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Red Sox minor league roundup: The Anthony Rizzo void leaves long-term questions at first

05.14.13 at 1:21 pm ET
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Throughout the Red Sox organization, news of the seven-year, $41 million deal between the Cubs and first baseman Anthony Rizzo was cause for considerable celebration. The 23-year-old’s fan base with his former organization remains strong, with ties that run deeper than usual for a player who has left the organization given the connection between the Sox and Rizzo’s family that was formed over the course of his treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2008.

Now five years removed from those months of treatments, Rizzo has continued to build upon the considerable promise he showed as a member of the Red Sox organization, when he slammed 25 homers between High-A Salem and Double-A Portland in 2010.

Through 38 games this year, he’s hitting .277 with a .348 OBP, .527 slugging mark and nine homers in 38 games — looking very much like the future middle-of-the-order force that he projected to be when the Sox sent him to the Padres following the 2010 campaign (along with Casey Kelly, Reymond Fuentes and Eric Patterson) for Adrian Gonzalez.

The Sox’ opinion of Rizzo — as a person and player — never waned, but with Gonzalez slated to man first base through 2018, there seemed no place for the sweet-swinging left-hander. And so, a potential future middle-of-the-order slugger seemed to represent an acceptable cost of business for a player who was expected to deliver elite production more immediately.

But with Gonzalez now having been spun off to the Dodgers, Rizzo’s absence is felt more acutely in an organization that lacks a clear-cut long-term option at first. Mike Napoli is signed through this year, not beyond. Both Daniel Nava and Mike Carp can play first, and both are under team control for a number of years to come (Nava through 2017, Carp through 2016), but it remains to be seen what the two of them look like over a broader sample of games, and whether either could emerge as an everyday option at a position that requires considerable offensive production.

Put another way: While there’s a chance that the team could turn to any of those three beyond 2013, none of the three current Sox first basemen represents a clear-cut answer at the position for years to come, at least at this point. And beneath them, in the minors, there isn’t a prospect who obviously fits that description, either.

In Triple-A, the Sox have players such as Brandon Snyder and Mark Hamilton who could offer serviceable depth to the big league team, but for whom (at ages 26 and 28, respectively) something more than that seems unlikely.

In Double-A, the team has a pair of players who offer intrigue in Travis Shaw and Michael Almanzar. Shaw displays both plate discipline and an offensive approach that the organization loves, working deep into counts, letting the ball travel, driving pitches to the opposite field in left-center. The 23-year-old has considerable raw power, though it’s translated only sporadically to games. He projects as a more likely source of doubles and solid OBPs than middle-of-the-order slugging. And, at 23, it’s worth noting that he’s the same age as Rizzo, with Shaw hitting .231/.369/.364 in the Eastern League while Rizzo is comfortably enmeshed in the heart of the Cubs lineup in the big leagues.

Also in Double-A, Almanzar (primarily playing third base) is off to the best start of his career, hitting .303/.380/.492 with five homers in 32 games. Still, given that this is the first time in years that the 22-year-old has merited legitimate prospect status, and that he’s a career .249/.301/.366 hitter in the minors, it’s difficult to say that he’ll emerge as the long-term answer at first.

Perhaps there will come a time in 2014 or 2015 when the presence of Xander Bogaerts leads the Sox to feature the impressive 20-year-old and Will Middlebrooks on opposite corners of the diamond, most likely with Bogaerts at third and Middlebrooks at first. Both players have the power profiles for the two corners, though, of course, there’s also a reasonable chance that Bogaerts reaches the big leagues as a shortstop and Middlebrooks stays at third. Further down, with third baseman Garin Cecchini dominating in High-A, in two or three years, there’s potential for further crowding on the corners that could ultimately be resolved by one player moving to first (though in the case of both Cecchini and Bogaerts, there are those who believe that if they are to move from their current positions, they are better suited for the outfield than a different infield position).

At this juncture, none of the players whom the Sox have at first base at any level below Double-A profiles as a future everyday big league first baseman. That could change, but in all likelihood, there’s going to be a gap of some years before the Sox feature a homegrown first baseman. And given Rizzo’s performance to date and age — he’s one year younger than Middlebrooks — it’s more unlikely still that the team has a homegrown amateur who thrusts himself into his offensive class.

The Sox were able to undo the major league component of their fateful offseason of 2010-11, shedding Gonzalez and Carl Crawford and the enormous financial constraints that both presented. And the team acquired high-ceiling prospects in Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa who contribute to the team’s best homegrown pitching outlook in years.

But without Gonzalez, the absence of Rizzo is felt, and likely will continue to be for some time to come.

