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Red Sox prospects Henry Owens, Matt Barnes strike quickly

04.08.12 at 3:09 am ET
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Left-hander Henry Owens is one of the younger pitchers in the South Atlantic League. (Gregg Forwerck / Courtesy Team USA Baseball)

The best news of the day for the Red Sox unquestionably came in the minor leagues.

In Triple-A, Aaron Cook — who is remains on call as a rotation depth option — threw a seven-inning complete game with a strong sinker/slider combination. (More on his outing here.) Prospect Alex Wilson likewise got off to a good start in Pawtucket, giving up one run on three hits and a walk in five innings while striking out seven.

Yet it was down in Single-A Greenville where the Sox received perhaps their most eye-opening performances from a group of left-handers.

Both Andrew Miller and Rich Hill commenced rehab assignments for the Single-A Drive. Hill, who is now 10 months removed from Tommy John surgery, started and tossed a perfect innings, striking out all three batters he faced on 17 pitches. He will make his next appearance on Tuesday. Miller followed in the second, and though he gave up a pair of hits and hit a batter, he struck out a pair; Miller will next pitch on Monday as he progresses towards what the Sox hope will be an entry into their bullpen in the coming weeks.

Yet Miller and Hill, in some ways, were the undercard. After all, they are big league veterans who should dominate the inexperienced hitters of the South Atlantic League. The pitcher who followed them into the game cannot make the same claim.

Left-hander Henry Owens was taken by the Sox last year in the supplemental first round of the draft with the No. 36 overall pick. He is a gangly southpaw who nonetheless shows a surprisingly advanced feel for his pitches and the athleticism to maintain his delivery.

The Sox rarely have pitchers whom they draft out of high school begin their pro careers in a full-season affiliate, instead holding them back in extended spring training to work on some aspect of their craft — delivery, five-day routine, refining a pitch…something — before sending them out to a short-season affiliate, with the Lowell Spinners being the destination of choice for the more advanced prospects.

But with Owens, the Sox felt comfortable with a more aggressive assignment, sending him straight to Greenville. At the start of spring training, the Sox debated whether the 19-year-old should remain in Fort Myers at the start of the year. Yet in games during spring training, the Huntington Beach native — listed at 6-foot-6 and 190 pounds — the debate was rendered unnecessary.

“By the end, everyone felt pretty comfortable pushing him up to Greenville,” said Sox farm director Ben Crockett. “He’s an advanced high school pitcher. He throws three pitches for strikes. We saw him in different settings, including towards the end of the spring, with the Salem-level (High-A) team, so we kind of pushed him a little bit. He responded. I think he’s got the weapons to do it. I think that’s huge. And he has the polish to do it, maybe even more than some guys who are college guys or high school guys who we’ve had for a little while, in terms of his ability to repeat his delivery and pound the strike zone.

“Kind of knowing his personality and the background, both from the player development side and also the scouting side, this is the type of guy that can handle it. We wanted to feel confident that he was ready to make that move. With all of those things coming together, we did.”

Owens is the first Red Sox pitcher since Casey Kelly in 2009 to start his pitching career in Greenville, and Kelly was dealing with special circumstances, since he was pitching for half a season before switching over to play shortstop for the second half of the year. The Sox deemed Owens ready on his own merits (as they might have with Kelly), and in his debut on Saturday, the left-hander gave the team no reason to second-guess that decision.

The final line — three innings, five runs, five hits, two walks — does not tell the entire story.

In his first three innings (the third, fourth and fifth of the game, as Owens entered after the two major league lefties), Owens gave up neither a run nor a hit. He struck out seven of the 11 batters he faced, including a fourth inning in which he struck out the side.

Owens came back out for the sixth inning and gave up five straight hits. However, four of those were groundballs (three of them infield grounders), with just one well-struck hit (a double off the replica Green Monster at Fluor Field). By that point, the left-hander was lifted after reaching his pitch count, with the two runners he left on base coming in to score against relievers.

On Sunday, the Sox will unveil another highly touted prospect in Greenville, with 2011 first-rounder Matt Barnes (the No. 20 overall selection) taking the hill for his pro debut. Barnes, who was drafted out of UConn, showed the sort of stuff that likely would have played in High-A, but the Sox wanted to permit the right-hander to acclimate to the five-day routine of pro ball at a more comfortable level in Greenville.

The approach is the same one that the Sox took with Anthony Ranaudo one year earlier, with the LSU product making his debut in the South Atlantic League, pitching well and moving up to Salem at the end of June.

“There was definitely a debate [in assigning Barnes],” said Crockett. “His stuff was very good and he performed very well in the spring. At the end of the day, we just felt more comfortable for a guy who didn’t pitch at all last year for us, and really hadn’t experienced pro ball, to get him started in Greenville, similar to what we did with Ranaudo last year. We’ll see what happens from there. Certainly, he’s an advanced college pitcher. If he throws well, we’re not necessarily planning to keep him there all year. We’ll see how it goes.”

In terms of stuff, Crockett saw Barnes touching 96 mph and sitting at 94 with some movement on his fastball. He also saw a solid breaking ball as well as a pitcher who showed the potential feel for a changeup, a pitch that is currently a bit harder than ideal but that does have some sink to it.

Now, the 21-year-old is ready to get his pro career underway officially, at a level that is far from the majors and yet that is currently crowded with interesting arms.

UPDATE: In his pro debut, Barnes tossed five shutout innings, allowing two hits and two walks while striking out nine.

Read More: aaron cook, andrew miller, henry owens, matt barnes
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