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Red Sox Minor League Roundup: Keury De La Cruz gives and takes lessons; big day for Blake Swihart

05.19.12 at 12:54 pm ET
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Outfielder Keury De La Cruz (Darrell Snow / Greenville Drive)

Keury De La Cruz has never been prominently mentioned as a Red Sox prospect. He signed for just $120,000 out of the Dominican as a 17-year-old in early 2009, having been passed over as a 16-year-old the previous summer. But his performance to date in the Sox system — particularly in a 2012 season that has represented a breakout seasonto date — has served as a reminder of the unpredictable nature of the market for Latin American amateurs, for whom multi-million dollar bonuses have been anything but a guarantee of success, while far more modest bonuses have netted quality big leaguers.

The Sox scouted De La Cruz a number of times before signing him in Feb. 2009. Despite a 5-foot-11 frame and a lack of strength at the time, the Sox were impressed by a swing that suggested projectable power once he filled out.

“He wasn’t strong then, but he had natural loft and showed the ability to drive the ball. He just didn’t have muscle behind it to make it go anywhere,” said Sox international scouting director Eddie Romero. “[Former Sox international scouting director Craig Shipley] said, ‘You can project power on this guy. He was right.”

That is certainly proving the case this year. On Friday, De La Cruz continued his phenomenal season in Single-A Greenville, going 3-for-5 with a double and triple to improve his line for the season to .329/.374/.579/.953. The left-handed hitter continued to do damage against southpaws (all three Power pitchers were left-handers), improving to .347/.439/.612/1.051 against them. His .579 slugging percentage is the third best among the organization’s minor leaguers, behind only Will Middlebrooks and Mauro Gomez (counting only the minor league stats for both). He has seven homers, nine doubles and four triples, averaging better than one extra-base hit for every two games.

His strong performance this year is impressive enough in its own right, but it is even more significant in that it demonstrates a prospect who endured struggles, learned from them and went on a mission to get better as a results of those lessons. De La Cruz, a strong performer in both the Dominican Summer League in 2009 and the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League in 2010, struggled in 2011 against more advanced pitching in a New York-Penn League that is loaded with college arms making their professional debuts. His numbers weren’t disastrous, but his line of .263/.292/.390/.682 was hardly head-turning.

But he used that experience as the basis for improvement.

“He didn’t look at it as a bad season. Usually, players look at the numbers and say, ‘I stunk.’ But he said, I didn’t hit what I wanted to and didn’t hit as many homers as I wanted to, but I learned a lot,” said Romero. “He went in with his old approach and realized it wasn’t working and that he needed to work on it in the offseason.”

That work has yielded a greater commitment to driving the ball to all fields and hitting the ball where it’s pitched. With positive results in that regard has come greater confidence and a more consistent approach in the box.

“When he was younger, he liked to tinker,” said Romero. “Now, he’s kind of focused on one, and he’s seeing the results.”

The results have been eye-opening for a player described as a hard-nosed gamer who plays the game with a positive intensity. De La Cruz did not enter the year with a prominent place on anyone’s prospect radar — he fell outside Baseball America’s top 30 prospects in the organization, for instance — but he is quickly making a case to move up quickly, at a time when his performance at a relatively young age (20) suggests that he could emerge one day as an everyday big-league corner outfielder.

TRIPLE-A PAWTUCKET RED SOX: 6-5 LOSS AT DURHAM

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– In his first game at third base on his rehab assignment, Kevin Youkilis went 1-for-3 with a single and two strikeouts. Defensively, he had three assists (starting one double play turn) and caught a pop-up.

– While Jose Iglesias committed a pair of errors, he also turned in his first four-hit game in two seasons in Triple-A. It was the third time in Iglesias’ Red Sox career that he had as many as four hits in a game, and the first time since he accomplished the feat with Double-A Portland on May 21, 2010. Iglesias had one double (his fifth extra-base hit of the year) among his base knocks, and in the span of 19 days, he has lifted his average almost 100 points, from .195 on April 29 to .283 as of the end of Friday’s game. In that same stretch, his OBP has gone up from .264 to .335, and his OPS has gone up more than 200 points, from .461 to .673.

