The Red Sox don't start spring training for another four weeks, but the player development staff is already getting some of the young prospects ready for the year with the 2014 rookie program, which took place this week in Boston. Included was a Friday workout in the bubble at Harvard Stadium.
"This time of year is very exciting," Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett said. "You get past the holidays, you start thinking about spring training a little bit more. Having a camp like this where you’ve got a bunch of guys who you are really excited about, guys who you feel are pretty close to the major leagues -- [we get] a chance to be really hands-on with them at this camp -- I think it just further sparks that readiness to get back down to spring training."
The Red Sox invited five of their best pitching prospects to the camp: Matt Barnes, Dalier Hinojosa, Henry Owens, Noe Ramirez, and Anthony Ranaudo.
Crockett called it "a group you are pretty excited with, that at least got their feet wet at the upper levels last year. There’s a lot of work left to be done with this group, but given the caliber of arms we have here, I think we are excited about the progress that can be made this year.
"Some of it is individual, a lot of it is fundamental work, refinement of their pitches, refinement of their command, more from a structural standpoint, it's introducing more advanced reports, more scouting reports, building rapport with the catchers that they hopefully will be moving up with, and just getting them to think about the game in a more analytical fashion to prepare for the way they will do it in the major leagues."
The Red Sox acquired Hinojosa in October as a minor league free agent via Cuba. The 28-year-old is entering his first full season in the United States after playing nine seasons in Cuba's Serie Nacional for the Guantanamo Indios. Last season, he was 9-7 with a 4.09 ERA.
"[Hinojosa has] been really good in this program," Crockett said. "He’s really been excited to learn, he's been really outgoing, has gotten along with the group very well, kind of seeking information. He's confident at what he is doing, but he really wants to be a part of the Red Sox and wants to learn the way that we're doing things so we can effectively integrate into the big leagues when that time comes."
Owens split last season between High A Salem and Double A Portland and led the minor leagues by holding opposing batters to a .177 batting average. His 169 strikeouts were the second-most in the minors, and the highest total for a Red Sox prospect since Clay Buchholz struck out 171 in 2007.
His biggest improvement, said Crockett, "was definitely fastball command. He's getting his feet wet, he's trying to feel for exactly what he needs to do to compete.
"Some of it is limiting guys' innings. In Greenville, we're trying to keep them around a certain benchmark, so therefore each start he was probably held to fewer pitches and fewer innings. Certainly those are things that we’ve seen guys struggle to get used to at times.
"I think he probably had to learn in his first year that his stuff is really good and he can throw it in the strike zone and get guys out really effectively. That was something he made a nice adjustment with in his second full season.
"He gained a lot of confidence coming out of the first-year instructional league and then having a good spring training and then he was really able to springboard that this past year."
Ranaudo spent most of 2013 in Double A, earning Eastern League Pitcher of the Year honors and being named to both the midseason and postseason league All-Star teams. He was promoted to Triple A in August, making six appearances for the PawSox.
"It was as seamless [a promotion] as you could hope for," Crockett said. “Particularly in a situation where he is probably well over the amount of innings he had thrown the year before, and there was probably some fatigue setting in a little bit in August in Pawtucket.
"Despite that, he was really consistent with his routine, and he really pounded the strike zone and really continued to have a lot of success in Pawtucket. So he seemed very unfazed by that promotion and really stuck to what he had done well in Portland and it served him well in Pawtucket."
In addition to the pitchers, five position players took part in the program: third baseman Garin Cecchini, first baseman Travis Shaw, shortstop Deven Marrero, and catchers Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez.
Cecchini led the Red Sox farm system with a .322 average in 2013 and led the minor leagues with a .443 on-base percentage. He split his season between High A Salem and Double A Portland, totaling 33 doubles, 7 triples, 7 home runs, and 61 RBIs.
"Garin has shown us a lot within his progression, in Double A last year and again in the fall league," Crockett said. "He's got an excellent approach to the plate, one that I think certainly, in short stints, could hold its own at any level.
"There's absolutely some development left to be done on both sides of the ball, offensively as he continues to learn his swing and learn hitting against more veteran pitching, as well as on the defensive side. The fact that he's here and the strides that he's made and the success that he's had puts him in a good position going forward."
Shaw struggled a bit at Double A Portland in 2013, hitting just .221, but still tied for third in the Red Sox farm system with 16 home runs. He walked a team-leading 78 times and picked up 50 RBIs for Portland. He then played in the Arizona Fall League and helped Surprise to the AFL championship.
"He can certainly swing the bat, he's a very good defender at first base, and with the ability to play third base,” Crockett said. "Going into the fall league, kind of taking what he had learned from a tough Double A season and taking a step forward was very good to see."
Spring training officially kicks off Feb. 15 when pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, Fla.; the full squad reports Feb. 18. The first games will be Feb. 27, when the Sox play their traditional doubleheader with Northeastern and Boston College.
The Red Sox invited Barnes, Hinojosa, Marrero, Owens, Ramirez, Shaw, Swihart and utility player Heiker Meneses to major league spring training.