BALTIMORE, MD - Ryan Lavarnway #60 of the Boston Red Sox follows his three RBI home run against the Baltimore Orioles during the fourth inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
The PawSox aren't loaded top-to-bottom with game-changing prospects, but they do have their intriguing and promising names scattered on the roster. Some of those are first timers, and others are in their second go-round at the level, but there's a chance quite a few of Boston's Triple-A players will end up in the majors before the season is over, and not just because of expanded September rosters.
Ryan Lavarnway is one such player. The Red Sox signed Kelly Shoppach this off-season in order to give Lavarnway more time to develop his defense with consistent playing time, but neither Shoppach nor Jarrod Saltalamacchia figure to stand in Lavarnway's path should the catcher prove himself worthy of big-league time. He has two homers to start the year at Pawtucket, and has hit a combined .293/.395/.575 with 20 homers and 39 extra-base hits in 329 plate appearances at the level.
His bat is likely as ready as it will be, in the sense that whatever he has left to learn about not being exploited by pitchers is knowledge to be gained in Boston, not Pawtucket. There's more to being a catcher than just hitting, though, especially for a backstop who has faced more than a few questions about his long-term viability behind the plate thanks to his glove. He's thrown out five of the six would-be base stealers this year, but that hasn't been a problem for him for some time now -- his pop times are good enough, and he threw out 37 percent of runners last year. The larger questions are in his game calling and his ability to block the plate, as they are for most 24-year-old catchers.
More time in Pawtucket while Saltalamacchia and Shoppach keep things warm will be good in the long run, as catching is the most difficult job on the diamond if you want it done right. Lavarnway is a little closer every day, though.
Will Middlebrooks is further from the majors than Lavarnway, mostly because he hasn't done this before, and because Kevin Youkilis is more of a barrier to entry at third than Kelly Shoppach is behind the plate. Middlebrooks' breakout campaign at Double-A Portland was huge for him, but he finished up the season by struggling during his first-ever in-season promotion.
It's a new year, though, and Middlebrooks had a winter to keep on developing. It looks like he's done just that, as he's hitting .379/.406/.742 with seven(!) homers to begin the year. Middlebrooks hit 23 bombs all last season, and that was three more than he had hit in his entire minor-league career to that point. It appears those doubles have indeed translated into homers.
It's not just homers, though, as Middlebrooks has struck out just nine times on the year, or 13 percent of the time. It's early yet, and those numbers are far from stabilized, but consider this: his punch out rates have dropped each season since he debuted, and in his 60 plate appearances with Pawtucket in 2011, he whiffed 18 times, or 30 percent. It's possible his contact has improved once again, as it's done each time he's moved up a level, even if the current 13 percent rate is a bit lower than it will end up being.
That's good, too, as he's still not much for walking, and likely never will be. But a third baseman with his glove and the 25-homer pop that seems to be developing can easily make up for that, especially if he continues to improve his contact rates as he moves up the ladder.
Alex Wilson has had an up-and-down start to his second year at Pawtucket, as he's already struck out 16 hitters in 13-2/3 innings (against just four walks and one homer) but has an ERA of 5.27 anyway, on account of the 12.5 hits per nine he's allowed.
The combination of sample size and maybe even a little bit of the defense behind him is likely responsible for that, but Wilson has also spent quite a bit of time in the strike zone as evidenced by those strikeout and walk rates. It could just be luck or a few missed spots, and we'd certainly like for that to be the case, considering he's struck out 10.4 hitters per nine in his nearly 35 innings at the highest level of minor-league competition. Given his batting average on balls in play is .439 at the moment, let's go with sample size and luck for now, and check in on that later in the season.
If Wilson continues to miss bats at Triple-A, it's not hard to envision him getting a call to the beleaguered Red Sox bullpen. His future as a starter is up in the air as is, as his 2011 was something of a surprise development, and a season in which he learns a bit more about getting the world's best hitters out isn't a bad thing for him, even if it comes out of the bullpen.