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McGair: PawSox will soon field new cast as AA prospects earn promotions

July 12, 2014

Henry Owens is one of the Red Sox organization’s most highly-touted prospects, and could soon be moving from Portland to Pawtucket. (Photo by Jillian Souza)
 
 
It looks like Theo Epstein may have the last laugh after all. All the former general manager of the Red Sox would have to do is point to last Wednesday when the starting lineup included five rookies. Surely such a development would have brought a smile to Epstein’s face if he were still running the day-to-day baseball operations on Yawkey Way. 
 
Remember, this is the same individual who was roasted and ridiculed by fans and media alike for his “bridge year” comment during the 2009-10 offseason. The idea of the Red Sox relying on a bunch of homegrown kids rather than taking John Henry’s cash and lavishly spending it in order to make high-profile free agent additions? 
 
Surely you jest, Theo. 
 
This is the high-profile Red Sox, not some third-rate baseball market where the team disappears from society’s conscious once NFL training camp opens for business. Bridge years often lead to nowhere.
But this year, Epstein’s choice of vernacular makes sense. The 2014 Red Sox are on an unfortunate course to go from World Series champions one year, to playoff-viewers the next year. 
 
If A.J. Pierzynski’s abrupt departure is any indication, anyone or anything is fair game in the remaining time before the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline. Veterans with 2013 title pedigree such as Jake Peavy, Stephen Drew and Jonny Gomes: make sure to frequently consult your agents regarding potential living arrangements in another port-of-call.
 
Red Sox officials can say the decision to designate Pierzynski for assignment shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign the ’14 Boston ballclub is throwing in the towel, but how else would you classify the move to dump a veteran and bring up a 20-something in Christian Vazquez?
 
The remainder of the season may well be a litmus test for what future Red Sox teams will look like. If veterans are moved out of Boston, the PawSox could send Brandon Workman, Allen Webster or 2014 International League All-Star Anthony Ranaudo to Fenway. 
 
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And if Boston’s youth movement comes at the expense of Pawtucket’s roster, who should PawSox followers keep an eye on as far as potential reinforcements from Double-A Portland?
 
The most logical place to start is catcher. With Vazquez now with the parent team, it seemed a foregone conclusion that fellow prospect Blake Swihart would be promoted to Pawtucket. In a curious move, the Red Sox opted to replace Vazquez with a non-prospect in 29-year-old Matt Spring, the author of a .233 batting average in 31 Double-A games.
 
Like Vazquez, the organization is high on Swihart, who so far has posted single-season career highs in home runs, slugging percentage and OPS. The 22-year-old has also thrown out almost as many would-be base stealers (23) than he’s permitted (25).
 
“He’s the most athletic catching prospect that I can recall seeing,” said one American League scout about Swihart. “He can throw, he can hit and call a game … this guy can do a little bit of everything. If he’s not out of gas (by the time he descends upon Ben Mondor Way), you’re going to see the most athletic catcher you’re ever going to run across in the minor leagues. He’s really impressive.”
 
Infielder Sean Coyle and his .336 batting average against Eastern League pitching may also be ticketed for Pawtucket. The 22-year-old Coyle is eligible for the Rule 5 draft if he’s not added to the 40-man roster by November. A taste of Triple-A would be a nice reward for a player who has bounced back from an injury-marred 2013 season.
 
“He’s got a quick bat,” said the scout regarding Coyle. 
 
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The PawSox may also become the late-summer home to arguably the organization’s top pitching prospect. Henry Owens, 23, has authored a magnificent season at Portland with 12 wins, a 2.21 ERA and 111 strikeouts in 105.2 innings in 17 starts. A promotion seems inevitable.
 
Here’s what impressed the scout when he saw Owens earlier this season: “The night I saw him, he carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning. I had to manufacture the report on him because he was manipulating the zone with the fastball and changeup, which I graded out as a double-plus pitch. He threw a curveball in the fifth inning that he goosed up there at 68 miles per hour. He tried to throw another one that wasn’t a strike. Basically I saw him saw him go seven-plus with two pitches.
 
“I don’t see why his fastball won’t be plus either once he gets his man muscle,” said the scout in reference to Owens’ lanky 6-foot-7 frame.
 
For those curious as to why Owens wasn’t summoned prior to the All-Star break: when it comes to the Red Sox promoting their top-flight pitching prospects to Pawtucket, they generally prefer to wait until the minor-league campaign enters the home stretch. Clay Buchholz became a PawSox on July 12, 2007 with Michael Bowden (remember him?) brought into the Triple-A fold on July 21, 2008. Last August saw Ranaudo and Matt Barnes depart Portland within weeks of each other.) 
 
Based on the stats Owens, Swihart and Coyle have compiled to date, they seem to have little to gain by remaining in Portland. Brian Johnson is another candidate to receive a second-half summons to Pawtucket, but the 23-year-old left-hander has been in Portland for a little over two months. Still, it’s hard not to ignore the 2.64 ERA and .239 opponents’ batting average he’s compiled in a dozen starts.
 
“He’s not an overpowering kid, but he threw strikes with four pitches,” the scout said when he observed one of Johnson’s outings with the Sea Dogs. 
 
“Eventually, Owens and the rest of the group is going to get Triple-A time this year. That group of kids you mentioned, you’re definitely going to see them,” the scout said. “And if they do get up to Pawtucket, they’ll be fine.”
 
Such words from a talent evaluator only reinforce what Epstein set out to accomplish years ago before his words were twisted around. Now more so than ever, the Red Sox appear comfortable with the idea of building from within. And if membership to the kiddie corps keeps on expanding, that can mean only one thing: a new wave of PawSox recruits is set to wash ashore.
 
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03
 
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