Red Sox minor league roundup: Matt Barnes and the quest for efficiency; Feats of Portland in offensive explosion; Teddy Stankiewicz laying a foundation

May 12, 2014 - 8:36 am
Matt Barnes has emerged as one of the top Red Sox prospects because of his ability to miss bats. No one in the system over the last few years has shown the ability to blow away hitters with his fastball like Barnes. Yet while that ability has offered the foundation to consider Barnes a very impressive young pitching prospect, the long view of him as a future starter with a mid-rotation ceiling has required a degree of projection for much of the last two years given some of his inefficiencies on the mound. As a pitcher who relies primarily on his fastball, even with his ability to incorporate a solid changeup, the absence of a reliable third pitch (the curveball) has resulted in opponents sitting on his heater and, even when he punches out opponents, driving up his pitch count to the point of shortening his outings. In 2013, while spending almost all of the year in Double-A Portland, he averaged fewer than five innings a start. That reality made Barnes' outing on Sunday particularly noteworthy, highlighting an intriguing early indicator of some of his development as a pitcher to start this year. The 23-year-old matched a career-high with seven innings pitched (just the third time in his pro career that he's recorded more than 18 outs), requiring just 96 pitches (60 strikes, a 62.5 percent rate) to navigate to that point in the contest. In four starts (in which his pitch count has been building after a delayed start to the year due to shoulder tendinitis), he's logged at least five innings in each, with six- and seven-inning efforts in his last two turns. He has yet to allow more than two runs in any outing, a pattern that continued on Sunday, when he gave up two runs on five hits (four singles and a double) and a walk in his seven innings of work. Barnes is getting fewer swings and misses this season than he did in 2013. On Sunday, he struck out just three and, according to GameDay data, had just three swings and misses. So far this year, he's punching out just 5.9 batters per nine innings, a substantial decline from his strikeout rate of 10.6 per nine innings. Yet while the ability to overpower opponents hasn't been visible, the ability to pitch -- and pitch efficiently -- has been. A year ago, he averaged 4.1 pitches per plate appearance. He pitched as many as six innings in just six of his 25 starts, and recorded an out in the seventh inning just once (when he pitched a season-high seven frames on July 20). This year, in his four starts since joining the PawSox from extended spring training, he's averaging 3.9 pitches per plate appearance. Ultimately, Barnes' future as a starter will rely on his ability to combine the ability to miss bats with the efficiency necessary to deliver innings at the big league level. He's not demonstrating both of those traits now. Still, he's offered plenty of the former trait and little of the latter in the initial seasons of his pro career. And so, what he's shown so far in 2014 en route to a 2.35 ERA through four starts suggests a pitcher who may be reaching a pivotal stage in his career progression. TRIPLE-A PAWTUCKET RED SOX: 3-2 WIN AT LOUISVILLE (REDS) (BOX) -- Outfielder Bryce Brentz went 2-for-3 with a walk, and he's now taken 20 free passes in 36 games this year -- matching his total from 82 games in Pawtucket a year ago. He's now hitting .220 with a .336 OBP and .398 slugging mark. The possibility that he is adding a measure of selectivity (his OBP last year in Triple-A was .312) to an approach that demonstrates considerable raw power is an intriguing early-season development for the Sox. More on that here. -- Center fielder Corey Brown launched a game-winning homer in the top of the ninth inning as part of his 2-for-4 day, and he's now gone deep four times in his last 12 games. Brown has a .275/.362/.625 line with six walks and six strikeouts in that time. His performance commands notice given that Brown, the everyday center fielder in Pawtucket, represents the primary minor league fallback option for the Sox should Jackie Bradley Jr. either suffer an injury or if offensive struggles force the team to consider a return to the minors (though there's no indication at this time that the team would contemplate such a move). -- Catcher Christian Vazquez went 2-for-4, improving to .278/.336/.371 on the year. However, the 23-year-old has gone 10 straight games without an extra-base hit after driving the ball with greater regularity at the start of the year, when he clubbed nine doubles in his first 16 games. Vazquez also threw out a runner attempting to steal; he's caught 37.5 percent of would-be base stealers. DOUBLE-A PORTLAND SEA DOGS: 13-12 