A brief look at the action in the Red Sox farm system on Monday night:

TRIPLE-A PAWTUCKET RED SOX: 6-1 LOSS AT CHARLOTTE (WHITE SOX)

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— Through Franklin Morales gave up a solo homer, he had an impressive rehab appearance, allowing just the one run on two hits while striking out four and walking none in three innings. He also picked a runner off of first base, got three groundouts (and one flyout) and threw 30 of 48 pitches for strikes (63 percent).

— Outfielder Bryce Brentz had his third multi-hit game in his last four contests, going 2-for-4 with a pair of singles while driving in the Sox’ only run. The 24-year-old now has a five-game hitting streak during which he’s 8-for-20 with two doubles, a homer and a walk. While his overall numbers for the year (.268/.326/.496) are somewhat modest, he’s showing a good approach with runners on base. Whereas Brentz is hitting .229/.280/.414 with the bases empty, he’s at .316/.381/.596 with runners on base.

— After a terrific start to the year, Brandon Snyder is going through his first pronounced slump. He went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts on Monday, and in his last five games, he’s 3-for-19 with a double, homer and 11 strikeouts. The four-strikeout game was the fifth of his professional career and first since 2011.

— Left-hander Ryan Rowland-Smith threw three hitless innings without permitting an earned run while striking out three and walking one. Since giving up an earned run in his first outing of the year, Rowland-Smith has been tremendous, allowing seven hits and no earned runs over 20 2/3 innings; opponents are hitting .106 against the 30-year-old during that stretch.

— Right-hander Chris Martin made his Triple-A debut, working a scoreless eighth inning in which he permitted one hit. The 26-year-old tossed 21 scoreless innings in Double-A Portland prior to his promotion.

— First baseman/outfielder Mark Hamilton was named International League Batter of the Week after hitting .400/.484/1.000 with four homers while collecting hits in all seven PawSox games from May 6-12.

DOUBLE-A PORTLAND SEA DOGS: OFF DAY

HIGH-A SALEM RED SOX: 8-3 LOSS AT MYRTLE BEACH (RANGERS)

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Garin Cecchini went 1-for-4 with a double. He ranks among all minor league leaders in average (.372, 11th), OBP (.465, 12th), slugging (.669, 6th) and extra-base hits (22, 7th). On Monday, he was named Carolina League Player of the Week for May 6-12, the second time this season he’s been so honored. He hit .389/.500/.889 with two homers and three doubles.

Blake Swihart went 0-for-2 but with a sac fly. Though the 21-year-old’s numbers for the season are solid hardly eye-catching (.261/.343/.413), he’s been excellent with runners on base, making much more consistent contact in such circumstances. He’s hitting .170/.279/.245 while striking out in 21 percent of his at-bats with the bases empty. With runners on, he’s hitting .385/.432/.641 with strikeouts in just 6.7 percent of his plate appearances.

— Right-hander Chris Balcom-Miller, who joined Salem last week, gave up one unearned run in two hits while recording five of his six outs via groundball. The 24-year-old, who is back in Salem after spending the last year and a half in Portland, consistently has produced tremendous groundball rates over the course of his minor league career, and he is doing the same in the early-going of this season.

SINGLE-A GREENVILLE DRIVE: 1-0 LOSS AT ASHEVILLE (ROCKIES)

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Mookie Betts joined the Player of the Week festivities across the Sox system, getting honored as South Atlantic League Player of the Week after hitting .480/.581/.960 with three homers and three doubles between May 6-12. Betts collected one of two Greenville hits on Monday to extend his hitting streak to nine games. He also stole his seventh base of the year in eight attempts.

— Left-hander Cody Kukuk allowed just one unearned run on four hits (three singles, a double and three walks) in four innings while striking out three. He recorded seven outs via groundball, continuing a year that has seen opponents make typically poor contact against the 2011 seventh-rounder. Opponents are hitting .175 with a .237 slugging mark against Kukuk. Walks (21 in 29 1/3 innings) have been an issue, but between the ugly offensive numbers and his 7.7 strikeouts per nine innings, there’s been promise for a pitcher who is in the

— Shortstop Jose Vinicio went 0-for-3, and is now 0-for-19 (with one walk) in his last six games. In his return to Greenville, the 19-year-old is hitting .155/.212/.227 with six steals in 30 games, numbers that are down considerably from the .277/.320/.371 line with 24 steals in 70 games that he posted as an 18-year-old. He still shows raw ability and good actions in the field, but his hitting struggles are extreme — among all qualifying minor league hitters, he’s near the bottom in average (7th worst), OBP (7th worst), slugging (15th worst) and OPS (6th worst).

Read More: Anthony Rizzo, blake swihart, brandon snyder, bryce brentz
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