Being an affiliate of a MLB team certainly has its benefits, such as a steady stream of talent, but it also has its drawbacks. Injuries to the big-league club can mean reshuffling the lineup or altering the pitching staff at a moment’s notice. Brandon Magee explains the effect this had on Boston’s AAA affiliate in his Pawtucket Red Sox April in review.
Pawtucket Red Sox
Record: 12-12 (Entering Tuesday Night)
Position: 3rd Place – International League East
Playoff Positioning: 2 1/2 Games Behind Syracuse Chiefs in IL East / 2 1/2 Games Behind Louisville Bats for IL Wild Card
With one month gone in the International League season, the PawSox have split their first 24 games. Unsurprisingly, both their offense and pitching rank at about the median of the league. However, the performance of a minor league team is not just its wins and losses, but in how players progress and, in the case of AAA teams, how individuals have stepped up to help the major league team. So, what has gone right for the PawSox thus far and what needs further improvement?
The Pawtucket Red Sox offense ranks fifth in the IL in offense – as measured by OPS – at .691, with a line of .263/.329/362. As is the case with the Boston Red Sox, the PawSox power is via the two-base hit, leading the league with 45. The team is ranked near the bottom both in triples (two) and home runs (10). Overall, Pawtucket ranks third in total hits with 211. Unexpectedly, the team ranks near the bottom of the league in walks – taking first base 74 times – but they are only 18 walks behind the league leading Durham Bulls. Speed is an option for the Sox, however, with 21 stolen bags – one behind the four co-leaders in the league.
Individually, the team leaders on offense are a couple of players who have seen time in Boston already this season. Christian Vazquez played in only five games for the PawSox – officially on a rehab assignment – before getting the call back to Boston. Vazquez put up a line of .462/.650/.538 in his short cameo. Marco Hernandez, who appears to be the designated positional mover in the PawSox shuttle, has hit .377/.431/.491 with four doubles and a triple in 14 AAA appearances.
On the other hand, Rusney Castillo, who began the season with Boston, has struggled in Rhode Island. In his 15 games for the PawSox, Castillo has batted .250/.324/.300 with three doubles. Blake Swihart has also started out cool in AAA with a line of .228/.290/.281 in 14 games as he relearns the outfield – a position he played in high school.
Some of the prospects who have yet to make the majors have shown impressive early form. Third baseman Jantzen Witte, who was promoted from AA Portland when Josh Rutledge was recalled to Boston, has had early success in Pawtucket, hitting .286/.333/.464 in his first eight games with half of his base hits going for extra-bases. First baseman Sam Travis has played in all but one of the first 24 games, batting .286/.327/.418 with team highs in hits, doubles, home runs, total bases, runs and RBI. There is some early concern with both his low number of walks (six) and high number of strikeouts (24). However, it is important to realize that such struggles are typical as a player moves up the minor league chain.
Two other 40-man roster players are well and truly struggling. Deven Marrero, who has played in 21 of the first 24 games, is batting an abysmal .211/.260/.256 with more strikeouts (24) than total bases (23) – well off his .256/.316/.344 line for the PawSox last season. Sean Coyle has fared even worse in his 17 appearances, with a pathetic .151/.211/.283 line, despite being one of four PawSox hitters with two home runs. Coyle, who battled injuries last season, is still an intriguing prospect, having hit five dingers last season in 39 games for the PawSox and an .883 OPS in his last full season in 2014 for AA Portland.
Much like the offense, the pitching ranks near the middle of the league coming in sixth with a 3.13 ERA. However, despite having the third best WHIP (1.26), the team has been plagued by the long ball (fourth worst in the league with 14 allowed despite being second best in the league in hits allowed with 179). The defense has also been troublesome as the team has allowed 16 unearned runs.
Perhaps most importantly, the pitching has provided the necessary additional firepower for Boston. Noe Ramirez, Heath Hembree (who has not allowed a run in eight appearances between Boston and Pawtucket), and Pat Light (who has struck out twelve batters in seven innings of work in AAA) are the main cogs in the PawSox pitching shuttle. Henry Owens, in three starts prior to taking over the injured Joe Kelly’s rotation spot in Boston, had a 1.00 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP while striking out 23.
