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Learning to win: Why PawSox playoff run matters for player development

09.07.13 at 8:52 am ET
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Even though Jacoby Ellsbury is dealing with a hand injury and the rosters have expanded to 40 players, Jackie Bradley Jr. remains in Pawtucket– as do Allen Webster, Brock Holt and pitchers like Brayan Villarreal and Pedro Beato, both of whom have contributed at the big league level this season.

For the third straight year, the Pawtucket Red Sox are in the playoffs, and it’€™s clear that the Red Sox feel that these players, each of whom could easily fill a spot on the club’€™s major league roster this month, would benefit from experiencing postseason play in Pawtucket. So it raises the question: why should we care about the Triple-A playoffs?

There’€™s not necessarily an obvious correlation between the success of high-level minor league teams and the success of the major league team, the players’ performance in that organization’€™s system, or even the depth of the organization. Sometimes clubs with strong farm systems will have poor records among their minor league teams because of the constant shuffling of rosters and movement of prospects throughout the levels or based on where players are in their maturation process.

But on an individual basis, getting a chance to play in the International or Pacific League playoffs is an important and positive experience. While there’€™s no way a minor league playoff appearance could compare to the atmosphere of a big-league postseason run, staying on the field into September has many benefits, included the added pressure of do-or-die situations, something that young players may not have experienced, and something that they would experience if they were called up to the majors.

‘€œI think it mimics a regular season game in the majors more than anything, playing in that pressure,’€ former major league infielder Lou Merloni said. ‘€œSometimes, in minor league games, when you play in front of crowds you’€™ll go out to win, but [in the postseason] you start to feel a little pressure. You start to get the nerves, and I think it’€™s the closest those guys will feel to playing in a big league game.’€

Arnie Beyeler, who managed the PawSox last season and saw his team win the Governor’€™s Cup and advance all the way to the Triple-A National Championship, thinks that the playoff experience can really benefit young players.

“It’€™s great when guys get to win and go into the postseason and get playoff experience at any level,” Beyeler said. “Ultimately, when you get up here to the big leagues, it’€™s all about winning. So any of those experiences you can get, for guys to play extra or the pressure that you get going down the stretch trying to hold onto a lead, or playing and getting hot and getting to play in the playoffs, that do-or-die, day-to-day thing’€¦you can’€™t get that experience anywhere else without being there.’€

Will Middlebrooks, who was part of the PawSox club in 2011 when they finished first in the International League North division and clinched a playoff berth, thinks that while the postseason experience in the minors can’€™t duplicate what a playoff chase is like in the big leagues, it’€™s valuable nonetheless.

‘€œOf course it’€™s a positive experience, it’€™s just a chance to play ball after the regular season is over, which is something not a lot of people get to do,’€ Middlebrooks said. ‘€œIt doesn’€™t translate to anything up here [in the majors] as far as playoffs go, though. It’€™s another level.’€

There’€™s a shift in the focus of the players at the Triple-A level once a club reaches the postseason. All season long, there’€™s an emphasis on the player development side of the game, with the performances and numbers of individuals being the primary focus. It’€™s all about moving up through the system, and players work to move up to the next level, so the focus remains on personal efforts with the team’€™s success sometimes coming as an afterthought. But in the playoffs, there’€™s a change in the thinking, at least for some players.

Middlebrooks sums up the shift succinctly.

‘€œIn the playoffs, stats don’€™t count,” he said. “The individual stuff is kind of out the door and it’€™s just about winning at that point.’€

‘€œIn the regular season, everyone’€™s trying to get to the big leagues and post numbers and are more concerned with the personal but with the team in mind, obviously,’€ offers Merloni. ‘€œBut when it gets to the postseason, your year is in the books. What you did is what you did. Now it’€™s about winning, and that can be huge. My last year in Sacramento [the Triple-A affiliate of the A'€™s], I was a veteran but we had a lot of young kids, and they learned an awful lot about themselves in the postseason. ‘€œ

Just the fact that the PawSox season has been extended by days or weeks is a crucial part of why the playoffs matter. Rather than the season ending in the last week of August or the first week of September, the club’€™s season could extend deep into this month, which would come close to matching the length of a major league regular season. The PawSox played 143 games in their regular season, and could end up playing up to 11 more games (with the potential to play two best-of-five series in the International League plus the one-game Triple-A championship).

