The Sunday Baseball Column: The Gleyber Torres lesson

Rob Bradford
October 13, 2019 - 7:49 am
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The year was 2013 and the Red Sox had a decision to make.

They knew a good chunk of the $2.9 million they had to spend in the international free-agent market was going to go to one player. The top of Boston’s list had two names: Rafael Devers and Gleyber Torres.

“We really liked Gleyber,” remembered Red Sox assistant general manager Eddie Romero.

But the Sox liked Devers just a little bit better. 

The Red Sox prioritized their current third baseman, giving the then-16-year-old a $1.5 million signing bonus. The commitment to Devers, couple with the aggressiveness of the Cubs toward Torres, took the Sox out of the mix for reeling in both of the star teenagers with Chicago swooping in with a $1.7 million deal for the current Yankee second baseman.

“We wanted to go after one big fish that year and we sided with Devers. But on our collective pref list that year Torres was right behind him if not one later. That was a really good year overall but of the guys we were still seeing, Gleyber was the one we were the most aggressive with,” Romero said. “We just wanted to sign one and pick a couple of other guys and spread it out a little bit.”

After a season of excellence from Devers along with Torres’ latest breakout performance Saturday night (HR, 3 hits, 5 RBI) it’s easy to resurface an important reminder when trying to figure out how the Red Sox might discover sustained excellence. Dominating the international free agent market has never been more important.

It would be easy to start with remembering the two best players on the 2019 Red Sox, Devers and Xander Bogaerts, were both signed as international free agents. Or that $7,500 of the money the Red Sox spread out in that 2013 signing period after Devers’ commitment was used to reel in a young pitcher from Venezuela named Darwinzon Hernandez. But the real reminder comes with simply taking a glance at the best teams in baseball.

Juan Soto. Victor Robles. Gary Sanchez. Luis Severino. Torres. Jose Altuve. Yordan Alvarez. Marcell Ozuna. 

Finding these sort of young superstars have become the lifeblood of more and more successful big league clubs, a reality the Red Sox know all too well. And that’s why the way teams are going about approaching this market is evolving at a rapid pace. It’s a reality an organization like the Sox — one which is dying for high-end, controllable young talent — are embracing like never before.

“Teams have become more and more aggressive in scouting and allocating resources in terms of technology but also personnel. That has become obviously apparent,” Romero noted. “You go to a showcase now whether it's in Columbia or the Dominican and you see larger presences of scouts from every team. All teams are involved. All teams are recognizing the value in the international market. And it's been interesting to see how technology has been utilized also. That's one of the other changes. There has been a lot more attention than ever before.

“Teams are sending four or five scouts including U.S.-based personnel. A lot of teams have done video for a while now but now they're setting up the same camera and Trackman units and cameras that are being used in Stateside showcases and workouts. Those are all becoming prevalent in the international circuit as well.”

The Red Sox now have two people — Todd Claus and Rolando Pino — running their international scouting department, with Chris Becerra serving as a special assistant to the department. The organization has beefed up their number of crosscheckers while adding scouts in the Dominican Republic and Bahamas. The Sox’ Dominican facility has also seen significant renovations.

Then there are the analytics.

Along with the heavy dose of in-person scouting, teams are viewing these 16-year-olds from more angles than ever. Red Sox pitching Brayan Bello is a great case-study for how this whole thing is working.

“He was a guy who using basic Trackman stuff kind of popped out for us,” said Romero of the 20-year-old Bello, who excelled in the second half of his season with Single-A Greenville in 2019 despite being one of the South Atlantic League’s youngest players. “He had really good numbers on his breaking ball, not only in spin, but the shape of it. Really good extension numbers. Not being the biggest guy physically probably wouldn't have been somebody who stood out immediately to us. But he was somebody who had a projectable frame and a fastball that could tick up a couple of notches. We were immediately like, 'Let's get a couple of looks at this guy.' And after that, we ended up signing him. ... Five years ago it may have been where this guy wasn't touching low 90's yet. He's not 6-foot-2. Maybe we just see this guy again instead of being really aggressive and having him stay at our Academy.”

