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Red Sox minor league roundup: Will Middlebrooks is in beast mode, Rich Hill keeps dominating the kids

04.19.12 at 11:08 am ET
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Will Middlebrooks entered the year as the top prospect in the Red Sox system. Not only has he lived up to that billing, but he’s actually managed to continue building his prospect status in the early weeks of the 2012 season, a development that continued with a dominant performance on Wednesday. Middlebrooks and Ryan Lavarnway both underscored the fact that the Sox do have impressive prospects who are close to major league ready at a couple of important positions, while both Aaron Cook and Rich Hill continued to offer evidence that they will be able to help the big league pitching staff before long.

TRIPLE-A PAWTUCKET RED SOX: 6-1 WIN (11 INNINGS) AT SYRACUSE (NATIONALS)

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— Middlebrooks had yet another tremendous game, going 3-for-4 with a homer in five plate appearances. Almost as notable was Middlebrooks’ walk, his second of the year, on a full-count pitch. While it would be easy to look at an OBP (.389) that is just 24 points higher than his average and conclude that Middlebrooks is a free-swinger who will struggle against more advanced pitching, that doesn’t appear to be quite accurate.

Middlebrooks has simply shown a consistent ability not to miss the pitches that he feels he can drive. Moreover, he has a well-defined approach when at the plate, looking to get in advantage counts and then to drive pitches that are middle-away from center to right-center. (His homer on Wednesday was to center off of Nats starter John Lannan.)

“He’€™s never been a high-walks guy, but right now he’€™s getting a lot of pitches to hit. He’€™s not striking out a lot and he’€™s not chasing a lot of bad pitches,” said Sox farm director Ben Crockett. “No matter what, to some extent, that’€™s the kind of hitter he’€™s going to be with some power, but his approach, more than anything, in terms of being able to use the entire field, it makes it hard for pitchers to pitch to him because of that. It’€™s really his strength. His ability to drive the ball to right field makes him dangerous.”

The 23-year-old ranks fourth in the International League with a .365 average, fourth with a .654 slugging mark, fifth with a 1.043 OPS, is tied for third with four homer runs and second with 12 RBI. He is currently scorching, with four multi-hit games in his last five contests, a stretch in which he’s 9-for-21 with three homers and nine RBI. Anytime that a top prospect goes on such a run — particularly at the start of the year, when there are no slumps on a player’s record to drag numbers down from the stratosphere, it is natural to suggest he’s ready for the big leagues.

Crockett, while noting that all players in Triple-A are by definition close to the majors, still has just over 100 plate appearances in Triple-A to his credit.

“It’€™s still really early in the season. Obviously we’€™re happy and pleased with the way things have started, but we’€™re [14] games into the season so I think speculation beyond that is premature. [But] If the numbers finish like this,” Crockett mused, “we’€™ll be pretty happy.”

Aaron Cook has perhaps two starts left before he can opt out of the minor league deal he signed with the Red Sox, but it seems safe to say that there’s virtually no chance that he’ll be in the minors (whether for the Sox or another team) by the time that May rolls around. Cook’s third start of the year was not his best; he walked four, struck out none and threw just 50 of 92 pitches for strikes. Yet he tossed eight innings, allowing one run on two hits, and he induced 13 more groundball outs.

Ryan Lavarnway is heating up. He was 3-for-6 on Wednesday, making him 6-for-14 with two homers in his last three games. On the year, he has a .267/.400/.422/.822 line. Lavarnway was also involved in a defining defensive play in the game, tagging out a runner at the plate (on a throw by center fielder Che-Hsuan Lin) with two outs in the bottom of the 10th to keep the game tied and set the stage for the PawSox to have a game-winning rally in the 11th inning. Lavarnway also threw out one of two runners attempting a steal, and opponents are just 4-for-9 (44 percent) in stolen base attempts against him this year.

DOUBLE-A PORTLAND SEA DOGS: 2-1 WIN VS. NEW BRITAIN (TWINS)

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— There’s a reasonable chance that left-hander Chris Hernandez, a seventh-round pick in the 2010 draft, may be the first player from that draft class to reach the majors. After going 10-7 with a 3.18 ERA in 2011 in High-A Salem, Hernandez is off to a strong start this season, forging a 1.72 ERA in three starts with the Sea Dogs. Though he got a no-decision on Wednesday, he allowed just one unearned run on three hits in 5 2/3 innings while striking out eight and one walk.

When the Red Sox drafted Hernandez, they thought that he had a terrific feel for pitching and, though his velocity is limited, a bunch of weapons with excellent movement that prevented opponents from squaring him up. This year, opponents are hitting .213 against him, and on Wednesday, Hernandez had eight strikeouts, most by a Sea Dogs pitcher this year.

