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A minor(s) check-up

05.29.09 at 6:40 pm ET
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By D.J. BEAN

It’€™s time to catch up with the Red Sox‘€™ minor leaguers, many of which are drawing interest and attention. Here’€™s an update:

TRIPLE A PAWTUCKET

The PawSox are enjoying great success from their starting pitchers, three of whom could make an impact in the majors soon. Two of them, Clay Buchholz (who last year graduated from prospect status) and Michael Bowden, have already showed flashes of brilliance at the major league level. The other, Kris Johnson, will benefit from the Sox’€™ abundance of pitching, as it gives the former first-round pick time to rediscover the promise he once showed with little pressure.

Buchholz, as has been well-documented, has been absolutely lights-out at Triple A after a spring training in which he went 2-0 with 2.52 ERA over 25 innings. The two-time Red Sox Minor League Pitcher of the Year currently leads the International League in ERA (1.30), WHIP (0.74) and has an impressive 49:12 K/BB ratio.

After struggling last season to a 2-9 record and 6.75 ERA at the big league level, Buchholz has made a strong case this season for a spot in the Red Sox’€™ already-crowded rotation.  His best start of the season came Monday when he took a perfect game into the ninth in what resulted in a complete game, one-hit shutout.

Bowden, meanwhile, may be in Buchholz’€™ shadow, but not for lack of production. The right-hander, who has played two games in Boston (the former of which he started in 2008 and picked up his first major league win) currently sits behind only Buchholz and Gwinnett Braves starter Tommy Hanson with an ERA of 1.68.

While Bowden has managed such a microscopic ERA, he may be seeing the beginnings of a rough patch. After going just two innings and giving up four earned runs against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on May 23, Bowden was probably hoping for a better start than he turned in last night against Louisville. The tall righty failed to make it of the fifth inning, giving up six hits in 4.1 innings but yielding just one earned run against the Bats.

Lastly, the hard-throwing Johnson has been somewhat of a mystery since the Sox made him a first-round pick in 2006. Johnson, who underwent Tommy John surgery while at Wichita State in 2005, has been tremendously inconsistent in his professional career. After posting a 0.88 ERA in 30.2 innings in Lowell in 2006, the left-hander struggled in ‘€™07 to a 5.56 ERA through 136 innings in Lancaster.

Last year saw improvement for Johnson, as his ERA shrunk to 3.63 while in Portland, but Pawtucket has been a handful for the 24 year-old this season. The 6 foot 4 starter currently has a lowly 2-6 record with a 7.41 ERA. On a positive note, the strikeouts are there for Johnson, as he now has 31 Ks through 37.2 innings.

DOUBLE A PORTLAND

While there has been plenty of good in Portland, first allow the bad. WEEI.com’€™s Alex Speier wrote last week of the Double A struggles for Sea Dogs outfielder Ryan Kalish and first baseman Lars Anderson. Unfortunately, neither player is out of the woods yet.

In his 13 games since being called up to Portland, Kalish has hit a disappointing .146 while averaging a strikeout every 4.36 at-bats. While the slump can be seen as cause for concern, the Red Sox remain optimistic about the 21 year-old outfielder.

‘€œI think any time a guy makes a transition to the next level in the minor leagues, there’€™s going to be hiccups along the way,’€ said Red Sox Director of Player Development Mike Hazen. ‘€œHe doesn’€™t really need to do anything different other than continue to work on his approach that made him so successful in the past.’€

Anderson, on the other hand, is struggling at the plate this year despite posting a .316 average last year in Portland. From a power standpoint, Anderson seems to have at least a portion of his stroke back, as he has hit four of his six homers in the last ten games. On the other hand, his .240 average is far from promising. Hazen believes that Anderson’€™ approach at the plate has been fine and that the slugger could be breaking out of the slump.

‘€œHe’€™s starting to hit for power and he’€™s controlled the strike zone,’€ said Hazen. ‘€œHe’€™s starting to get back on track. We expect him to continue to progress.’€

However, while Anderson has had his share of difficulty, it’€™s fair to say that left fielder Aaron Bates has picked up some of the slack. Bates, a third-round pick in 2006, has flashed both power (7 homers entering Friday’€™s game in Connecticut) and a solid ability to get on base (.403 OBP to compliment his .333 average) while batting cleanup for the Sea Dogs.

‘€œI’€™ve been more consistent mechanically than I’€™ve been in the past,’€ said Bates prior to Friday’€™s game. ‘€œI got rid of my leg kick at the plate, which allows me to be a little more consistent and be on time for more pitches. It’€™s helped to increase productivity thus far.’€

Bates, a first baseman by trade, has been moved to left field due to Anderson’€™s occupation of first. He first began learning the ropes in the outfield last year and has shown that he can handle playing multiple positions.

‘€œIt adds to his versatility,’€ said Hazen.  ‘€œHe’€™s done a really good job [in left field].’€ 

For those who are frantically wondering who will catch for the Sox once Jason Varitek‘€™s time is done, one option that continues to gain momentum is Mark Wagner.  The 2005 ninth-round pick is currently enjoying the success that seemingly evaded him last year in Portland.

Since hitting just .219 for the Seadogs last year, Wagner has established himself as a complete catching prospect.

‘€œIt was kind of a steep learning curve last year,’€ said Wagner, who admitted he put a priority on handling the team’€™s pitching staff. ‘€œWe had guys from our team last year get called up to the big league club, so [I had to], as a catcher, get them prepared to go up there and compete and win.’€

Now hitting .313 with an astounding .434 OBP, the right-handed Wagner attributes his success this season to the effort he’€™s put in.