There is another reason for the added attention: Patience for the payoff is no longer a prerequisite.

“More than anything is how the importance of knowing how young these guys can make an impact. It was always like, 'Oh, it takes time. They have to get used to the culture.' These guys now are so much more aware of what they need to do to get to the big leagues,” Romero pointed out. “I mean Juan Soto does interviews fully in English. To see a young kid in the International market to go about his business the way he does, and to show the emotion he does, and then to do postgame interviews in English, he's a tremendous role model for all young guys who are coming up. I know (former Red Sox Latin America crosschecker) Johnny DiPuglia signed him and he's like, 'Eddie, this guy is special.' Then you see guys like Gleyber Torres on the biggest stage performing so young. There are these guys out there who don't need the traditional cycle to develop. These guys are coming along much more quickly than they were 10 years ago.

“That's why your infrastructure has to be so strong. I'm sure the infrastructure when a Jose Altuve came up was different. That's why we have to adjust to keep up with them and give them everything they need and no what they can handle. That's just as important. Rafael Devers and Bogaerts, both of those guys, they were able to handle a lot early on and that's something that has helped them adjust to the big league level quickly in terms of knowing how to approach and establishing routines. Those things are key. I don't know for sure about Juan Soto, but I'm sure he came up the same way as well.

“Once they start talking to their individual coaches about process and routine and not just results, that's when you start getting the feeling that, you know what, these guys are really maturing from the work standpoint. That's when you can start being a little more aggressive. They start understanding how they're being attacked. What they need to do on a daily basis to prepare themselves for that day's game. It's crazy. You see it. It's like when you have a child and he's growing up in high school and all of a sudden he's taking care of his business. You see the way they grow. The special ones like these guys they just do it earlier than most.”

Torres gave the Astros a taste of that Saturday night.

DON'T EXPECT TOO MUCH HELP FROM JAPAN, SOUTH KOREA

One international market that sometimes can offer a team like the Red Sox (who might be looking for rotation help) immediate help doesn't figure to be a factor this time around.

As we previously pointed out in this space, there is a desire for players playing in countries like Japan and South Korea to prioritize participating for their respective countries in the upcoming 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. There have also been some contract situations that limit the likelihood of playing in the majors with star Japanese pitchers Takahiro Norimoto and Kodai Senga seemingly locked into staying with their teams.

South Korean lefty Kim Kwang-Hyun is a possibility to finally find his way to the United States, having failed to reach an agreement with the Padres in 2014 after San Diego paid $2 million for his posting rights. But the 30-year-old Kim doesn't figure to be anything more than a pretty solid middle reliever at this point.

The most intriguing Pacific Rim options are actually the imports from the United States. Former Dodger Zach Neal had a standout first half with Seibu, while former Cubs first-rounder Pierce Johnson dominated out of the bullpen for Hanshin. A former Oriole farmhand Joely Rodriguez also left an impression with his relief work for Chunichi. And in terms of starting options, Josh Lindblom, a 32-year-old former second-rounder, went 20-3 with a 2.50 ERA in 30 starts in South Korea.

RED SOX PROSPECTS OPENING EYES FOR PEORIA

Corey Wimberly has more experience than most with the minor-leaguers from the Red Sox organization who currently find themselves in the Arizona Fall League. But what the manager of the Single-A Salem Red Sox has witnessed over the last month while coaching for the Peoria Javelinas has left quite an impression. Here are Wimberly's observations regarding five AFL participants with ties to the Sox:

Tanner Houck: "He's really come out here and taken a step forward. He's been a guy who is really working on developing his offspeed more and I think he has made huge strides. ... They've polished up some of his off-speed pitches and he's been outstanding. He's made huge strides. I'm proud of him. ... He's throwing his changeup and his slider more. Most of it was learning how to use it and not giving up on it. Being able to adjust pitch to pitch. He's understanding each pitch serves a purpose even if it's not a strike, what it does to a hitter and how it makes him vulnerable. He's learned that and picked it up well."

