FORT MYERS, Fla.–High Class A Wilmington has always been known as a perennial playoff contender since joining the Carolina League in 1993 as a Royals affiliate. With the likes of Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran and Zack Greinke, the Blue Rocks won the Northern Division eight times, and advanced to the Mills Cup finals four times.
But the Rocks struggled in 2005 in their first season as an affiliate of the Red Sox, though that is likely to change this season with a pair of 2005 first-round picks and the return of first baseman Ian Bladergroen.
Bladergroen, who struggled with a wrist injury all of last season that sapped his power and was directly responsible for his .253-5-37 numbers in just 281 at-bats.
But the Blade has been back on track this year and is expected to start the season with the Blue Rocks–which is as much for him gaining confidence again as it is for him to make up for lost time.
“He’s fully healthy, which is a major positive for us,” farm director Mike Hazen said. “From center to the right field pole this guy’s got juice. He’s a big strong kid that handles himself around the bag pretty well. He’s got an advanced approach at the plate. We’re still trying to work on him being able to shoot the ball the other way when he needs to as well as still being able to turn on the ball, but the major thing is he finally feels comfortable.”
Bladergroen was anything but last season, as the nagging injury sent him back to the Gulf Coast League for a short stint before returning to Wilmington. But he struggled with his confidence and never found his power stroke as a result.
“He’s still working on that wrist thing from a mental standpoint, trying to handle that pitch on the inner half and that’s to be expected,” Hazen said. “That’s going to have to be something he’s going to have to balance if he wants to get to what everyone expects out of him. But we have some guys on that club that maybe we didn’t have last season.”
In addition to a returning Bladergroen, the Blue Rocks will boast shortstop Jed Lowrie and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, giving them a solid 1-2 punch at the top of the order as well as solid defense up the middle.
Lowrie, a supplemental-round pick last year out of Stanford, batted .328-4-32 in 201 at-bats in his pro debut last season at short-season Lowell. Lowrie generates good loft power from the left side and does a nice job at controlling the strike zone.
The club sees him sticking at shortstop because of his range and athleticism, perhaps in the mold of Dustin Pedroia hitting out of the No. 2 hole.
“He was in his first-ever camp, and then put into an uncomfortable situation in his first big league camp for three weeks because of the World Baseball Classic and held his own,” Hazen said. “He’s very mature, he’s got a great approach mentally in terms of his approach to the game, his approach to his career, his approach to his routine. He’s got obvious physical abilities in that he can play shortstop and he can swing it. He has a really good idea at the plate.”
In Ellsbury, the Red Sox have a legitimate leadoff hitter with plus range in center. Ellsbury, a first-round pick out of Oregon State last year, finished second in the short-season New-York-Penn League in steals in his debut despite getting a late start and missing two weeks with a hamstring injury.
He was slowed by a sore wrist early this spring, but is fully healthy now and should help Wilmington return to playoff contention.
“He can backspin the baseball as good as I’ve seen,” Hazen said. “It’s not jaw-dropping power–it’s not big from a power standpoint, but his ability to work the ball around the field, along with his speed and his range in center are very impressive. Those are three guys who could impact our club at that level.”
• Hazen has been undergoing the daunting task of learning the entire system and how it works after the club hired him two weeks before the beginning to spring training. Needless to say, there’s been some learning on the fly for the former Indians assistant farm director, who keeps getting picked on by Red Sox scouts who think he’s been keeping Tribe farm director John Farrell’s cell number on speed dial.
“They keep saying every morning I dial John’s phone number and have my finger on the Send button,” Hazen said. “And that’s happened quite frequently . . . I mean, they are who I am. Right now, I’m just not trying to be a distraction and learn everything I need to learn. I have new appreciation for the people who do this. The amount of information you have to absorb on a daily basis is unbelievable. I can only imagine what being a general manager is like.”
• In addition to Lowrie and Ellsbury, first-round righthanders Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden have also been the talk of camp–though both will likely be beginning 2006 at low Class A Greenville. “Buchholz has such great poise,” Hazen said. “And he’s one of the most athletic pitchers I’ve seen in camp. Both guys really need to have better fastball command, but there is a lot of polish on both counts. We’re hoping to have both in Greenville and see where they are from there.”
• One middle infielder that constantly seems to fall below the radar is utilityman Alejandro Machado, who has been very impressive this spring and is again slated to start the season in Triple-A Pawtucket. The 23-year-old infielder batted .300-3-43 in 383 at-bats for the Paw Sox last season. “He’s been outstanding,” Hazen said. “His versatility allows us some options with him and that’s his strongest suit.”