Outlook: The defending Governors’ Cup Champions were expecting to start the 2013 campaign with Jackie Bradley Jr. as their showpiece in the outfield. That was before the spring and before the 23-year-old centerfielder made a legitimate push for a big league roster spot.
Regardless of if Bradley starts the season with the PawSox or not, there is still a ton of young talent that will be on display just 45 minutes south of Fenway Park.
The pitching core stands out with solid arms that could also, like Bradley, force the issue with strong cases for big league spots. Among those that could find themselves helping the big club before it’s all said and done are knuckleballer Steven Wright and the two main trade pieces in last year’s blockbuster deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster.
Offensively there is a good mix of returning talent, including outfielders Jeremy Hazelbaker and Bryce Brentz, both of whom saw of action during Pawtucket’s title run after starting their seasons in Double-A Portland.
With a full house of backstops in Boston, Ryan Lavarnway will return to Pawtucket to start the season, but will look to push his way back to the big club sooner-rather-than-later. Last season around this time he wasn't all that pleased to be in Triple-A and after finishing last year with Boston he is most likely not salivating at the idea of being sent back.
In happier returns, the organization welcomes new manager Gary DiSarcina back into the fold. The former Lowell Spinners skipper (2007-2009) returned to the Red Sox organization after two seasons with the Los Angeles Angels.
Thoughts: If somehow the big club decides to place Bradley in Triple-A to start the season, than expect the early home games at McCoy to be standing room only. This would be a great opportunity to see a “sure-thing” big-leaguer at a minuscule price (just ask the fine folks in the Portland, Maine region), so snatch up April tickets ASAP because his stay won’t be long. With or without Bradley, the talent of Webster, de la Rosa, Brentz, Hazelbaker, et al, will still prove to be a bargain worth investing in.
Also, this is an extremely likable bunch that diehards will enjoy rooting on, especially the likes of utility man Justin Henry, catcher Dan Butler and second baseman Tony Thomas.
It will be interesting to see how often the Pawtucket-to-Boston shuttle departs, considering the expected “bridge season” that Boston seems to have temporarily built. If that bus schedule becomes as frequent as it was a year ago, then the names and faces for the PawSox could change a lot. However, there is a decent enough core of players expected to stick around all season that could make successful charge towards defending the Governors’ Cup.
Player to watch: Webster. He has continued to impress the brass (among everyone else) this spring, and his high-90s heater seems to be better than advertised. He throws a heavy, sinking pitch that induces ground balls when it's not being used to strike out the opposition, and he has a solid change and slider in his repertoire. Over 11 innings of work in spring training, Webster has struck out 14 and allowed only one walk and 2 earned runs.
Strengths: Pitching – There are plenty of big guns that are locked, loaded and looking to impress. Jose De La Torre could be a sleeper out of the pen. The 27-year-old right-hander is fresh off a decent stint with Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic (12 Ks in 5 2/3 innings of relief). Over his past four seasons in the minors he has 2.54 ERA to go with a respectable 2.31:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Weaknesses: Power – Don’t expect a lot of souvenir balls to be sailing over the McCoy Stadium outfield walls. Brentz (47 Hrs in last two seasons) possess some solid pop, but after that there may be a rolling blackout of sorts up-and-down the lineup.
Drafted by the Red Sox with the 31st overall pick two months prior, Johnson was tabbed to start in the big house for the Lowell Spinners as part of the annual Futures at Fenway showcase.
Slated to throw innings on one of the most historic stages for the game, his next pitch would prove to be his last of the season.
As quickly as he delivered a fastball to Rickard, it was right back on him, a scorched line drive back at the mound.
Johnson did not have enough time to react and the ball struck him under his left eye.
He remembers every second of it.
“I was just kind of in shock,” said the lefty who dropped to a knee and clutched his face. “I didn’t get knocked out at all and I was thinking I can’t believe I just got hit.”
He was carted off the field, was able to give a wave to the crowd, but after the game Spinners manager Bruce Crabbe said, “It’s not a pretty sight.”
Thankfully, good news was not too far away.
“I saw the docs that day and saw a retina specialist,” said Johnson. “They told me my vision was fine, so I didn’t worry about that at all. My career was never in jeopardy.”
No surgery was required for the multiple orbital fractures that he suffered on the left side of his face, but he would be forced to shut down his season after tossing 5 2/3 innings with the Spinners in his first taste of professional baseball.
A native of Cocoa Beach, Florida, who spent the last three February's and March's playing for his beloved Florida Gators, Johnson is once again close to home in his first spring as a professional.
He has put his final pitch of last season behind him, but not the lessons learned from his short stint with Lowell and now, in Fort Myers, the 2012 first-rounder is excited to put it all together as he gets back into the routine of baseball.
“I learned a ton from [pitching coach] Paul Abbott,” Johnson said of what he took away from his time with the Spinners. “He helped me grow with my game routine and the mental side of the game and what to look for in the scouting reports."
A Fort Myers reunion this spring with Abbott - who will serve as pitching coach with Low-A Greenville this upcoming season - has allowed Johnson to transition back into the right mindset.
“Working with him every day has really helped,” said Johnson. “He tells me, “Don’t forget it”. And that is with everything I do out there, either giving up a home run or whatever. Just put it in the back of your mind, but don’t forget it.”
After arriving in camp nearly a month earlier, on March 1st Johnson declared via his Twitter feed (Brian_Johnson35) his excitement of facing hitters for the first time during a batting practice session.
Ten days later he would get the chance to face live hitters in an intersquad game, finally putting to rest any underlying fears or concerns that others may have had about his confidence or ability to get back on the horse.
“I had little butterflies,” said Johnson of hitting the mound this past Monday. “It had nothing to do with getting hit in the face. I am always a little nervous when I go out to pitch.
“Ultimately it felt great to be out there and I feel pretty good after it. Now I am just focused on getting my body in the best shape that I can for the upcoming season.”
Johnson knows that the season ahead, his first full season as a pro, will be a grind, so he will need to be both physically and mentally on his toes.
He tossed 90 innings as a junior with the University of Florida before his time with Lowell and if all goes well he will surpass 100 innings this coming year.
It's something he has been getting ready for since he arrived back home after his season ended last August.
"It was a weird experience being away from it all," recalled Johnson on what it was like to not be with his team in Lowell. "I found myself checking my phone for scores and texting guys on the team out of the blue to see how everything was going.
"So then I just sat down and started to put in work. I overprepared knowing I was going into my first full season. I work out five days a week with a trainer and now I am in better shape and am stronger than I ever have been."
With the long offseason behind him and the hurdle of facing batters for the first time finally cleared, it seems to be all systems go for the 22-year-old lefty.
“Everything is going great right now,” Johnson said. “The arm feels great. The body feels great. Everything is 100% ready.”
Contact Craig Forde by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @OnDeckBDC.
Photos courtesy of John Corneau/Lowell Spinners