Jarren Duran: "He's going to compete no matter what. He's going to find a way. For me, it was just getting comfortable in Portand where guys probably have better command. We worked on some slight mechanical changes in his swing but nothing drastic. It has seemed to pay off. I'm excited for him. He's in a good spot right now ... Ever since I've seen this kid step on a professional field, because I've had him the last two years, he takes every at-bat personal. It's a battle between him and the pitcher. It's serious every time he gets in the box. I don't think him being overconfident or under-confident had anything to do with his struggles. I think he went through a little phase. This was his first full season so he played a lot of baseball this year. I'm excited for where he's at. It seems he hasn't missed a beat.

Bryan Mata: "Mata is opening up some eyes. We've seen a tick up in his velocity. He's been up to 99 (mph) with an electric arm over and over. From my first year of coaching, I've seen him go from 88-91 and now to see him at 99 ... Just sitting sinker at 99 is unbelievable. He's opened some eyes out here for sure. ... I think just being in the bullpen, coming in throwing one inning at a time he has really let it go and hasn't had to pace himself. It's fun to watch him come out of the pen right now."

Yoan Aybar: "He's a lefty who is throwing upper-90's. He's been 95 to 99, showing some electric stuff. He's making great strides. His slider is electric as well. And this is his first full season pitching, as well. He's made some huge strides." (Aybar made the switch from position player to pitcher in 2018.)

Marcus Wilson: "He's just been on a tear ever since the second half of the season in Salem. He's opened up some eyes. He's been a guy if you just take off that first half of the season he's a guy who for sure has big-league ability. It's exciting to watch guys like him be successful." (Wilson was acquired from the Diamondbacks in exchange for Blake Swihart.)

C.J. Chatham: "C.J. has been working on a position change, working at second base quite a bit just trying to get him more versatility. Obviously second base in the big leagues for us, we don't know how Pedey is going to be next year.... He's done well at the position. It's just getting used to all the different turns, especially out of shifts and stuff like that which are coming into play. So we've been working with footwork around the bases a lot. He will be able to transfer into that position pretty easy. I just feel like if you're a shortstop at this level you can kind of play everywhere. It's just about getting comfortable."

BRIAN BANNISTER'S NEW EXISTENCE

While most of the focus on the Red Sox' coaching changes last week centered on the reassigning of pitching coach Dana LeVangie, it was also interesting to note Bannister's new role. The former assistant pitching coach will no longer be around the big-league club, instead focusing on the Red Sox minor leaguers. This is a change that 38-year-old is welcoming with open arms.

Bannister spent 210 days in a hotel between February and September while splitting time between the major league team and the minor-league development side. He requested the return to the role he participated in from 2015-16 in large part because of family considerations. This way he will spend 20 days on the road but then 10 days a month with his wife and two children on the West Coast. 

"With my kids getting older (7 and 11 years old) I was looking for a way to continue to have an impact on the Red Sox arms coming up while still being able to be part of my kids' lives back in California,"  Bannister said.

THE PATERNITY PROBLEM

Daniel Hudson missing Game 1 of the National League Championship Series to be there for the birth of his son opened up some familiar conversation.

Or, as fellow Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle summed up the situation, "I think if your reaction to someone having a baby is anything other than, ‘Congratulations, I hope everybody’s healthy,’ you’re an  (expletive)."

Point taken.

When it comes to these sort of things two Red Sox-related instances jump out. The first came in 2007 when Eric Hinske's wife was giving birth. Because Major League Baseball had no allowance to fill a roster spot for those leaving for such family reasons the Sox leaned on bereavement for the reason of Hinske's absence. It was true that the infielder had a death in the family, although that had come a month earlier with the passing of his grandmother. With MLB not quite yet up to speed on the importance of parenting, this was about finding a way to be there for the birth of his child.

