfielders. The team has reportedly tried to trade him, though that seems unlikely now given that his trade value is at an all-time low. Using him as a platoon player has not worked so far, but they may look to 2016 and see him as their first baseman (Mike Napoli is a free agent after this year and isn’t doing so hot himself).
Whatever their plans, the organization will give him every chance to succeed and he will do his best to stay positive through his struggles.
“Sulking about it isn’t going to do anything and no one wants to hear about it anyways,” Craig said. “I’ve just got to keep a positive attitude and play the game the best I can.”
By Eddie Pannone
PAWTUCKET, R.I. – It is no secret that the Boston Red Sox pitching staff has been less than stellar so far in 2015. With up-and-down performances from all five starters, patience is running thin as the team falls near the bottom of the standings. If the organization decides it is time to move on from one of them, which won’t be easy based on the contracts involved, the team would look towards a young Pawtucket staff for help.
The question becomes who. If the team is in need of a spot start, it seems knuckleballer Steven Wright would be the man. If they wanted to try someone out for an extended period, then one of their young prospects might get a chance.
Top pitching prospect Henry Owens has generated plenty of buzz since he was drafted by Boston, but rushing the 22-year old to the big leagues wouldn’t be wise. Owens has shown shaky command so far in his first full Triple-A season, walking at least three batters in each of his first four starts. While he has good stuff, the lack of an overpowering fastball makes his command even more important. It would be better if he could work through that in the minors rather than in the midst of a potential pennant race.
Two of the more likely candidates are Brian Johnson and Eduardo Rodriguez. Johnson, 24, has had a very good start to his season with the exception of one dud on May 3. Opponents are hitting around .200 against him while he strikes out more than a batter per inning. Rodriguez, 22, has been arguably the best PawSox pitcher in 2015 with a sub 2.00 ERA most of the season. He boasts a K/BB ratio around 11:1 and has shown really good control of his changeup and 95 M.P.H. fastball. He would likely be ahead of Johnson on the depth chart for the simple reason that he is already on the 40-man roster.
“When you can throw 94-96 M.P.H. from the left side consistently that’s a pretty good weapon,” manager Kevin Boles said earlier in April. “He keeps the ball down and keeps the defense involved. We want him establishing the fastball.”
Moving away from pitching, Boston’s injuries to the top two catchers on the depth chart (Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan) has led to the promotion of Blake Swihart. He has been a key cog in the PawSox offense, but without him Jackie Bradley Jr. has become the team’s best hitter. Bradley has made adjustments to his swing that have yielded great results, as he is stroking consistent line drives, striking out less, and hitting pitches he hasn’t hit over the last two years. While he is an afterthought in Boston’s outfield, his value is slowly rising back up to the point where he could be a nice trade chip for the team down the road.
“There’s a lot less moving parts in his swing now,” manager Kevin Boles said. “He gets his lower half established and has better pitch recognition. He is doing a lot of things well right now.”
It hasn’t been an easy go for some of the team’s other young hitters. Garin Cecchini, Rusney Castillo and Deven Marrero have yet to hit there stride, but injuries may have slowed them down upon their return to the lineup. Look for them to make progress and get back on track in the upcoming weeks once they get consistent at-bats.