Left-hander Trey Ball missed most of spring training following knee surgery in February. (Darrell Snow/Greenville Drive)
1. Left-hander Trey Ball didn’t think anything was wrong.
He felt something in his right knee for about a month beginning roughly following the New Year, but didn’t think anything of it as it wasn’t too painful, just a loose, aggravating feeling. Ball wasn’t concerned as he felt it would go away.
Then at the beginning of February after running one day it hurt again, but the feeling went away the next day. He told the Red Sox trainers about it and after they examined the knee, it was determined minor surgery was needed.
The 2013 No. 7 overall pick had surgery in early February to repair a small tear in his meniscus and was forced to miss almost all of spring training.
The Red Sox didn’t rush anything with him as he went through the normal progression of a pitcher and continued to throw in extended spring training games when the rest of the minor player league players left for their respective affiliates at the beginning of April.
After a few outings in extended spring training games, Ball made his 2016 debut last Saturday with High-A Salem, where he spent all of last year. The 6-foot-6 lefty went four innings, allowing two runs on three hits while walking three and striking out five. Although it wasn’t game number-wise, Ball was just glad to be back on a mound in a real game.
“Everything felt normal,” Ball said. “I’ve had zero problems since getting back on the field, which I am happy about.”
2. With Ball being the No. 7 overall pick in the 2013 draft, a lot was expected of him, but it’s important to realize he was a two-way player in high school, playing center field half of the time. It wasn’t until the summer of 2013 when he started pitching full-time.
Given the lack of experience compared to others, he’s just now discovering exactly how to pitch and use all of his pitches. Ball spent a lot of time during the offseason watching video of his past outings and felt he learned a great deal from doing so.
“I think I’ve grown a lot,” Ball said. “Being able to watch video of how I did in years past and what I am looking to do this year, I think it’s really helped me a lot with the visualization of it. It’s putting things into perspective and really helping my pitches. To be able to have the idea is really helping me.”
The last time High-A Salem manager Joe Oliver saw Ball pitch was early in 2014, but he observed a completely different pitcher last Saturday.
“A lot of it is the experience and maturity finally starting to take root,” Oliver said. “It’s a shame that he was set back about a month with his knee surgery. You’re starting to see secondary pitches starting to improve and be crisper. He’s pitching with a lot more confidence out there. I hadn’t been around him a whole lot in spring training, but did see him briefly in extended spring training in 2014 and I’ve seen a different pitcher than what I saw a couple years ago.”
3. Andrew Benintendi has opened the season with High-A Salem hitting in 22 straight games, a Salem record, which has caused some to wonder when he might be promoted to Double-A Portland.
Typically, promotions within the Red Sox minor league system don’t occur until about the All-Star break, but no one has really opened a year like Benintendi has. It’s still worth noting it’s been just a month and no substantial internal discussions have been had about promoting him as of earlier in the week.
Oliver laid out a few reasons why staying patient and not pressing with a player can pay off, especially on a team with as many talented players as Salem has.
“I think it’s to continue to build the confidence and the momentum for when it’s time to move,” Oliver said. “Also, you look at the need ahead — is there really a great need? There are things you need to take and look at the overall picture. I think right now as far as moving people up, I mean it’s up to the organization to decide if it is the right time and the right place for the player, but you also take a risk of maybe moving somebody not on such a good ballclub or maybe a ballclub that might not be a big impact if you just add one guy. Is it going to be beneficial to move two or three, and it might change the culture of a team.
“As of right now, looking at this ballclub, it’s nice to see these core players winning and tasting what winning is like and playing together and kind of building some continuity. You look at this group and they are probably going to be advancing through the system together. I think if you’re able to keep that group together for an extended period of time, they become more comfortable with eachother and they play better offensively and defensively.”
Perhaps, the Red Sox will promote both Yoan Moncada and Benintendi to Portland together, as Moncada is off to a tremendous start as well. Looking at the Portland roster, there aren’t any outfielders Benintendi would likely be behind and Moncada would be competing with Wendell Rijo at second base.
