Wednesday, August 19, 2009

There's a reason the PawSox have so few hitters

Ron Johnson isn’t worried that his team isn’t hitting.

The manager of the Pawtucket Red Sox has overseen the least productive offensive team the Triple-A International League has seen in years. His PawSox have hit just .231 this season and have scored fewer than 400 runs, something no other Triple-A team in either the International League or the Pacific Coast League has managed to accomplish.

Not surprisingly, even with pitchers like Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden on the roster for most of the year, the PawSox went into the final month of their season buried in fifth place in the International League’s North Division.

“No matter what happens these last three and a half, four weeks, as far as development of players in the Boston Red Sox system, this is a positive year,” Johnson said from his office at McCoy Stadium earlier this month. “We’d like to flip the record around a little bit, but that’s the way it goes. …

“We have players that have moved to this level, and that’s going to give them an opportunity to be that much more prepared when the time comes that they have to help our major league team.”

Johnson then paused.

“That’s kind of like what we’re here to do,” he said with more than a hint of facetiousness.

Johnson’s optimism notwithstanding, this year has been one of transition for the Red Sox organization. A system that has pumped out major-league hitters like fastballs at a batting cage has gone silent this season. The Red Sox haven’t able to call for impact reinforcements as their runs-per-game average has dipped from 5.7 in April to below 4.7 in August.

Both Aaron Bates and Josh Reddick made cameo appearances in July and August, but both played reserve roles and both were dispatched back to the minor leagues after a week or two. No other hitter on the Pawtucket roster projects as an above-average major leaguer.

That, though, isn’t the case at the lower levels of the system. A system that has focused primarily on developing pitching prospects might have some of the best young hitters in baseball on its Single-A and Double-A teams.

Part of it comes back to the age-old argument about drafting college players and drafting high school players. College players come with more certainty and more immediate impact, but high school players often come with increased reward to go along with increased risk.

The Red Sox tended to choose college hitters over high school hitters in the first three drafts in under Theo Epstein. David Murphy, Matt Murton, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jed Lowrie all were college hitters drafted in either the first or second round from 2003-05. Red Sox fans know all about Ellsbury, Lowrie and Pedroia, but Murphy, too, is starting in left field for the first-place Texas Rangers.

A year later, though, the Red Sox began to gamble. The first player they selected in the draft in 2006 was high school outfielder Jason Place, then a power-hitting 18-year-old with loads of potential. Three years later, he’s hitting just .221 with two home runs in 68 at-bats at Double-A Portland – but he’s also still 21 years old, younger than Ellsbury was on the day he was drafted.

Place wasn’t the only high-upside hitter the Red Sox drafted out of the high school ranks that year, either. Reddick, Lars Anderson and Ryan Kalish all began their Red Sox careers before they could take a legal drink, and that means the franchise anticipated they would take some time to develop. Reddick made his Red Sox debut in July, but he’s not expected to become a middle-of-the-order contributor at the major-league level until 2011.

Some already are ready to write off the much-hyped Anderson thanks to a season in which he’s hit just .242 with a sub-.400 slugging percent at Double-A Portland. But even Anderson won’t turn 22 years old until the end of September – the same age Kevin Youkilis was when he was trying to conquer the Single-A New York-Penn League.

It’s only natural that a gap developed between the more experienced college hitters from the early Epstein drafts and the more raw high school hitters of the more recent Epstein drafts. That gap now has made its way to the upper levels of the system.

That doesn’t help a Red Sox team fighting for its life in the final six weeks of the major-league season. It does, however, bode well for the future.

“We wish they all could come here immediately and hit .340 and crush balls out of the ballpark,” Johnson said. “That would be super. But the reality is that we have levels for a reason. It’s an adjustment period, learning, when you’re moving to the next level.”

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