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PAWTUCKET â€“ The long-running offseason production the PawSox put on, better known as the Hot Stove gathering, has always served a dual purpose.
First, it gets people to at least start thinking or talking about baseball once again, this despite looking outside and see McCoy Stadium being covered with a white blanket. Breaking up winterâ€™s monotony with some lively and engaging baseball discussion â€“ which team president Mike Tamburro engaged in while seated at the same table as Mike Pappas, the former executive director of the Pawtucket Boys & Girls Club â€“ helps to remind us that, yes, Opening Day will be here before you know it.
As new manager Arnie Beyeler noted Friday afternoon inside the home clubhouse he will soon become the purveyor of, there arenâ€™t too many places around the country where baseball is being used as a thawing-out mechanism. â€śTo have you guys (meaning media) come out here in the middle of winter, itâ€™s crazy,â€ť he said about the buzz factor attached to the Hot Stove fete, now in its 34th year.
The second purpose has that â€śsneak peakâ€ť vibe to it. In recent years the Hot Stove has provided a worthy list of attendees, a showcase if you will of the next hot ticket item in Bostonâ€™s farm system. From Hanley Ramirez (2005) to Clay Buchholz (2007) to Daniel Bard (2009), plus Felix Doubront and Ryan Kalish last year, the Hot Stove has heightened our curiosity at the idea of these young talented ballplayers someday making an inedible mark in the major leagues.
The crew of minor leaguers assembled Friday falls short in star appeal. Thatâ€™s not meant to automatically discredit the talents of catcher Ryan Lavarnway and pitchers Robert Coello, Stephen Fife and Jason Rice, four players whom PawSox fans can bank on getting to see a lot of in 2011. Itâ€™s just that thereâ€™s a lack of sizzle when compared to the benchmark past Hot Stove productions have set.
None of the players in town this weekend have that â€ścanâ€™t missâ€ť tag pinned on them. Lavarnway holds the most potential based on his 2010 minor-league totals â€“ 22 homers and 102 runs driven in. His defense has improved in recent seasons, but scouts will tell you that itâ€™s not big-league caliber, at least not yet.
Thereâ€™s also the age factor to consider with the Hot Stove Class of 2011. Lavarnway is 23, Fife and Rice are both 24 while Coello, who pitched for the PawSox last season, is 26. Any baseball talent evaluator will tell you that at those ages, players are either knocking on the door of the majors, or have established themselves. No one in this group is considered big league ready right now, but time is still on their side.
The belief here is that this season could very well turn out to be the â€śbridge yearâ€ť for the Soxâ€™ feeder program. The names and faces expected to dot Pawtucketâ€™s roster include players who have had their prospect stripes removed, guys like Lars Anderson, Josh Reddick and Michael Bowden. Those onetime hot commodities, along with Mark Wagner, Kris Johnson and Aaron Bates, round out a group that not too long ago were highly touted and believed by many in the organization to someday fill the holes at Fenway Park.
Many in this group have seen their stock drop considerably upon reaching Triple-A. Publicly the Red Sox will tell you that they have faith in all their minor leaguers. Privately, though, the brain trust is probably hoping guys like Anderson and Reddick can get off to strong starts with Pawtucket so that they can drive up their value on the trade front, or provide worthy insurance should the injury bug gnaw at the Red Sox as was the case last season.
â€śIn the past we may have gone out and signed a lot more (minor-league) free agents, but now we have the benefit of having guys who can protect the major league club,â€ť said Red Sox director of player personal Mike Hazen.
Asked if itâ€™s a make or break year for the aforementioned players, Hazen replied, â€śI donâ€™t think one year is any different from the next. We saw some steady strides from those guys, albeit I think the consistency was lacking a bit at times. I think the focus is on having them be more consistent and try to avoid the dips. Hopefully the hot streaks stay a little longer and the cold streaks are shorter.â€ť
For better or worse, this PawSox team will have a familiar ring to it. With the exception of Ryan Kalish and Felix Doubront, who possesses an outside shot of making the 25-man roster as a left-handed reliever, no one on the expected roster has that future Red Sox aurora to him. The prospect ranks are thin around these parts, which was expected to a degree after Boston dangled three of its top prospects in front of San Diego to pry away Adrian Gonzalez.
Two of the farmhands the Sox sent packing to the West Coast were slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo and still-developing pitcher Casey Kelly. Had the Sox stuck to their guns in refusing to part with what they believe is their high end talent, then itâ€™s not too far-fetched to think Kelly and Rizzo would be signing autographs and posing for pictures at McCoy today.
â€śWatching them go is tough,â€ť Hazen said, â€śbut to get an Adrian Gonzalez, you have to give up some good players. We needed to in order to get that type of player. Hopefully if nothing else then maybe (the players dealt) are in a better position in that the path to the big leagues is a little quicker.â€ť
There will come a time, in jumping back on the â€śbridge yearâ€ť soapbox, that the higher-ups will have to make a decision about Anderson, etc. Donâ€™t think for a second there are players in Single-A Salem or Double-A Portland who deserve a shot to see how it plays in Pawtucket. They wonâ€™t be making the natural progression up the minor-league ladder if the same cast and crew are still holding concerts at McCoy 72 times a year.
â€śYou always have to stay ahead,â€ť explained Hazen. â€śItâ€™s vitally important that you improve because you never want to get stuck at a particular level or plateau out.â€ť
In some ways we have become spoiled with the Hot Stove party. Rest assured the show will still go on, the notable difference being that this particular cast of Sox hopefuls will have a hard time measuring up to the caliber of talent weâ€™ve grown accustomed to seeing pass through in recent Januarys.