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Red Sox minor league roundup: Bryce Brentz, Will Middlebrooks and the possibility of a career-changing hot start

04.05.13 at 11:12 am ET
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A year ago, outfielder Bryce Brentz was promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket at the end of the season. Then manager Arnie Beyeler immediately flashed back to the previous year, when third baseman Will Middlebrooks was promoted at season’s end from Double-A Portland to Triple-A Pawtucket.

“The tools are off the charts. It’s just fun to watch him play. The ball comes off his bat very easy and very loud, and he can drive the baseball. It’s a really live bat. He’s definitely a guy who can impact the middle of the lineup with his bat,” Beyeler said last September. “The ball comes off the bat with the same velocity, the same trajectory, that same two-iron look to it [as Middlebrooks].”

Brentz struggled initially in Triple-A (just as Middlebrooks had struggled in a year-ending PawSox stint in 2011) but then had a strong finish in the postseason. This spring, though he lost an opportunity to perform in big league camp when he suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound, he recovered in time to make a favorable impression in front of the Sox coaching staff when he went 3-for-9 with a homer, double and walk in Grapefruit League action.

The 24-year-old built upon his spring training performance in Pawtucket’s Opening Day victory. He went 3-for-5 with two doubles and a single while striking out once. The ability to make an immediate impact stands in some contrast to what he did a year ago in Portland, when his first game with multiple extra-base hits didn’t come until April 27.

Brentz has been a streaky hitter throughout his minor league career, with his hot streaks rivaling those of anyone in the system. He possesses as much raw power as any Red Sox minor leaguer, with a long-established ability to drive the ball out to all fields.

For now, it’s hard to imagine Brentz being on the big league radar anytime in the immediate future. With the emergence of Jackie Bradley Jr., the organization has some depth among its outfielders.

Even so, there is a lesson afforded by what Middlebrooks did a year ago (and, for that matter, what Bradley did this spring). A player can vault himself into consideration for a big league job faster than anyone — including himself — expects if he dominates to the point where he’s ready to bust through the door if an injury or struggle by a big league regular creates an opportunity.

Exactly one year ago today, Middlebrooks had three hits and two doubles on Opening Day for Pawtucket. Five days later, he hit his first homer of the Triple-A season. He did not stop. In the span of 24 games, he launched nine homers in Triple-A, excelling to the point where the Sox were compelled to call him up when an injury to Kevin Youkilis created a roster opening, and ultimately forcing the Sox to trade Youkilis in order to clear a full-time role for the rookie.

“It was fun. I was locked in and just really focused on being ready for whenever my number got called,” Middlebrooks recalled of his start last year in Pawtucket. “I started realizing what my strengths were and just tried to work on my strengths, continue to work on my weaknesses but not carry them into the game. In hitter’s counts, I worked on being more picky — not just swinging at a fastball because it was a fastball, but swinging at a location so you’d have a better chance of hitting the ball hard.”

There was a eureka moment where Middlebrooks realized that he was making a developmental leap forward as a hitter.

“We were playing Durham. I think I was 0-2 or 1-2, and they threw a fastball maybe a ball or two outside and I hit it out down the line to right,” he remembered. “In the back of my head, I was thinking off-speed, but I was still able to hit the fastball. So I thought, ‘OK, seeing the ball well, maybe things are starting to come together.’ ”

On a near-daily basis, his accomplishments in Triple-A commanded notice, each one a pounding fist on the door to pronounce that he deserved a call-up.

“I was doing anything in my control to be ready so that if something happened, they could call me up,” said Middlebrooks. “I was hoping [for a call-up]. There was a three- or four-day span where I could have been called up but wasn’t. I was like, ‘Man, what else do I need to do?’ I had almost given up, saying I’m not going to go up this time around, and then I got the call.”

It remains to be seen if Brentz can follow a similar trajectory, but the lesson of Middlebrooks is that players can force the issue of their promotion to the big leagues, to a certain degree, with their play. If Brentz can make some of the same strides that Middlebrooks did last April in Pawtucket, then his own big league opportunity could come more quickly than anyone anticipated.

TRIPLE-A PAWTUCKET RED SOX: 8-4 WIN (10 INNINGS) AT SCRANTON/WILKES-BARRE (YANKEES)

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— Catcher Ryan Lavarnway went 1-for-5 with a 10th-inning double that followed strikeouts in each of his first four trips to the plate. The four punchouts matched a professional career high, an undesirable milestone he had previously reached just once, on July 29, 2010, in Double-A.

