After a lost 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, three of the Red Sox’ four minor league affiliates took the field Tuesday for their first games of the season (Greenville was rained out).
The cancellation of the 2020 minor league season forced teams to deal with the harsh reality that the players’ developmental track could take a hit. Minor league players, particularly those who come straight out of high school, can be raw, living on projections. Most aren’t finished products.
And although clubs did have their alternate training sites as a way to combat a lost year — in addition to keeping players on the 40-man roster sharp in case they were needed at the big league level — it was still tough to replicate an actual season.
The Red Sox’ minor league workouts started April 1, but because of the intake process and protocols, everyone wasn’t available until April 6, giving the Red Sox a little less than a month to prepare.
Nevertheless, the Red Sox are optimistic their players are ready to perform based on what they displayed during that period.
“We came to spring training without having seen a lot of our players for over a year,” said Brian Abraham, the Red Sox director of player development. “Obviously, we had video conversations with hopes that our players were all going to come into camp fully healthy and prepared earlier on. I don’t want us to be pleasantly surprised. But based on all of our testing, based on all of our conversations, we were very excited with the progress a lot of our players made.”
The ill-effects of 2020 and what that might mean for players is still to be determined. A year off from baseball is a significant amount of time, and the time it takes to get back to some level of refinement will vary by player.
Pitcher Tanner Houck, for example, might be judged differently than, say, infielder Jeter Downs, solely based on the fact that he’s been in the big leagues and isn’t that far off from being a mainstay at that level.
“If there was anybody who benefited from the break last year, it was him,” Worcester Red Sox pitching coach Paul Abbott said of Houck. “We said, ‘Look, here’s what we need to do.’ And he was on my call list, and I just told him that we have to get glove-side command with your four-seam fastball. And then when it came to the [alternate] site, that’s what we focused on.”
Houck got the season-opening start for Worcester on Tuesday, as did Aldo Ramirez (Low A Salem) and Andrew Politi (Double A Portland).
The Red Sox are being cautious with their pitchers, many of whom, including Houck, came out throwing harder than usual during spring training. Injuries could pile up as a result of not having thrown in competitive games for so long. The Red Sox have been tracking the pitchers’ throwing progression, plus staying in contact with the organization’s sports science department and team trainers on a daily basis.
“I think there’s just a lot of conversation with players,” Abraham said. “Kind of getting into those spaces with the sports science group to understand where guys were on the physical side and providing them with the reps they need to prepare and build up for the season. But also with the understanding that it is a long season. They also needed to have time for rest and recovery. That’s going to continue into the start of the year.”
Players from the Red Sox’ Triple A team in Worcester can be called up directly to the majors, but prospects at the others — Double A Portland (Maine); High A Greenville (S.C.), and Low A Salem (Va.) — would need to complete a quarantine.
Here’s a look at the roster highlights for the Red Sox’ three lower-level farm teams.
Low A Salem
Manager: Luke Montz
LHP Shane Drohan: He was the Red Sox’ 2020 fifth-round pick out of Florida State. An athlete who played football in high school. While he’s still raw on the mound, the Red Sox are banking on his stuff to play.
LHP Jeremy Wu-Yelland: He caught the eye of Red Sox director of amateur scouting Paul Toboni in the Cape Cod League. He was a fourth-round pick by the Sox in 2020.
INF Nick Yorke: He’s known for his bat and his seasoned approach at the plate. Yorke, the Sox’ first-round draft choice in 2020, is just 19 and can handle his own at the dish.
INF Matthew Lugo: Hit just .257 in 2019 between the Gulf Coast League and short-season A. Lugo is raw, but brings a premium glove to the middle of the diamond that can make an impact.
OF Gilberto Jimenez: Manager Alex Cora said during spring training that Jimenez reminded him of former big leaguer Luis Castillo. With a handsy/slap approach at the plate, Jimenez brings his speed and a pesky element to the game that is rare in today’s game. Jimenez won the batting title in short-season A in 2019 after hitting .359.
Of note: The Red Sox’ second-round draft choice last year, Blaze Jordan, will start the season at extended spring training so he can get more reps at third base.
High A Greenville
Manager: Iggy Suarez
LHP Jay Groome: Injuries, including Tommy John surgery in 2018, and the loss of a minor league season last year have played a role in Groome pitching just four innings in four years. Groome is finally healthy and will get a chance to prove he’s the talent that made him one of the most highly-touted pitching prospects coming out of high school.
UT Danny Santana: He won’t be here for long. Santana will begin his rehab stint in Greenville. Cora expects it to be at least two weeks for the veteran big leaguer.
Double A Portland
Manager: Corey Wimberly
1B Triston Casas: With a refined approach at the plate that includes power and strike zone awareness, Casas has proved to be beyond his years. He’s not that far off from making his impact on a big league roster.
RHP Thaddeus Ward: He throws 92-94 m.p.h, topping out at 96 m.p.h. with his two-seamer, but is really known for his slider. Ward will be the ace of this Portland rotation.