– Right-hander Ross Ohlendorf had one of his better outings of the year, scattering six hits over six innings while allowing two runs. He walked two and struck out four while throwing 56 of his 87 pitches for strikes. While a great deal has been made of Daisuke Matsuzaka‘s rehab clock, the Sox face a decision with Ohlendorf in the next two weeks. If he is not added to the major league roster by June 1, then Ohlendorf can opt out of his contract. The veteran is now 3-3 with a 4.64 ERA, 26 strikeouts and 12 walks in 42 2/3 innings, and given his performance, the fact that he’s been working in the low- to mid-90s with his fastball and his major league experience, the idea that he might exercise his opt-out is not far-fetched. He hasn’t been dominant, but he offers serviceable big league depth. Given that Ohlendorf has an option remaining (and thus could be retained for the duration of the season and shuttled between the majors and minors even if added to the 40-man roster), it is hard to imagine the Red Sox letting him go based on outings such as Friday’s.

Junichi Tazawa allowed four runs, but none of them were earned, as shortstop Jose Iglesias committed a pair of eighth-inning errors (one fielding, one throwing) on two separate plays. That said, even though Tazawa allowed zero earned runs for the ninth time in his 10 appearances, he was not completely free of responsibility for the scoring, as he permitted a line-drive double and a line-drive triple in the inning. After 23 1/3 innings in Triple-A and the majors this year, though, Tazawa has yet to give up a homer, and he has struck out 27 while walking just four.

DOUBLE-A PORTLAND SEA DOGS: 4-0 WIN VS. BINGHAMTON (METS)

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Aaron Kurcz, the right-hander acquired as the player to be named in the Red Sox’ compensation from the Cubs for former GM Theo Epstein, racked up three strikeouts over two shutout innings. The 21-year-old leads the Red Sox system in strikeouts per nine innings with 13.9, ahead of top 2011 picks Henry Owens (13.6) and Matt Barnes (13.5).

– Outfielder Oscar Tejeda landed on the DL with a hamstring strain. He’s hitting .279/.313/.414/.728.

HIGH-A SALEM RED SOX: 6-3 LOSS VS. FREDERICK (ORIOLES)

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– Though Drake Britton took the loss while allowing four runs in 5 2/3 innings, the left-hander actually turned in a very impressive start. He was tossing a three-hit shutout with seven strikeouts and no walks through his first five innings. Even in a sixth inning in which he was charged with four runs, Britton gave up a walk and three soft singles before being lifted with two outs, at a time when he’d allowed two runs with two runners left on base. Both of the runners that he left on base came around to score against reliever Manny Rivera.

With increasing frequency, Britton is demonstrating the swing-and-miss stuff that was a hallmark of his 2010 performance in Greenville. In his last six starts, he has 30 strikeouts (and 16 walks) in 25 2/3 innings. The fact that he faltered while pitching into the sixth inning for the first time this year is less significant than the fact that he was dominant through the first five frames, and that he finished his start by matching his season high with eight strikeouts while walking just one.

Xander Bogaerts went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, matching a season-high in whiffs.

SINGLE-A GREENVILLE DRIVE: 7-5 WIN VS. WEST VIRGINIA (PIRATES)

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– Left-hander Henry Owens extended his scoreless innings streak to 18, starting the game with three shutout innings before yielding two unearned runs in the fourth inning, en route to his third win in as many starts. The 19-year-old finished the contest allowing four runs (two earned) in five innings on seven hits (four doubles) while striking out five and walking just one. The one walk was the fewest that Owens has permitted in a start this year. After he allowed three homers in his first three starts, Owens has also done a better job of keeping the ball in the park, as he hasn’t allowed a homer in any of his last five starts spanning 23 2/3 innings. In three starts this month, he is 3-0 with a 1.13 ERA.

Blake Swihart had one of his best games of the year, going 2-for-3 with a homer (his second of the season) and a walk. The performance lifted his average to .204, the first time since April 26 that the 2011 first-rounder has been above the Mendoza line. Swihart is amidst a season-best six-game hitting streak during which he is 7-for-21 (.333) with two doubles, a homer and two walks, good for a line of .333/.391/.571/.962. He has extra-base hits in each of his last three games. Also notable: Swihart’s two hits on Friday came against a left-hander, his first as a pro while batting right-handed. Though Swihart is batting just .182/.275/.303/.578 against lefties, he also has five walks and four strikeouts against southpaws, suggesting a sound approach from his natural side of the plate.

Read More: aaron kurcz, blake swihart, drake britton, henry owens
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