Red Sox minor league roundup: The challenge of scouting and projecting Henry Owens; Steven Wright locked in; Jose Vinicio's horrific season

August 28, 2013 - 8:29 am
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It was a line that has become something between comical and commonplace for left-hander Henry Owens. The left-hander, who turned 21 last month, tossed 6 2/3 shutout innings in which he allowed just two hits while punching out six and walking one. For some pitchers, that line would have represented a season highlight. For Owens, it borders on a standard performance, the eighth time this year that he's allowed two or fewer hits in five or more innings. The 2011 supplemental first-rounder now has a 3-0 record, 1.09 ERA, 38 strikeouts (13.9 strikeouts per nine) and 14 walks (5.1 per nine) in five Double-A starts. In 25 overall starts this year between High-A and Double-A, he has a 2.57 ERA with 11.2 strikeouts per nine, 4.6 walks per nine and, perhaps most impressively, a .173 opponents' batting average that ranks as the second lowest among all pitchers for full-season affiliates in minor league baseball. There have been times this year where evaluators have seen a three-pitch mix that looks like that of a potential frontline starter. But not always. There have been times when Owens has outperformed his stuff. Such, seemingly, was the case on Tuesday. Here's how one NL talent evaluator, who had seen Owens in Salem earlier this year, viewed his outing on Tuesday: "[I] cannot figure out how his numbers are so good compared to his stuff. [He] has good deception to his fastball (88-92 mph) with average life. He throws his fastball 90 percent of the time and he gets strikeouts with it. Change was solid (78-80 mph) as usual and he throws that soft curveball (67-73 mph) that rolls. Hitters must not pick up the ball. He had no strikeouts in the first three innings and had some loud outs, and then I look up at the end of the night and he has a two-hitter with six strikeouts. I give him credit." But, in terms of the projection based on Owens' stuff, based on two looks -- one in Salem, one in Portland? "He's a two-pitch guy -- fastball/change -- right now. A back-end starter," said the evaluator, who felt that Owens looked like a No. 4 or No. 5 starter. "I don't see the power stuff for the top of the rotation but he keeps getting guys out." Indeed, he *keeps* getting guys out. And so, it seems worth asking: what does that mean? What kind of advances can be expected from pitchers who hold opponents to averages of .200 or lower? A year ago, there were nine pitchers in the minors who held opponents to averages of .200 or lower:           Fernandez has been one of the top rookie pitchers in the big leagues in years. Bradley may be the top pitching prospect in the minors right now. But those two (and Crick) have very different arsenals than Owens. Still, left-handers Cingrani and Hultzen (the first of whom was excellent for the Reds until leaving a game in the last week with a back injury, the latter of whom was off to a dominant start in Triple-A before injuries wrecked his year) both tend to live in the low-90s with their fastballs, with Cingrani offering a model for a pitcher who can be quite effective in no small part on the strength of excellent deception on both his fastball and change. The comp game, of course, is a bit dangerous and potentially misleading. But it is worth noting that, so long as they remained healthy, those pitchers who shut down opposing lineups last year proved capable of continuing to do so in 2013. Their excellent performances proved sustainable as they moved up in their careers. Moreover, there is the reality that Owens is still growing, still filling out, his arsenal still sharpening. What he's showing now while dominating is probably not what he will become. While his present stuff might look like that of a back-end starter, another evaluator who saw Owens on Tuesday noted that there's likely more down the road than what he's showing right now. "I see future physicality, angle and deception with plus command," said the AL evaluator, who suggested that Owens looked to him like a pitcher who will have (on the 20-80 scouting scale, with 50 being average) a 60 fastball, 70 changeup and at least a 50 curveball. "I think he'll be a No. 2 or 3," the evaluator noted, adding that if the curve emerges as a plus offering rather than an average one, Owens -- who has one start remaining this year -- could be an ace. But there's a difference between what he is and what he might become, a sort of glass-half-full vs. glass-half-empty game. And there's not a clear right or wrong perspective in those two outlooks. TRIPLE-A PAWTUCKET RED SOX: 2-1 LOSS VS. SCRANTON/WILKES-BARRE (YANKEES) (BOX) -- Steven Wright gave the PawSox six strong innings, allowing just one run on four hits and two walks while recording four punchouts. The run that Wright allowed was unearned, with a passed ball bringing in the runner from third. The knuckleballer cruised through the first four innings, but ran into trouble in the fifth after allowing two singles, but induced a double play to escape further damage. Wright was not a factor in the decision, but he did manage to continue to lower his ERA on the season, whittling it down to 3.59 from 3.88 just two starts ago. Wright has given up just one earned run over his last two starts (three runs total). Four out of Wright's last five starts have been superb, with one subpar performance in between. Even with a five-run, five-inning outing sandwiched in between the impressive starts, Wright has compiled a 1.64 ERA in his last five games, striking out 23 and walking nine in 33 innings while holding the opposition to a .224 batting average. Also important is the fact that Wright, who can tend to lose control of the knuckleball and issue a lot of walks, has given out just one free pass in three of those last five games. -- Rubby De La Rosa's last relief outing for the PawSox was ugly (two earned runs in two-thirds of an inning), but he got back on track with a