Boston Red Sox: 6 Potential Breakout Candidates to Watch in Spring Training
First, let's define who is eligible to "break out" in spring training. If you were arguably Boston's best player for one-third of last season, then you're not a candidate. I don't care that you're only 22 years old, Mookie Betts. You're crossed off.
If you batted .296 in 12 playoff games with a .412 on-base percentage en route to a World Series title, then you already broke out. You can't do it again, Xander Bogaerts.
Part of me can see a post-hype Jackie Bradley Jr. emergence this March. Then again, is there anything he can really do in exhibition baseball to make fans buy in? He's hit .196 in 164 MLB games since he batted .419 (.507 OBP) in 28 games during the spring of 2013.
To those who have made an MLB All-Star game in their career, their struggles a season ago are irrelevant. Justin Masterson, Clay Buchholz and Alexi Ogando are all worth watching, but they can't burst onto the scene with proven track records already to their names.
So who are we left with? The following six Boston players with legitimate breakout potential.
Don't be fooled into thinking because Eduardo Rodriguez wasn't among Boston's 17 non-roster invitees to camp that he'll be absent from Fort Myers. Unlike fellow top pitching prospects Henry Owens and Brian Johnson, Rodriguez is already on manager John Farrell's 40-man roster. Therefore, his ticket to spring training is pre-punched.
In fact, The Boston Globe's Peter Abraham notes the left-handed pitcher has already reported, and his bullpen sessions have become must-watch events.
The soon-to-be 22-year-old isn't without pedigree. He was the Orioles' fifth-ranked prospect entering 2013 and rose to third in their farm system before last season. The Red Sox acquired the previously thought-to-be-untouchable youngster when he underwhelmed in a second straight year for Baltimore's Double-A affiliate (4.79 ERA in 82.2 innings for Bowie).
General manager Ben Cherington preyed on the Orioles' desire to contend in 2014, snatching up Rodriguez and his mid-90s fastball in exchange for an Andrew Miller rental. The Venezuelan dazzled once he made the move to Maine, posting a 0.96 ERA in 37.1 innings for the Double-A Sea Dogs.
According to Baseball America's J.J. Cooper, the Red Sox organization didn't alter Rodriguez's delivery to trigger the improvement. Instead they simply encouraged him to feature his off-speed pitches in every count.
Shedding that predictability can be a big hurdle for a prospect. It's difficult to get a hard thrower to confidently feature his unpolished changeup and slider in fastball counts. The instinct of a competitor with a plus-fastball is to challenge hitters, but sometimes that can be for the worst (think Josh Beckett circa 2006).
However, it seems Bob Kipper was successfully able to reprogram Rodriguez. Portland's pitching coach praised the lefty's weak-ground-ball-inducing changeup after a 2014 start in August, according to MiLB.com's Robert Emrich. SoxProspects.com considers the pitch to have plus potential with, "sinking fade away from left-handed hitters."
If Rodriguez breaks out this spring as a starter, it'll likely be because his slider progressed to a respectable place. It's just really hard to get major league hitters out consistently over six to eight innings with essentially a two-pitch repertoire.
The slider doesn't need to become his bread and butter, but he has to be able to throw it semi-effectively eight to 10 percent of the time. It's just another thing to put in the back of a hitter's head to better set up his superior pitches.
It's also feasible that given Rodriguez's young age he could still develop a fourth offering. I can't help but wonder what would have been had a re-signed Jon Lester been reporting with Rodriguez this spring. Who better to help a young lefty fiddle with cutter grips than the man who owns the nastiest one in the game today?
The other most plausible pitch addition is a two-seam fastball, which would help neutralize right-handed hitters by attacking them down and away. Again, while it'd be ideal to produce a plus-pitch from scratch, it really just needs to act as a viable threat to the opponent.
Rodriguez's potential 2015 impact isn't rotation or bust. It's possible he impresses to such an extent that Boston decides to plug him into a key relief role. Overtaking Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa or newly acquired Anthony Varvaro (2.74 ERA in 128 innings since 2013) toward the end of games seems far-fetched. However, coming off MLB's year of the bullpen, the emergence of the long reliever may be upon us.
Perhaps that role isn't manned by a scrubby sixth starter (no offense Brandon Workman) but gets more specialized in the same way baseball evolved elsewhere over the years. What if a long reliever morphs into someone who can pitch just two-plus innings consistently? The title oddly still fits in today's age of specialized relievers who come in for a single batter.
