Backfield Blog Day 1: Boston Red Sox

By Jake Seiner/MiLB.com

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — My Grapefruit League adventure began in earnest today with a trip to Red Sox camp. I pulled into the stadium around 9 a.m., surveyed the situation and had about half an hour until the Minor Leaguers got moving on the backfields. Monday and Tuesday this week are both practice days for Boston’s MiLBers before their first set of games Wednesday against players from Minnesota’s organization.

There are six backfields located in the shadow of JetBlue Park, including a second Fenway Park replica — in so far as there is a Green Monster-sized wall in left and left-center — that served today as a practice field for the Major League club prior to their contest against Tampa Bay. The five remaining fields were occupied by Minor Leaguers mostly destined for full-season assignments in 2014, broken roughly into clubs representative of each level Triple-A through Class A.

While the pitchers and catchers stretched out their arms on Field No. 5 (the Lou Gorman field), the rest of the affiliates spread between the remaining four fields to stretch and sprint before grabbing their mitts and taking some infield practice. The lesson of the day was first-and-third plays, with outfielders serving as base-runners while the infielders executed various strategies for defending stolen-base attempts with runners on the corners. The drills were a fun throwback for me, bringing memories of similar drills I did playing in college, high school and all the way back to Little League.

The first-and-thirds also gave me my first opportunity to “scout” with the stopwatch I’d picked up in New York before coming to town. I was able to clock pop times for the catchers on their throws to second. (Sadly, stud defender Christian Vazquez and his 80-grade throwing talents were still in big league camp). I didn’t register a time under 2.2 seconds, meaning either my thumb or the catchers I was timing were somewhere around a 30 on the 20-to-80 scale — the safe bet is on my thumb.

After a lengthy round of batting practice, the position players split into four teams for a pair of intrasquad scrimmages on Fields 4 and 5. I bounced between the two games and jotted down some observations on the prospects involved.

Pat Light – Boston’s 2012 first-rounder was one of the starters on Field 4. The 6-foot-5 right-hander has the look of a Major League workhorse, and after a little early trouble, did a good job pounding the strike zone with his fastball. The pitch had some good life running in toward right-handed hitters and a few hitters seemed to have trouble catching up to the pitch. He also got a few swings-and-misses with a sharp slider he threw only sporadically, and also flashed a changeup that has been a work in progress.

Corey Littrell — I caught only a few at-bats from Littrell, a 21-year-old left-hander Boston popped in the fifth round in 2013. The 6-foot-3 University of Kentucky was impressive in what I saw, though, showing good command of his fastball while dropping in a couple of impressive curve balls that spun some Class A Short Season players in circles. The hurler pitched very well with Lowell last season and should be due for an assignment with Class A Greenville to start 2014.

Wendell Rijo — I knew little about Rijo other than the name before getting to Fort Myers today, but nobody made a bigger impression on me during batting practice. The 18-year-old is only 5-foot-11, but has a compact, muscular frame and looks stronger than his .375 slugging percentage in 2013 would suggest. I’m no scout (a qualifier that should apply to each of these writeups) but Rijo’s bat speed stood out among the camp’s younger players. His swing has some violence, starting with a big leg kick and featuring a good bit of head movement, but his hands can fly through the zone with a level stroke. The swing was a little long, though. I compared what I saw to some video of Rijo from a year ago and it looks like he’s already made strides shortening the stroke. The second baseman played mostly in the Gulf Coast League in 2013 and is probably due for another short-season assignment in 2014, but that could change.

Teddy Stankiewicz – The 2013 second-rounder squared off mostly against younger hitters and was able to overpower most of them with his fastball — 19-year-old Manny Margot was so far behind one fastball he nearly beheaded the on-deck batter with a line drive fouled at a 90-degree angle from the pitcher’s mound. Stankiewicz, like Light, is a big right-hander (6-foot-4) with a prototypical pitcher’s frame. His fastball was lively but less so than Light’s heater. He showed a sharp breaking ball too, but also choked a few of those into the dirt.

Mookie Betts — The second baseman ripped a sharp ground-ball single up the middle off Light during one of the intrasquads, and that was really all I got to see from last year’s breakout prospect. I did get a chance to catch up with the 21-year-old after the games, though, and pick his brain about his successful 2013 and what’s ahead in 2014. Betts isn’t sure yet where he’ll be assigned this season, I’ll have more on him at a later date.

I’ve been doing this writeup from the press box at JetBlue Park as the Red Sox and Rays’ Major League teams play. Right-handed prospect Jake Odorizzi started for the Rays, allowing a run on two hits over 2 1/3 innings. Odorizzi is battling for a spot in Tampa Bay’s rotation, and he’s fighting with a brand-new weapon – The Thing (or Thing 2, or a split-change, or whatever moniker you want to give it). Odorizzi used the pitch exhaustively Monday even though he said his feel for the offering was inconsistent.

“The first inning was my fault really,” he said. “I just kept throwing whatever we’re calling it these days. I just kept throwing it and throwing it and I got behind just about everybody with it. I didn’t have a good feel for it. Instead of abandoning it and going to something that I know that’s, like my slider, I can throw for a strike, I’m going to keep throwing [The Thing] right now.

“That’s my main emphasis. I’m not going to be too fine with it where,  ‘Oh, I can’t throw it for a strike, I’m going to put it in my pocket and not work on it,’ because now’s the time when I need to work on it. Stats don’t matter right now. It’s all about how it feels coming out of your hand.”

Tomorrow, I’ll be rising early to make the drive up to Port Charlotte to spend the day at Rays camp, where a lot of pitching talent awaits, as do Hak-Ju Lee and some other promising position players.  Be sure to follow along here, over on Twitter (@Jake_Seiner) and at MiLB.com.

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Pingback: Backfield Blog Day 2: Tampa Bay Rays « MiLB.com's PROSPECTive Blog

People who time professionally will tell you do not use your thumb on a stopwatch/timer. Use your index finger.

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