hitless eighth inning, though he did walk the leadoff batter. Since being optioned back to Triple-A, De La Rosa has been pitching entirely out of the bullpen, and has had two good outings (no hits or runs in Tuesday's game as well as in an inning and a third on August 21) with the bad outing in between. The problem is that the hard-throwing righty has walked at least one batter in every outing, while he recorded his first strikeout as part of Pawtucket's bullpen on Tuesday. His control problems have plagued him all season, and while he's managed about 8 1/2 strikeouts per nine innings, he's also walked over five per nine innings in almost 80 Triple-A innings this season. -- Brayan Villarreal made his first appearance back in Pawtucket after being optioned in favor of reliever Matt Thornton, who was activated from the disabled list on Sunday. Villarreal, who has yet to give up a run in 3 1/3 innings with the PawSox, tossed a scoreless ninth, allowing one hit (a single) and striking out one. He's allowed two hits and one walk in his brief time with Pawtucket. -- Outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker went 1-for-3 with a home run, his 11th of the season and first since his two-home run game back on August 6. The solo home run accounts for one of just three runs Hazelbaker has driven in in his last 17 games, a significant drought for the 26-year-old, who ranks third on the Pawtucket ballclub with 54 in 117 games. Hazelbaker is hitting .264/.317/.384 with 11 home runs, 13 doubles and two triples on the year. DOUBLE-A PORTLAND SEA DOGS: 9-2 WIN AT NEW HAMPSHIRE (BLUE JAYS) (BOX) -- Garin Cecchini OBP watch: .443, tops in all of minor league baseball, ahead of Allan Dykstra (.438). Cecchini went 1-for-5 with a walk, and has now reached base in a billion straight games. (Or, more precisely, 36.) -- Center fielder Shannon Wilkerson went 3-for-5 with a double and triple. The 25-year-old has enjoyed a dynamic month of August, hitting .326/.409/.463 with 11 extra-base hits and four steals. HIGH-A SALEM RED SOX: OFF DAY SINGLE-A GREENVILLE DRIVE: 8-1 LOSS VS. CHARLESTON (YANKEES) (BOX) -- Starter Francisco Taveras lasted just an inning and put the Drive in an immediate hole, giving up a total of five earned runs on four hits (including two home runs) and two walks. He also committed a fielding error, making a wild throw on a pickoff attempt. Taveras, a 23-year-old lefty, has mostly struggled in his time with Greenville, especially in his three starts with the Drive, giving up 13 runs on 15 hits and six walks while allowing five home runs. The longball has been a problem for Taveras all season, giving up a total of 15 in 66 1/3 innings with Greenville (though none in his 14 2/3 innings with Lowell). Taveras is now 2-5 with a 7.19 ERA in 18 games with the Drive. -- The short outing from the starter meant that the Greenville bullpen was forced to cover eight innings. Austin Maddox handled the last three and was impressive, giving up just two hits (a single and a double) while notching a strikeout. Maddox had a rough start to the season, but seems to have found his groove in a relief role, and has allowed just one earned run in his last 18 innings of work. He's lowered his ERA, which at one point in the season sat north of 10.00, to 5.76, and has shown good command, walking just three batters in his last 25 2/3 innings. -- Shortstop Jose Vinicio has not had a good season, and it keeps getting worse. With an 0-for-3 day on Tuesday, Vinicio has now gone 12 games and 41 at-bats without a hit. To make matters worse, he's struck out a total of 38 times since he drew his last walk, which came all the way back on July 5. The 20-year-old, who is younger than much of his competition, has hit just .197/.231/.261 in his 102 games this season. He also committed his 30th error of the year, lowering his fielding percentage to .935 and good for the most on the team, almost double the number of errors of the player who ranks second. SHORT-SEASON SINGLE-A LOWELL SPINNERS: 8-2 WIN VS. ABERDEEN (ORIOLES) (BOX) -- Right-hander Jamie Callahan, in his first start since turning 19 on Saturday, allowed two runs on three hits (a homer and two singles) while punching out three and walking none. Callahan has shown a willingness to attack the strike zone with his fastball (91-95 mph), curveball and changeup, punching out 46 and walking 10 in 49 innings over his last 10 outings. As a pitcher who is younger than a number of players who were drafted out of high school this year, he's more than held his own against older opponents in his first pro season, underscoring why the Sox view him as one of their most promising pitchers in the lower levels. -- Manuel Margot went 0-for-4, as the 18-year-old's hitting streak of eight games since coming off the DL came to an end. ROOKIE LEVEL GULF COAST LEAGUE RED SOX: 5-4 WIN AT GCL ORIOLES (BOX) -- Second baseman Wendell Rijo went 2-for-4 with a double. While he's seen an uptick in his strikeouts at the end of the season (eight strikeouts and no walks in his last six games, after taking 21 walks and punching out 20 times in in his first 42 games of the year), Rijo's performance as a 17-year-old making his pro debut has been extremely impressive. He's hitting .275/.371/.365 in a league where the average line is .244/.324/.340 and the average position player is more than two years older than Rijo. -- Right-hander Jalen Williams, an 18-year-old taken in the 16th round this year, struck out three batters without a walk in two innings while allowing a run on two hits. In three outings, Williams has allowed one run on four hits while punching out four and walking none. DOMINICAN SUMMER LEAGUE RED SOX: 8-3 WIN VS. DSL GIANTS (WIN BEST-OF-THREE PLAYOFF SERIES, 2-0) (BOX) -- Center fielder Luis Alexander Basabe went 2-for-5, and is now 5-for-10 in the two playoff games. -- Shortstop Javier Guerra went 2-for-4 with a double, and is 3-for-7 in the playoffs after finishing the regular season by hitting .313/.371/.336 over the final 36 games.

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