— Reliever Charle Rosario, a 23-year-old signed out of the Dominican in 2007, tossed 3 1/3 hitless, shutout innings of relief of Hernandez, striking out four. In five appearances with Portland over the last two years, he has allowed two runs in 12 innings while striking out 14 and walking two.

Bryce Brentz went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, and he was ejected after a called thrid strike in his third at-bat. In 44 plate appearances so far, he is hitting .190/.227/.310/.537 with 17 strikeouts and two walks.

HIGH-A SALEM RED SOX: 11-9 LOSS VS. LYNCHBURG (BRAVES)

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Rich Hill continued his dominant rehab run through the lower minors. The left-hander struck out the side in the top of the first inning in 12 pitches, and now has 13 strikeouts (and one walk) in six innings. Aaron McFarling of the Roanoke Times (who does a great job covering Salem) reported that Hill hit 94 mph on the stadium gun (though it is worth noting that, when Hill touched 94 mph in his last outing, the Sox had the left-hander just a bit below that).

— The numbers are quickly becoming alarming for left-hander Drake Britton. He has eye-opening stuff, with a mid-90s fastball, wipeout slider, a curveball that is at times a swing-and-miss pitch (an offering, however, that he’s scaled back since developing his slider last season) and a changeup that has made progress. But while he seemed ready to move forward from a terrible 2011 season in Salem (1-13, 6.91 ERA) while impressing team officials in big league camp this year — indeed, there was some discussion about having him open the year in Portland — Britton has seen even worse results this year than last.

He started well on Wednesday, delivering a pair of shutout innings to start his outing, but unraveled while allowing seven runs over the next two frames. Thus far this year, he is 0-2 with a 13.86 ERA in three starts, and his swing-and-miss stuff isn’t playing that way, as he has just six strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings. He has cut down his walks totals (after walking 5.1 per nine innings last year, he has trimmed that to 2.9 per nine this season), but the overall impression is that he has been unable to reclaim the confidence that he suggested he lost last year in Salem.

This from McFarling:

“An American League scout who was here tonight told me he thought Britton still shows a lot of promise but noted that the lefty’€™s release point was all over the place when he began to struggle in the fourth inning. Said that’€™s a sign that he’€™s not trusting his stuff.”

— To date, Jackie Bradley Jr. has shown little power in Salem (two extra-base hits, both doubles), but just about everything else he’s done has been extremely impressive. He reached base four more times on Thursday, going 2-for-4 with two walks, and he’s hitting .316 with a .453 OBP, .368 slugging mark and .821 OPS while playing excellent center field defense.

SINGLE-A GREENVILLE DRIVE: 4-2 WIN AT LEXINGTON (ASTROS)

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Matt Barnes continued to blitz through an overmatched South Atlantic League, logging six shutout innings, allowing three hits, walking none and striking out nine. Three starts into his pro career, Barnes has 25 strikeouts and two walks and he has yet to allow a run in 16 innings. Farm director Ben Crockett discussed the factors that will go into when he might be promoted to High-A Salem.

— Third baseman Garin Cecchini reached base four times (three walks and a single) and stole his seventh base of the year (in 12 games). He has yet to be caught stealing.

— First baseman David Renfroe went 1-for-4 with a homer, and now has a line of .316/.395/.684/1.080 this year. A year ago in Greenville, he hit .240/.296/.377/.673.

“David’€™s made some adjustments. He’€™s obviously repeating a level. That, in and of itself, sometimes that brings frustration, but he’€™s done a great job of embracing that and saying, ‘€˜I need to prove myself here,’€™” said Crockett. “He has excellent raw power. He puts on a show in batting practice and continues to grow into his strength. He’€™s only 21. From that standpoint, the power numbers don’€™t necessarily surprise me based on what he was able to do last year in batting practice.
At this point, his ability to capitalize on mistakes has been power and has allowed some of that power he’€™s had to come out.”

LINKS

This MILB.com report on Barnes’ dominant outing offers a fascinating detail: Barnes and fellow 2011 Red Sox first rounder Blake Swihart are roommates, suggesting that Barnes is schooling opponents and his teammates alike, particularly since Swihart is relatively new to catching, having picked it up in his sophomore year of high school. Perhaps even more significant was the fact that Barnes said that he was able to employ his changeup more liberally on Wednesday than in past outings, since that was defined by Crockett as one of the keys to the decision to when he will move up the ladder.

Here’s McFarling’s roundup, with interesting scouting observations on Bradley, Britton and Christian Vazquez.

Read More: aaron cook, bryce brentz, chris hernandez, david renfroe
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