The Red Sox may also want to look to Jackie Bradley Jr. — also a college draftee like Benintendi — and not make the same mistake they made with him by promoting him too quickly. Like Benintendi, Bradley Jr. started with Salem in his first full season with the organization and was promoted to Portland after 67 games in 2012. But then the center fielder skipped Triple-A all together and made the Red Sox’ Opening Day roster in 2013, which proved to be a mistake as he clearly wasn’t ready for major league pitching and bounced back and forth between Triple-A and the majors, likely hurting his development.
Oliver pointed to the consistent playing time his players are getting as being beneficial in their development. He also added just because a player has a lot of success at one level, it isn’t always guaranteed to carry over to the next.
“I think right now, the players that I have here kind of benefit them with more playing time and more at-bats at this level and build off of it and hopefully take it to Portland or to Pawtucket, whatever the case may be,” he said. “If there becomes a need, they have a lot more foundation to fall back on. A lot of times you can push guys too quick and as well as they were doing at one level, it might disappear at the next level. Anytime you move up you’re going to play against a better group of athletes and the challenge may be greater.”
4. Benintendi isn’t the only former college player in his first season in the system starting the year in Salem, as right-handed pitcher Travis Latkins is doing the same. He was taken in the fourth round out of Ohio State in last year’s draft, but only made one outing with Lowell as the organization monitored his work load.
Latkins was a bit surprised skipping Greenville, but said it showed the organization believed in him.
“It was surprising,” Latkins said. “I thought I was going to Greenville, but I had a good spring and things started to fall into place.”
“It meant a lot to me,” he added. “It showed they had a lot of confidence in me and they were ready to see what my talent could do and what I could do at a higher level. It really meant a lot.”
Through five games this year, the right-hander is 3-1 with a 2.13 ERA while striking out 27 in 25 1/3 innings. Latkins said the key to his success is re-discovering his changeup.
“I had it my freshman year in college and then I kind of lost it my sophomore year. I don’t know what it was,” he said. “I kept it for the rest of college, but it wasn’t really working. Then I got here and it all of a sudden came back for some reason. Ever since I have been throwing it here it’s gotten better and better each time.”
5. It doesn’t appear pitcher Michael Kopech is close to joining an affiliate after he broke his hand in an altercation with a teammate during spring training. Although Kopech began throwing about two weeks ago, it’s just been playing catch to this point and there isn’t a timetable for when he might begin throwing in an extended spring training game, or get out of Fort Myers all together.
Kopech is coming off a 2015 season which saw him miss the majority of the second half after he was suspended 50 games after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. He was selected in the first round of the 2014 draft and has a fastball that tops off in the high-90s. He’s one of the best pitchers in the Red Sox’ farm system, but just hasn’t pitched enough to truly showcase his talent.
6. Moncada hit his first home run of the season — a grand slam in Game 1 of Tuesday’s doubleheader, totally clearing the scoreboard in right field at Salem’s Lewis-Gale Field. It came from the left side of the plate for the switch-hitting second baseman. According to Salem’s director of broadcasting and media relations Kevin Burke, Trackman stats revealed the grand slam left the bat at 107 mph and went 448 feet.
It was one of the longest home runs Oliver has ever seen.
“I’ve never seen a ball — and I have only been here a short period of time — he cleared the scoreboard here,” Oliver said. “I’ve only seen one or two balls — one in a game that Devers hit the scoreboard and I think one or two in batting practice — but [Moncada] cleared the whole thing. We were all talking as a group about how his approach in batting practice has been staying center of the field and driving the ball the opposite way and working on trying to use the whole field with his approach. He hit that ball about as far as you can hit a baseball.”
7. Rain outs have been a big story with the Red Sox’ farm system to begin the 2016 season. Pawtucket had two rain outs in the first month. Portland has had one rain out so far this year. Salem has had three, including back-to-back days earlier this week and Greenville has had two.
