|Red Sox Minor League Roundup: Jackie Bradley’s torrid start in context; Henry Owens breaks through||05.13.12 at 10:31 am ET|
It had been a while since the Red Sox had taken a top college position player from a major program when they selected Jackie Bradley Jr. out of the University of South Carolina in the supplemental first round last summer. While Kolbrin Vitek had been selected out of Ball State with the team’s first-round pick in 2010, the level of competition he faced in college wasn’t necessarily the type to allow him to hit the ground sprinting, and so he spent all of last year in Salem.
The last time the team had taken a college position player with something approximating the competitive pedigree and resume of Bradley — the 2010 College World Series MVP and two-time College World Series champion at Omaha — was when the Sox selected Jacoby Ellsbury in the first round of the 2005 draft. Ellsbury made his pro debut in Lowell and then, assigned to High-A Wilmington (then the Sox’ Carolina League affiliate), Ellsbury got off to a strong start, hitting .304 with a .368 OBP, .449 slugging mark and .818 OPS through late-April, before an injury sidelined him for about four weeks. He came back and played roughly a month and a half in Wilmington before a mid-July promotion to Double-A Portland, at a time when he was hitting .299/.379/.418/.797 with four homers and 25 steals in 61 games.
Ellsbury took little time to show that he was ready to move. But he never dominated in the same sustained fashion as Bradley.
Bradley added another page to what has become an incredibly impressive chapter in his pro debut at Salem. On Saturday, he went 5-for-5 with a double, and 31 games into his season, he is hitting .389 with a .507 OBP, .575 slugging mark and 1.082 OPS along with 11 steals. Though he’s made four errors in center, his defense has been described by farm director Ben Crockett as “incredible.”
From a performance standpoint, he’s done just about everything imaginable at this level. So what does the team want to see from him before sending Bradley to Portland?
“Jackie’s performed very well. It’s still a small sample,” said Crockett. “We’re very happy with what we’ve seen so far, though, and want to continue to see consistency in the way he plays, get him used to the rigors of playing everyday and playing more often than he has in the past.”
Bradley has played 31 games in Salem, about half the number that Ellsbury had before his promotion. But he hasn’t missed time due to injury while playing everyday, and at some point, if Bradley keeps dominating his competition, he’ll force his way up to the next level. The last Red Sox college position player to start his first full pro season with this kind of performance was Dustin Pedroia, whom the Sox pushed all the way up to Double-A at the start of 2005, with the second baseman responding by hitting .347/.434/.521/.954 in his first 31 games en route to a promotion to Triple-A by late-June.
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– There was progress for Daisuke Matsuzaka, who managed to pitch into the sixth inning for the first time in his rehab assignment and who showed more power on his fastball (topping out at 93 mph on his fastball on the McCoy Stadium gun, according to reports), showed improved command with the pitch and who knocked down his walks total to one. Still, after allowing five runs on seven hits, including a pair of homers, Matsuzaka seemed skeptical of the idea that he’s major league ready.
“Looking at today’s results, there are obvious areas that I need to work on,” he told reporters (in remarks in the Providence Journal). “The command of my off-speed pitches to begin with. Most of the hits came off my off-speed pitches. That’s an area that I really need to improve. … I’m not sure where I’m going to be pitching for my next outing, but it’s probably going to be in the minors, is my assumption,” he said. “In that game, I need to work on my two-seam, which is supposed to be a pitch that is going to help me.”
– Ryan Lavarnway went 2-for-4 with a walk, improving his on-base percentage to .374. His OBP nearly matches the one he produced in the minors last year (.376), but his power has yet to play this year. The 24-year-old has just five extra-base hits this year, and only one in his last 13 games, resulting in a .359 slugging mark.
– Nothing says Happy Mother’s Day like Star Wars Day at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket. The Alderan Base of the Rebel Legion will be on the premises. Whether that means Columbus is the new Evil Empire is subject to interpretation.
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– Vitek, meanwhile, is mired in an 0-for-17 slump over his last four games, and is hitting .252/.296/.323/.619. He’s walked just seven times (roughly 5 percent of his at-bats) while striking out 31 times (23 percent of his plate appearances), amidst a five-week season-opening stretch in Double-A that would have to be characterized as an offensive struggle.
– Oscar Tejeda continued to show an improved ability to drive the ball in his second go-round in Double-A. He went 1-for-3 with a double and a walk to improve to .286/.324/.421/.744 with 11 extra-base hits. Last year, he hit .249/.297/.339/.636 at the level.
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– Drake Britton has not allowed an earned run in three of his last four starts after turning in four scoreless innings on Saturday. His control remains somewhat erratic, as the left-hander walked four while allowing four innings (helping to explain why he lasted just four innings), but his ability to work around eight baserunners and to minimize damage represents a distinct difference from his struggles of a year ago. Though he’s walked 13 (while striking out 18) in his last four starts, he has a 2.25 ERA in that stretch.
– Sean Coyle has hits in 12 of his last 13 games and each of his last seven after going 1-for-3 with two walks on Saturday. In the stretch, he’s raised his average by 25 points (from .221 to .246) and boosted his OPS by 100 points (from .636 to .736).
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– Henry Owens gave up 16 runs in his first 14 1/3 innings spanning four outings. He showed an arsenal capable of overpowering hitters in Single-A (as evidenced by his 29 strikeouts in those four outings), but while he would dominate early, he would typically fade and permit opponents a big inning, typically after three outstanding innings.
But Owens has altered the script in his last three outings. In his past three starts, he’s tossed 15 scoreless innings and allowed just five hits while striking out 18 batters. Saturday proved his most impressive effort to date, as the left-hander — a sandwich pick in the 2011 draft, taken with the No. 36 overall pick — tossed six shutout frames, allowing just two hits (a single and double), struck out eight and walked three.
The 19-year-old now has struck out seven or more batters in six of his seven outings. Owens has been working off of an 89-92 mph fastball that has topped out at 93, with both his fastball and changeup serving as out pitches while his curveball has also shown the occasional ability to elicit swings and misses. Now, whereas he was falling behind earlier in the season, he is becoming more aggressive, something that has allowed him to set career highs in workload in each of his last three outings, in which he’s gone from four to five to six innings.
“He’s pitching more to contact, getting ahead early in the count and you’re seeing him reap the rewards,” said Crockett.
While he’s begun to pitch to more contact, it does merit mention that Owens actually has a strikeout rate (14.42 per nine innings) that is almost identical to that of minor league strikeout leader and fellow 2011 first-rounder Matt Barnes (14.43 per nine innings).
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