Since he's left-handed, Rodriguez's has the upside to be a swing reliever who can fill that two-plus innings role one night while serving as a pure lefty-lefty matchup weapon another.
With a weak rotation, having someone like Rodriguez or Alexi Ogando available to deploy and prevent an erratic Justin Masterson start from going off the rails early sounds advantageous. Why not embrace playoff philosophy in the regular season, particularly given the Red Sox roster construction?
Not just the starting staff deficiency, but the position flexibility that a Brock Holt provides. Boston could opt to keep one less position player than a typical team would because Holt's capable of playing so many places defensively. That then frees an extra roster spot to be filled by an additional bullpen asset.
I doubt the Red Sox sacrifice a year of control over their No. 4 prospect to use him in that capacity early, but it could be a weapon out of the bullpen in the season's second-half. Especially if the starting pitching isn't addressed and Rodriguez's time at Pawtucket is as promising as his Portland stint. It might be smart for Daniel Nava and the winner of the Robbie Ross-Craig Breslow battle to keep a suitcase packed.
The franchise's top prospect has taken the whirlwind of trade speculation really well. As he told the Boston Herald's Scott Lauber, if other organizations want you, then "you know you're doing something right."
Blake Swihart is MLB.com's top catching prospect not just because of his bat, but for his less talked-about defense as well. Swihart threw out 46 percent of runners who attempted to steal on him last year and owns a career mark of 39 percent over three pro seasons. The guys at OverTheMonster.com also did a nice job detailing his advanced pitch-framing skills.
It's good to see the soon-to-be 23-year-old is smart enough to pick Jason Varitek's brain when he gets the opportunity. Swihart told The Boston Globe's Peter Abraham he doesn't just discuss catching with the former captain, but switch-hitting as well.
In that same Globe piece, the now 200-pound backstop detailed his commitment to adding bulk.
"I hope when I look at the scoreboard this season it still doesn’t say 175 pounds. That was a few years ago. They need to change that. I’m a lot bigger, stronger, and faster than I was. That has been my focus in every offseason."
The Red Sox certainly hope the increased muscle mass results in a handful of Swihart's doubles turning into home runs this season. Last year he slugged 13 out of the park in 110 games, up from a mere two home runs during his 102-game stint with High-A in 2013.
Swihart is athletic enough to shift positions should Christian Vazquez cement himself behind the plate. WEEI.com's Rob Bradford detailed how the Texas native played shortstop for his New Mexico high school the year before the Red Sox drafted him. He even pitched for a spell, touching 98 miles per hour before giving it up due to his love affair with hitting.
I'm already looking forward to the random 2016 game entering the 17th and Farrell calling on Swihart to dust off the old arm since the bullpen is shot.
My problem with moving Swihart is not because I doubt he can effectively switch to a new place on the diamond. It simply goes back to position scarcity and what offensive numbers are equated with success depending on where a player slots defensively.
Jonathan Lucroy is the most accurate comparison I see for Swihart because of their speed element and since I'm not sold the former first-rounder has the slugging upside of Buster Posey. You can quibble with me and say extrapolate out his 2014 stats (primarily at Doubla-A, mind you), but that unreliable proposition holds even less weight when you consider how taxing catching is on the body.
Regardless, comparing Swihart's ceiling to the man who finished fourth in the NL MVP voting last year wasn't an insult. However, if you transition him to first base, he can't have the same impact on defense and now is at a position where power is more of a premium.
Fifteen home runs in a single season ranked in the top 10 for catchers in 13 of the past 15 seasons. Meanwhile during that same time period for first basemen, 15 home runs ranked in the bottom-third of MLB starters all 15 times.
Swihart needs a 2011 Jake Fox-level spring eruption (10 HR) to force the Red Sox's hand and make the Opening Day roster. Though that's unlikely, he could realistically flash improved power potential by smacking four to five out and showing progress versus higher-caliber pitching.
With Cole Hamels now publicly voicing his desire to be dealt, the Phillies' position weakens even further. Cherington inches closer to possibly acquiring his ace without forking over one of his five best assets (Betts, Bogaerts, Swihart, Rusney Castillo and Henry Owens).
If that were to happen and Swihart and Vazquez both meet their potential, Boston would find themselves in a precarious situation that every other team envies.
In August 2012, it seemed naive to me to think that in two-and-a-half years Brian Johnson would blossom into a top-five prospect for the Red Sox.