WIN (WALKOFF) VS. NEW HAMPSHIRE (BLUE JAYS) (BOX) -- Feats of Mookie: Keeping the line moving. Ordinarily, a game in which Mookie Betts reached base four times -- twice by single, twice by walks -- would inspire Homeric odes. In this instance, however, even as his performance improved his line to .396/.458/.597, it was difficult to distinguish his performance from that of his teammates, given that he was one of four Sea Dogs players to reach base four or more times, in a game where the team authored a four-run ninth-inning rally to erase a 12-9 deficit going into its last at-bat. Still, Betts now leads the minors in average (.396) and he has 17 walks and 16 extra-base hits (along with 15 steals) against just 11 strikeouts. He's reached base in all 32 games in which he's played this year and in 62 straight regular season contests dating to 2013. John Tomase of the Boston Herald offered a great look at Betts' baseball upbringing, and how a decision by the Red Sox to cut Betts' uncle, Terry Shumpert, in 2004 may have laid the groundwork for the emergence of a future star. -- Shortstop Deven Marrero matched a pair of career highs with three hits and five times on base, going 3-for-4 with a double, two walks and a steal. The 23-year-old is hitting .282/.383/.437 with a dozen doubles. -- Outfielder Henry Ramos, 22, maintained his scorching stretch in May, going 3-for-6 with a double to improve to .442/.467/.674 this month. The 2010 fifth-rounder is hitting .331 with a .365 OBP and .454 slugging mark this year. HIGH-A SALEM RED SOX: 7-5 LOSS VS. CAROLINA (INDIANS) (BOX) -- Right-hander Pat Light allowed four runs -- though just two earned -- in five innings. He yielded six hits (four singles, two doubles). In four starts since his promotion to Salem, the 23-year-old hasn't been missing bats -- opponents are hitting .311 against him with just 12 strikeouts (against nine walks) in 19 1/3 innings (5.6 per nine innings). -- Right-hander Justin Haley (who has been pitching in a piggyback starting role in Salem) saw his streak of 19 1/3 scoreless innings come to an end when he yielded three runs in the ninth inning while recording just one out in the inning. He gave up six hits and three walks in 3 1/3 innings, striking out three. The 22-year-old saw his ERA go from 1.32 entering the ninth inning to 2.28 by the time the game finished. -- Second baseman Reed Gragnani went 0-for-5, dropping his average to .366 (with a .449 OBP and .495 slugging mark). An oddity: In the six games in which Gragnani has not collected a hit this year, he has failed to reach base by any other means (walk or HBP). -- Travis Shaw continues to mash and not strike out. The first baseman went 2-for-4 with a homer and a pair of walks. He has 13 extra-base hits (with a team-leading six homers) along with 20 walks against his 13 strikeouts, leaving him with a .295 average, .399 OBP (eighth in the Eastern League) and .500 slugging mark. SINGLE-A GREENVILLE DRIVE: 9-6 WIN VS. WEST VIRGINIA (PIRATES) (BOX) -- First baseman Jantzen Witte went 2-for-4 with a walk to extend his hitting streak to 11 games, a run during which he's hitting .475/.569/.825 while averaging one extra-base hit per game (9 doubles, 1 triple, a homer). The 24-year-old now ranks third in the South Atlantic League in average (.371), is second in OBP (.462) and second in slugging (.603). His 16 doubles are tied for the second most in the minors. -- Outfielder Forrestt Allday, who joined Greenville out of extended spring training at the start of the weekend after being slowed out of spring training by nagging finger soreness, reached base in all four plate appearances, going 3-for-3 with a pair of doubles and getting hit by a pitch. The 23-year-old, drafted in the eighth round a year ago, posted a .418 OBP in 38 games with Lowell last year in his professional debut. -- Right-hander Teddy Stankiewicz allowed three runs on seven hits and two walks in five innings, an outing that represented the continuation of a few early-season patterns for the 20-year-old. The 2013 second-rounder has given up hits (.292 batting average against) but not home runs (none on Sunday, one on the year). Though he's spent roughly as much time pitching with runners on base (73 plate appearances) as with the bases empty (82), he's limited the damage with runners on (.182/.236/.273 line, compared to .385/.415/.462 with the bases empty) to permit him to compete and deliver reliably competitive innings to this point. He's pitched at least five innings in each of his last six starts, and while his 4.38 ERA is modest, for a player who is about two years younger than the league-average level and spending his first full season in pro ball, the ability to compete and not get overwhelmed suggests a solid foundation as he learns the ins and outs of professional baseball.