And in 2011 Josh Beckett found himself in a similar situation as Hudson. The pitcher was slated to serve as the Red Sox starter if his team had to play a play-in game against Tampa Bay with the Sox having few options in what would be Game 163. But Beckett made it clear to all involved the team shouldn't count on him for such an outing with his wife slated to give birth to the couple's first child the day after the regular season. 

This is what he told WEEI.com the following spring training regarding the decision:

"I got torn apart," Beckett said. "Everybody just destroyed me because I cared more about what was going on with my wife than I did that game. I almost think people want me to think the other way around, and I think that's absolutely absurd. To ask a man to care more about a major league baseball game -- and I know it's a major league baseball game -- than he does about what's going on with his wife, who's due any minute. And I never want her to be an excuse. Yeah, I was distracted, but that's not her problem. That's on me. I would never trade that."

He added, "If somebody reads this or somebody thinks I'm wrong, they can go [expletive> themselves. That's the truth. That's what's important to me. I'm not saying baseball is not important. I could differentiate on the day I was pitching. I went out there and I was still as competitive. I'm not saying my mind was only focused on just this pitch because I did have other things on my mind. Whether you want to understand that or not, I don't care because I know who I am and what I'm trying to do."

SOME OTHER THOUGHTS ...

- When it comes to the postseason let's be clear: Starting pitching is driving the bus. Through 46 playoff games so far this season the starting pitchers' ERA is down more than a run from 2018 (3.90-2.89) having thrown an average of eight more pitches per game. Hitters are managing just a .208 batting average against compared to the .220 clip a year ago. There have been 11 games where starters have gone at least seven innings, coming away with wins in seven of them. Last year that number finished at nine starts, six of which resulted in wins for the starter. )Conversely, OPS-against for relievers in the postseason has taken a significant jump, going from .661 to .771.)

- It's not the postseason without Justin Verlander commenting on the baseball. This is what he said Saturday night:  I haven't personally noticed it. I haven't really talked to guys about it, especially because when all those reports came back, it was right before Game 5, and I didn't want the hitters to be talking about that; they had other things on their mind. ... I think MLB just came out with a report they haven't changed, right? I guess we've got to believe that, right? I don't know. Who knows? ... Like I said, I said this before, I mean, I think that the players should be involved if the ball is going to change. Who knows if they are or are not. But at the end of the day we are all using the same baseball when we step on the field. As long as it's an even playing field at this point in the game, that's all we can ask for."

What people might forget is that Verlander wasn't the only pitcher who went on-the-record during previous postseasons regarding the possibility that Major League Baseball had altered the equipment. Heath Hembree caught the attention of MLB officials last postseason with these comments to WEEI.com: "As soon as the regular season ended and they gave us the postseason balls, and we had regular season balls and postseason balls mixed in, they were completely different. ... We play 162 games, spring training, so we’re dealing with these balls every day so we know them really well," Hembree said. "As soon as they try and switch something up you’re able to tell. They feel smaller in the hand and they are definitely harder. It just feels tighter. It doesn’t mess up your pitching, just don’t let them barrel it."

- Verlander also offered this gem when talking about the state of baseball: "You look at the course of an inning, we're almost like playing an ADD version of baseball right now, where it's these huge elation moments, Home run, home run, yeah, yeah. And then you're just kind of sitting there waiting for the next moment with a bunch of strikeouts in between. If you're not a fan of strikeouts, then what are you watching? .. You think of getting a guy on first base, the next guy hitting ball to right field, that guy going from first to third, that's a great moment to cheer. The next guy hitting a sac fly, that's another good moment to cheer. ... There's so many different ways to love this baseball game that I think have kind of fallen by the wayside a little bit, and rightfully so."