The left-hander was barely two months into his professional career when he was drilled in the face by a frozen rope off his opponent's bat. ESPN's Chris Hatfield detailed how the Florida Gators product tried to complete the play after impact before crumpling to the ground and eventually being stretchered off the field.
I had Matt Clement flashbacks immediately upon hearing the news. In the modern age with greater concussion awareness and after learning the first-round pick was knocked unconscious in a collegiate game as well, it seemed like a promising career was more than likely to veer off the tracks.
Now as we enter the 2015 season, Johnson is looking to build on a campaign where he earned an Eastern League All-Star nod. He eventually finished 2014 with a 13-3 record and a 2.13 ERA across Salem and Portland, pitching primarily for the Double-A affiliate. His ERA was even better versus the superior competition: a trim 1.75 in 118 innings pitched with the Sea Dogs.
Johnson's strikeouts per nine innings did plummet in Double-A, and his strand rate was nearly 80 percent, neither of which are particularly good signs. His raw stuff isn't considered to be the caliber of Eduardo Rodriguez or Henry Owens, but he does have four pitches in his arsenal (fastball, curveball, changeup and cutter/slider), while his more heralded peers each rely heavily on just two offerings.
He was called up to Triple-A for the playoffs and contributed a quality start for Pawtucket, successfully starting in three different levels of pro ball in a single season. He was later named the Red Sox Minor League Pitcher of the Year, beating out the more renowned Owens for the honor.
Johnson told the Portland Press-Herald's Kevin Thomas he credits his meteoric rise up the organizational ranks to simplified mechanics instilled by Salem pitching coach Kevin Walker. Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett hailed the southpaw's ability to consistently repeat his delivery.
To the delight of Red Sox fans, the quick-working 24-year-old won't invoke memories of Josh Beckett or Jon Lester's laboring on the hill. Though SoxProspects.com and other outlets consider Johnson to be more of a back-of-the-rotation starter based on his talent level, the pace he works with helps him dictate to hitters and keep them off balance.
The speed-it-up tactic is something Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Mark Buehrle has excelled at for years. He's successfully paired with good command to earn five All-Star selections despite many considering the quality of his pitches to be pedestrian at best.
Today Johnson is somewhere in Fort Myers, preparing for his first-ever spring training with the major league club. His 2015 MLB expectations are almost nonexistent, but it's hard to exclude Johnson from a breakout list after his ascension from High-A to Triple-A playoffs a season ago.
Rusney Castillo, Henry Owens and Christian Vazquez
This trio gets bunched together because I've touched on them at length in different pieces this offseason (conveniently hyperlinked if you click on the corresponding name). With no new baseball to draw from, there honestly isn't much to add to what I've already written. However, they clearly possess the God-given abilities to warrant inclusion on this list so we'll do a brief check-in on each.
The positive reviews for Castillo keep flowing in. The latest comes from former Red Sox infielder Alex Cora, who managed the 27-year-old this offseason in Puerto Rican winter ball. Cora said on WEEI.com's Middays with MFB that despite only working with Castillo for 10 games, he's confident the Cuban will become "a game-changer at the top of the lineup."
Meanwhile, Shane Victorino vocalized his belief in himself heading into what's expected to be the most heated spring training battle in Sox camp. The two-time All-Star told the Boston Herald's Scott Lauber that he has "no intentions of being a bench player." Buckle up, folks.
Like Swihart, Boston's top pitching prospect has done a good job of tuning out the constant trade chatter. After going through his first spring training invite last season with the full understanding he'd eventually be demoted, Owens explained to WEEI.com's Rob Bradford he wants to "show them I'm ready" this year.
Owens struggled in two spring appearances in 2014 (8.31 ERA), so it won't take much to improve upon those numbers this go-round. The three-pitch lefty was respectable but not dominant in his 38 Triple-A innings last season. I'd expect similar results this March as he wages battle versus MLB talent.
It still would be surprising to see him on the initial 25-man roster. But if there is an injury to a rotation piece, Owens may get his taste of the show sooner than most expect. Even if the starters in front of him stay healthy, it's conceivable the Red Sox could use Owens in that swing reliever role I theorized when discussing Eduardo Rodriguez.
Consider the catcher's spring a breakout if he can compile a batting average north of .300. Fans shouldn't expect Vazquez to finish in that area when all is said and done in 2015, but it would signal significant progress at the plate versus high-caliber pitchers.