The extra time allows for a lot of different things to happen. First of all, players can extend their consistent playing time further, and play every day in Triple-A rather than serve in a limited role with the big league club, whether it’€™s pinch-running or coming in as a defensive replacement. Although every player would rather be on the major league roster, regular playing time deep into September gives them a taste of what the month would be like if they were playing a full-time role with the big-league club, both on a mental and physical level.

‘€œIt’€™s good for your body. For years you get used to being done in September if you’€™re not in the playoffs in the minor leagues. So I think it’€™s good to play those extra couple weeks, especially if the next year, you’€™re going to play at the big league level,’€ said Middlebrooks of the extended season.

The extra time also allows for some experimenting. For example, Webster’€™s moved to the bullpen for the short-term, likely in an attempt to see if he can help out the Red Sox in the next couple weeks in a relief position. Webster was in the starting rotation for the entire season, but is using the time to try out a new role, and the fact that Pawtucket is still playing allows him to find his bearings in the bullpen in Triple-A rather than in a meaningful September game in the majors.

The Red Sox Double-A team finished up their season last weekend. In the past month, prospects like Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes and Christian Vazquez have been moved to Triple-A. Middlebrooks was thrown into the same situation back in 2011 ‘€“ less than a month after moving to a more advanced level, the third baseman was thrust into a playoff atmosphere. But ultimately, the opportunity to join the team, even just for a few weeks, helped Middlebrooks ease into the transition the next season.

‘€œThere’€™s no substitute for experience and repetition. The more at-bats you can have at a certain level, of course the more comfortable you’€™ll be,’€ Middlebrooks said.

Beyeler echoes the sentiment.

‘€œAnytime guys can go up to the next level and get experience, whether it’€™s to here or Double-A, Single-A . . . just moving up to the next level, whether it’€™s for days or weeks or months, it’€™s an adjustment period for guys. If they’€™re going to be up there next year, then they’€™re more comfortable next year when that shakes out,” he said. “It’€™s the same thing when you bring guys up here [to the big leagues]. You do that for a reason, so that the next year or whenever that happens, they’€™re a little more familiar with the situation. Anytime you can do that with people, to put them in a little more comforting area or something that they’€™ve got experience with, the better off they’€™re going to be.”

On more of a pragmatic level, if the club hadn’€™t made the postseason, Clay Buchholz couldn’€™t have made his most recent rehab start with the team. Granted, he could have joined the Lowell Spinners, one of the other teams in the Red Sox organization that’€™s made the postseason, but obviously Buchholz was able to face a much higher level of competition pitching in Triple-A than he would of with the short-season Single-A club. It’€™s just another small perk of having a Triple-A team that has been a perennial playoff contender over the past few seasons.

Since there’€™s not a desperate need for any other players on the major league roster right now, gaining the experience of postseason play and extending regular playing time deeper into September may be more valuable for players like Bradley and Webster, rather than being relegated to a limited role on the bench in the big leagues. There’€™s more than a chance that they, along with other members of the PawSox, will rejoin the Red Sox at some point this season.

‘€If there’€™s a glaring need or a long term injury, they’€™ll probably bring Bradley up because that’€™s what’€™s best for the big league team,’€ Merloni hypothesizes. ‘€œBut if they’€™re not needed or they’€™re going to be on the bench, there’€™s no question it’€™s going to help them to stay down there.’€

Read More: allen webster, Arnie Beyeler, jackie bradley jr., Will Middlebrooks
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