‘€œ[There'€™s been] a lot of growth,’€ said Wagner of his improvements this year. ‘€œA lot of hard work, working with the coaches, maturing a little bit and understanding more of what is needed out of me as a catcher.’€

Hazen says that the catcher kept his plate discipline in tact last year despite his struggles, and the numbers agree. Even with his lack of hitting he maintained an OBP 85 points higher than his average. Hazen believes that his eye will continue to be an asset down the road.

‘€œHe’€™s always controlled the strike zone in the past,’€ said Hazen. ‘€œWe wouldn’€™t expect him not to control the strike zone in the future.’€

Wagner had a high point in his young career Tuesday when he was given the opportunity to catch rehabbing Sox starter John Smoltz.

‘€œIt was an honor and a blast at the same time,’€ said Wagner. ‘€œHe’€™s a Hall-of-Famer and one of the best out there. It was really fun in that I got to learn and see how a guy his caliber goes about his business. It’€™s really been a huge treat.’€

Baseball America rated Wagner as the Sox’€™ top defensive catching prospect heading into the season.

‘€œI’€™m always trying to learn and adapt to what the pitcher needs on the mound at that moment,’€ said Wagner. ‘€œObviously, Boston’€™s going to want a catcher who can throw and play good defense. The number one thing also is that, with such great talent in terms of arms in the Red Sox organization, they’€™re going to need someone that can make that person feel comfortable on the mound every single time out.’€

Wagner is expected to be able to contribute at the major league level at some point next season.

As far as Sea Dogs pitching goes, Junichi Tazawa has been excellent. The Japanese righty who came to America rather than playing professionally in Japan currently sits third in the Eastern League with 54 strikeouts. Tazawa fanned seven New Hampshire Fischer Cats Thursday over five innings while yielding two earned runs in a 10-5 Seadogs victory. He now stands at 5-3 with a 2.82 ERA on the season.

‘€œ[We'€™re] very, very impressed,’€ said Hazen of Tazawa. ‘€œWhen he came over he was a very advanced young pitcher, even though he hadn’€™t pitched professionally in the states. He has done nothing but live up to expectations with his makeup, stuff, [and] delivery.’€

While there has been much ado about Daniel Bard as the next big thing in the Sox’€™ bullpen, keep in mind that trailing him is Bryce Cox, a righty who once was eyed by some the Sox’€™ closer of the future. Cox has been inconsistent in his time since leaving Rice University, but has bounced back nicely from last year’€™s 5.80 ERA out of the Lancaster bullpen.

Cox has posted a 3.09 ERA while handling closer duties with TJ Large. He throws a low-90′€™s fastball and low-80′€™s slider from a three-quarters angle.

SINGLE A (ADVANCED) SALEM

Perhaps the most exciting player in Salem is also the newest one. RHP/SS Casey Kelly is in a situation much like a recruited ‘€œathlete’€ in college football: he’€™s good at too many things.

Kelly, who was called up to Advanced A from Greenville on Thursday, began this season as a pitcher after playing 38 games at short following his first-round selection.

As a hitter, Kelly got off to a slow start in the Gulf Coast League before being summoned to Lowell, where he hit .344 in nine games. Now pitching, Kelly is in Salem after breezing through Greenville.

‘€œHe’€™s been very effective,’€ said Hazen. ‘€œHe’€™s been able to throw his fastball on both sides of the plate.’€

Hazen noted that while he has had success with his fastball, Kelly’€™s changeup and curveball have also been a reason for his success.  The 30th overall pick in last year’€™s draft posted a 6-1 record with a 1.12 ERA while in Greenville.

Jason Place, who was seen as a surprising pick for the Sox in 2006, may be displaying some signs of hope after poor showings in 2007 and 2008. The center fielder is hitting for a low average (.264) but leads Salem with 21 RBI.

SINGLE A GREENVILLE

After recovering from Tommy John Surgery, 2007 first-round pick Nick Hagadone is expected resume his professional career shortly in Greenville. Hagadone was impressive prior to the procedure, posting ERAs of 1.85 and 0.00 at Lowell and Greenville, respectively, in 2008. The lefthander pitched a total of 34.1 innings between the two minor league affiliates and struck out an astonishing 45 batters, good for an average of 1.31 Ks per inning.

‘€œObviously, any time somebody comes back from that long of a surgery and a rehab, [there'€™s excitement] to see what he can do,’€ said Hazen, who added that the Sox need to keep an eye on Hagadone to ‘€œmake sure he’€™s healthy for the rest of the season.’€

Offensively, catcher Tim Federowicz, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, and left fielder David Mailman have impressed for the Drive.

Federowicz has hit .292 thus far while driving in 21 and leading Greenville with six homers. Rizzo, who last year underwent chemo-therapy and beat Hodgkin’€™s Lymphoma, trails only Rizzo with five home runs to match a .283 average entering Friday. Mailman hasn’€™t flashed much power, but his .285 average is complimented nicely by his team-leading eight steals.

RHP Stephen Fife, who was expected to report to Salem following a recovery from a shoulder injury, has instead reported to Greenville.

Lastly, keep an eye out for outfielder Kade Keowen, who has hit .282 with five homers in just 78 at-bats for the Drive.

 

 

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