— Knuckleballer Steven Wright issued four walks in four innings of work, the most free passes that he’s yielded in an outing since the Red Sox acquired him from the Indians at last year’s trade deadline. However, he did yield four or more free passes on six separate occasions with Double-A Akron last year prior to being traded. It is worth noting that Wright issued all four walks in the first two innings of work before evidently discovering his control of his signature offering in a fashion that permitted him to strike out four batters in his final two frames of work. He punched out five in the game.

— Reliever Alex Wilson built on his strong under-the-radar spring training performance (1.17 ERA, 9 strikeouts, 2 walks in 7 2/3 innings), tossing a pair of scoreless innings with a hit, a walk and three strikeouts.

Wilson is in a different place than he was a year ago, when he opened the year in the PawSox rotation before getting shifted to relief for the first time in pro ball (though he was familiar with life out of a bullpen from his college days). There’s no more process of acclimating to a new role — instead, he’s returning to something with which he gained comfort by the end of last year, when he was dominant in Pawtucket’s postseason. He’s also on the 40-man roster, which is significant — for now, he and Daniel Bard are the only two relievers on the Sox’ 40-man roster. With the Sox taking something of a longer view with Bard by sending him to Double-A Portland, there’s a very good chance that, if the Sox need a reliever in the early stages of the season, Wilson would be the guy.

— Outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker launched his first Triple-A home run. He did have three doubles in a seven-game stretch in Pawtucket at the end of last year.

DOUBLE-A PORTLAND SEA DOGS: 13-5 LOSS VS. TRENTON (YANKEES)

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— Shortstop Stephen Drew, in the first game of what is expected to be a four-game rehab assignment, went 0-for-3 with a strikeout while playing five innings at shortstop.

— Last year, left-hander Drake Britton gave up three homers in 84 2/3 innings after a mid-year promotion to Double-A Portland. On Thursday, he matched that total in just three innings of work, getting taken deep thrice by the the Yankees affiliate while giving up seven runs (just three earned) on five hits and two walks while striking out five. He also committed a fielding error.

— Right-hander Daniel Bard had a tough first outing in Portland, throwing seven of his first eight pitches for balls and giving up a two-run homer. He threw just 11 of 21 pitches for strikes.

– Xander Bogaerts, serving as the DH with Drew at shortstop, went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. Dating to last year when he was promoted to Portland at the end of the year, it was his fourth contest (out of 24) in Double-A in which he struck out three or more times.

HIGH-A SALEM RED SOX: OFF

— Salem didn’t have a scheduled game, which would appear to be for the best given that the conditions did not appear amenable to baseball. Shortstop Deven Marrero offered this glimpse of the conditions in his new home park at Lewis Gale Field.

SINGLE-A GREENVILLE DRIVE: RAINED OUT VS. CHARLESTON (YANKEES)

LINKS

There’s a lot of great coverage of the Red Sox farm system, both broadly and at the level of individual affiliates. A few places to go for coverage (once you finish checking in here on a daily basis, of course):

Soxprospects.com remains the ultimate clearinghouse for information about the system. They resume their daily Cup of Coffee, which offers recaps of each of the games in the Sox farm system.

— When they are not doing amazing work covering the Red Sox’ big league team, Providence Journal writers Brian MacPherson and Tim Britton offer extraordinary coverage of the PawSox here. (Disclaimer — they haven’t written anything there just yet.) Brendan McGair provides extensive coverage of the team for the Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call. PawSox play-by-play man Jeff Levering will also offer regular insight via the 45 Miles From Fenway blog.

Kevin Thomas and the Portland Press Herald offer extensive beat coverage and features of the Double-A Sea Dogs. Sea Dogs play-by-play man Mike Antonellis also offers great coverage of the team on his blog.

— The Salem Red Sox feature outstanding coverage from the blog of their play-by-play broadcaster, Evan Lepler,

The Roanoke Times offers great prospect breakdowns and features, highlighted by the typically excellent work of Aaron McFarling (here’s his blog).

Richard Breen‘s blog offers a clearinghouse of all things related to the Greenville Drive.

— Also, blatant self-promotion: Listen to Down on the Farm, a weekly look at a host of topics related to Red Sox prospects, amateur and international scouting and player development on WEEI and WEEI.com, every Sunday from 8:30-9 a.m., or listen to the Minor Details podcast featuring full-length versions of the interviews heard on the show at WEEI.com/podcast.

Read More: alex wilson, bryce brentz, Daniel Bard, drake britton
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