With how much pregame work goes on at the minor league level, rain outs and then doubleheaders to make the games up can impact some of the work that goes on with individual players before games.
“There are times where a rain out is pretty welcome when you’re in one of those long stretches and need a break, but obviously just a couple of weeks into the season, you want to get these guys into a routine and get some quality work in to get these guys going,” Single-A Greenville manager Darren Fenster said. “When they come early it kind of prevents us from getting the work in that we need to. The comfort of them getting into a routine may take a little bit longer, but it’s part of the season.”
Having two rain outs on back-to-back days was especially difficult for Salem as it needed to move things around so the players could get some work in. The last thing Oliver and his staff wanted was to have three days in a row without the team getting any work done.
“It takes away a lot of your pregame routine just because of the length of the day,” Oliver said. “[Tuesday] we were able to get some extra work in with the infielders — get them out here earlier, but low key and not make it an intense work out. Just work on fundamentals and basics. We’ve had two rain outs back-to-back days and you have to push the envelope to try and get work in because you don’t want to go three days in a row without getting work in.”
8. After barely making the Opening Day roster, but not getting a chance to play and thus being sent down to Pawtucket after a week and a half, Rusney Castillo hasn’t done much with the opportunity to play almost every day. Through 16 games, the left fielder is batting just .234 with five RBIs. The least encouraging thing is he’s slugging just .281 with three doubles and no home runs.
The Red Sox have also converted Blake Swihart and Marco Hernandez to left field, which perhaps is an indication the organization may not believe in Castillo as much as it did when they signed him to a seven-year, $72.5 million deal in 2014.
9. Converting Jake Cosart from a starter to a reliever seems to have been the right move as the right-hander has performed well through the first month of the year with Single-A Greenville. In eight games, he has a 2.70 ERA, but the most impressive thing is he has 21 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings. He’s started to be put in high leverage situations and may even get the chance to close soon, as his high-90s fastball and emerging split-finger fastball could be deadly. (To work on the splitter, he’s stopped throwing a breaking ball for now.)
“It’s been a good transition for him,” Fenster said. “We’re definitely easing him into it. I think the first couple of innings were short one-inning stints and starting a clean inning. As this kid gets some innings under his belt, he’s had a handful of two-inning outings and eventually he’ll have an opportunity to close a game out to see how it takes. He’s done a good job of coming in and attacking the strike zone with a very good fastball.
“He has as quick of an arm as you’re going to see. It’s a matter of him being able to repeat what is a pretty max-effort delivery and being able to repeat that to command the fastball. He’s working on a split-finger fastball and that will hopefully help his regular fastball play up a little bit.”
Added Fenster: “You don’t see many comfortable swings against him.”
10. Salem third baseman Rafael Devers is going through the toughest stretch at the plate of his career. He’s opened the season batting just .144 in 24 games. He has shown flashes of breaking out of it and getting back to his 2014 form with seven extra-base hits and 12 RBIs, but overall he’s still adjusting to the better pitching compared to Single-A.
Oliver was quick to point out even though the 19-year-old — and one of the youngest players in the league — is struggling at the plate, he hasn’t let it carry over into the field.
“I think right now he’s starting to understand a little bit more about the pitching he’s seeing at a higher level,” Oliver said. “Pitchers are commanding pitchers a little better. They are pitching him away and he’s having to make adjustments on being able to cover pitches out over the plate. He can’t be so pull conscious. He’s working daily with hitting coach Nelson Paulino. He’s starting to feel a little bit more comfortable and confident driving the ball to left-center and center field.
“He’s making improvements and I think the biggest thing that I’ve seen is it hasn’t effected his defense. Typically when a young player struggles offensively, he usually takes it out to the field and he struggles defensively, but that hasn’t been the case. He’s actually played even better defensively and has shown extreme focus being able to leave the at-bats on the bench and play really clean defense.”