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Minor League Players of the Week: Talking about catchers

And of course the weekly Brandon Walter corner.

Ronaldo Hernández
Kelly O’Connor

With the new minor-league schedule started in 2021 being implemented that has teams playing six-game series every week with Mondays off, there are no Minor Lines on Tuesdays. We figured rather than just leaving that time slot blank every week, we’d hand out some fake, virtual hardware. Each week, we’ll pick players of the week for both position players and pitchers, as well as an honorable mention in each category.

Position Player of the week

Ronaldo Hernández, C, Worcester

This was a big season behind the plate in Worcester, with two of the organization’s best backstops both vying for playing time at Triple-A, and both auditioning for a possibly role in the majors for 2023 and beyond. With Christian Vázquez and Kevin Plawecki there for this year, both Ronaldo Hernández and Connor Wong knew they weren’t going to be more than an injury replacement for this season, but things could change after this season. Both players got off to slow starts, but they’ve turned it on more recently, culminating in a great past week for Hernández as he split time between catching and DH’ing for Worcester. For the week, he hit .591/.625/1.000, hitting two home runs and adding three doubles to his tally.

As mentioned, until recently it had been a very rough season for the 24-year-old catcher. His contact rate has fallen since coming up to Triple-A late last season, with his strikeout rate on the season at 28 percent, which is tough to maintain given his aggression and 3.5 percent walk rate. And even after this hot week, he’s still hitting only .222/.257/.370 on the season. That said, even going beyond just this week and looking at all of May, he’s hitting .309/.367/.491.

Hernández is one of the more underrated pick ups of the Chaim Bloom era. He’s not quite an elite prospect, to be fair, but he’s a quality catching prospect who can carve out a bat-first backup role, and perhaps become a starter, especially if/when the automated strike zone is implemented. He was acquired along with infielder Nick Sogard in exchange for Jeffrey Springs and Chris Mazza, neither of whom was going to be staying with the Red Sox anyway. Wong seems to be the preferred option by the Red Sox brass, which is understandable as he adds more defensive potential behind the plate and utility at other positions while having the same kind of power potential, but personally I’m more confident in Hernández’s bat.

Honorable Mention: Nathan Hickey, C, Salem

It’s an all-catcher position player side of the coin this week, going with the team’s fifth round pick for the honorable mention. Hickey, like both Wong and Hernández, is a bat-first kind of catcher, and it’s not a guarantee he’ll be able to stick behind the plate. But the bat is playing early on this year, especially with his great approach. This past week Hickey hit .429/.636/.786, hitting a home run and two doubles. It’s the on-base ability that earned him his spot here though, and it’s been his carrying tool all year. Hickey has a .445 OBP on the season thanks in large part to a 23.5 percent walk rate. As we’ve mentioned recently, it’s probably getting close to promotion time for him as he’s just having too easy a time drawing walks against these low-level pitchers.

Pitcher of the Week

Brian Van Belle, RHP, Greenville

We mention all the time in this section that if a pitcher makes two good starts in a week, something that is more rare with this new minor-league schedule, I have a hard time not giving them the nod. That was the case here with Van Belle, who didn’t actually make two starts since the second was actually a bulk appearance after an opener, but functionally it was the same thing. The righty tossed a total of 10 innings on the week, allowing just a single earned run (plus one more unearned run), striking out eight and walking one batter.

Van Belle, who was one of Boston’s undrafted free agent signings following the shortened 2020 draft, has not really had a great season on the whole pitching in High-A. Over 49 23 innings spanning eight starts plus two of those bulk appearances, he has a rough 6.34 ERA and a not much better 5.52 FIP. The big issue has generally been hard contact and home runs, as he’s allowed more than two of the latter per nine innings.

Frankly, we’re not really talking about a big-time prospect for the Red Sox, but that doesn’t mean he’s exempt from these lists. Van Belle is probably an organizational piece who may only have one more promotion left in his career. There’s potential for him to convert to a relief role as he has a solid two-pitch mix with a fastball and a changeup. I’m not really convinced that would work though. For one thing, the fastball is more fine than great, and it’s tough for relievers to succeed with a fastball/changeup combo. He’ll always have this week, though.

Honorable Mention: Brandon Walter, LHP, Portland

It’s not a Players of the Week post without Walter getting a mention. And we should mention, while Portland is listed as his team here because that’s where he spent last week, he is now in Worcester after being promoted this weekend. It’s certainly well-earned, coming on the heels of a seven-inning outing in which he allowed one run on one hit, striking out eight and not issuing a walk. On the season, the southpaw has a 2.88 ERA and 2.89 FIP over nine starts and 50 innings, striking out 68 and walking only three. It’s a quick promotion as those 50 innings are all he got at Double-A, but it’s clear he was not being challenged at the level.

Player of the Week Tracker