William Cuevas and Roenis Elias have also been called up by Boston to help out a beleaguered bullpen. Cuevas has gone 3-1 with a 3.76 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP in four starts for the PawSox. Elias, on the other hand, has struggled in his three, losing both of his decisions with a 4.50 ERA and a bloated 1.81 WHIP.
The two other starters in the rotation Pawtucket started the season with have fared relatively well. Brian Johnson, after ending last season on the DL, has put up a 2.25 ERA in his four starts, but has gone 1-2 with a slightly inflated 1.50 WHIP. Journeyman Sean O’Sullivan has a 3.00 ERA in five starts, with a low WHIP of 0.88 and 32 strikeouts in 33 innings.
The bullpen also has some additional talent beyond the 40-man-rostered. Wesley Wright was picked up as a free agent in the first week of the season and has proceeded to record a pair of saves in seven appearances with a 2.35 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP. Jorge Marban has been nearly unhittable in seven appearances, giving up only four hits (but walking ten) over 10 1/3 innings, leading to a 0.87 ERA. Robby Scott, with a 2.38 ERA in five appearances, and Anthony Varvaro, with a 3.00 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP over six games, have also had strong beginnings to their seasons.
What to Look For
Unlike the first month of the year, where an unsettled Boston roster paved the way for constant call-ups, the PawSox may be entering a time of relative stability. With Carson Smith joining the Red Sox last night, the PawSox could see the return of Heath Hembree in the near future, simply to keep the Boston pen at a more reasonable seven men. With a reliever going down, Marco Hernandez may see a return to Boston, giving the Red Sox a more serviceable four-man bench. And with Eduardo Rodriguez likely returning to Boston within the month, the PawSox are likely to welcome the return of staff ace, Henry Owens.
Beyond those moves, however, there is not likely to be a slew of activity on the PawSox shuttle absent injury at the major league level. Which could lead to a stretch of improved play and improved playoff positioning.
The PawSox rotation has shown themselves to be a strong front five, with Owens and Johnson showing the stuff that allowed them to make their major league debuts last season. Cuevas has shown enough early in this season to earn a 40-man spot and O’Sullivan is exactly the type of journeyman starter that AAA teams need to hold together a rotation in the turmoil of big league call-ups. While Elias has struggled early this season, he has two seasons at the major league level that show his capabilities.
The bullpen, especially if Hembree does come back, could be an embarrassment of late inning talent. Light has managed his rocky control – he walked 26 in 33 innings for Pawtucket last season – while showing devastating strikeout potential. Hembree has given up only seven hits in 14 innings this season while striking out 20. And Wright, like O’Sullivan as a starter, is the type of veteran presence that can hold together a bullpen when the prospects get the call to the show.
The offense is a little bit more of an unknown. Will Sam Travis be able to settle into Pawtucket like he did in Portland last season (.300/.384/.436 in 65 games)? Will Blake Swihart’s position switching continue to depress his hitting? Will Rusney Castillo get on a run that will put him on par with what the Red Sox scouts said before inking him to a large free agent contract? Can Sean Coyle and Deven Marrero slip out of their early season doldrums and show that the faith the Red Sox have in placing them on the 40-man roster was not misplaced? And will Allen Craig ever be found again?
A .500 start to the season is, by the numbers, average. However, a mediocre start is far better than what the PawSox were last season, a team that finished dead last in the 14-team International League. But, individuals have shown that the team is capable of being much better than par for the course. With a phalanx of pitchers with MLB experience, the defensive side of the equation should be in good hands. If the struggling prospects can turn around their early season malaise, the PawSox have a good shot to return to the Governors’ Cup Playoff and compete for the championship they won only two seasons ago.
Brandon Magee is our minor league expert; he has written about minor league travel, ranking prospects, a first round draft pick, and the MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.