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Spring Training Dish

By Josh Boyd
March 19, 2003

FORT MYERS, Fla.--Led by general manager Theo Epstein, the new Red Sox regime isn't pretending the organization is stockpiled with minor league talent.

However, that's not stopping it from taking a proactive approach toward cultivating the talent it does have in the system.

"Our job is to develop the complete baseball player," said Ben Cherington, the man Epstein tapped to head up the farm system. Much has already been made about the organization's philosophy surrounding on-base percentage and performance. But to reduce it down to just statistics isn't giving this front office enough credit.

There's more to Epstein's and Cherington's player development plan than just plate discipline, isn't there?

"Yes," Cherington said. "I'm glad you asked. All anyone has asked about is plate discipline so far.

"We believe we have a program designed to help accomplish that. From our pitching program, to our outfield instruction, baserunning, catching, we've got a program and plan in place and a staff with the expertise to work with each and every player in camp, making sure we're working on each of those areas to develop the most complete player."

Make no mistake about it, though, the Red Sox player development staff believes plate discipline is a major factor in developing that complete offensive player. But so often plate discipline is confused with taking walks.

"On-base is an important stat for us," Cherington said. "But you're never going to hear us talk about walks."

"A walk is just a by-product of being selectively aggressive," assistant to the GM and player development head Craig Shipley interjected. "The walk is the end result. The biggest part is having a plan when you walk to the plate. Not a lot of young players learn that because we so often get fixated on mechanics.

"We're not reinventing the wheel."

Less than a week into minor league spring games, the Red Sox can't point to any tangible results yet. However, with a full set of player development eyes collectively watching each at-bat, it's apparent what they are looking for.

"Hitters are more successful when they swing at good pitches. That's been true forever," Cherington said.

As a group of instructors, including Cherington and Shipley, look on, Boston's top prospect Hanley Ramirez provides the ideal Red Sox approach in an at-bat against Pirates pitching prospect Leo Nunez.

The live-armed Nunez was working almost exclusively with his 91-94 mph fastball against the top of the low Class A Augusta lineup. He proceeded to start Ramirez with a slider, which Ramirez identified and took. (Cherington discussed the idea of "aggressive takes" where the hitter is ready to hit a pitch in his zone.)

The duel between Nunez and Ramirez heated up as the 19-year-old righthander challenged the 19-year-old shortstop with two more fastballs, one for a ball and one he threw past Ramirez up in the zone, before going back to the slide-piece. Again Ramirez took the pitch.

Nunez dialed his fastball back up on the 2-2 pitch and Ramirez promptly deposited it over the left-center field fence. More important to the Red Sox staff than the resulting home run was Ramirez' approach to the at-bat.

"He's a survivor and a battler," said the organization's new hitting coordinator, Orv Franchuk. "And he likes to be faced with challenges."

At the same time, when a hitter swings at a pitch out of the zone or doesn't jump on a hittable pitch, Boston's instructors make notes and subtlety remind the hitter he missed his pitch.

"It's all about the hitters understanding the principle," Cherington said. "In the end, the players have more responsibility and will also get more credit."

Ramirez And Co.

There's an old saying among scouts that when they find that special player, they can't wait to get back home to write up the report. I surely didn't discover Hanley Ramirez, but after seeing the Red Sox phenom play for two days I could hardly get back to my hotel fast enough to write him up.

One scout asked me, "How overhyped is he?"

He's not. In fact, he might be underhyped. OK, that might be going too far, but Ramirez, who dons Manny Ramirez' wrist bands and carries himself with a cocky, confident big league swagger, is every bit of a legitimate five-tool player.

He has plus bat speed and the ball jumps off his bat. In his first at-bat Monday, Ramirez smoked a 92 mph fastball on the inner half from Twins righthander Kevin Cameron into left field for a double. In his third at-bat, Ramirez doubled down the right-field line.

He has a fluid, natural stroke with quick hands to get the bat head through the zone in a hurry. He can recognize breaking balls and he's not afraid to hit deep in the count. Ramirez' impressive approach enables him to put his five tools to use.

"We kind of leave him alone," Franchuk said. "He's mechanically sound. There are a few little tweaks here and there that we keep reminding him of. But he's got a pretty good idea when he goes to the plate."

Franchuk, who saw Miguel Tejada develop as a prospect when he was an A's minor league instructor, says there is a "little of Tejada" in Ramirez.

In the field, Ramirez is an outstanding athlete with easy middle-of-the-diamond actions and an above-average arm. "He has good baseball athleticism," Cherington added.

SPRING CHICKENS

• Righthander Manny Delcarmen has made tremendous progress with his changeup. "To his credit, he spent a lot of time working on it and experimented with grips on the baseball," Cherington said. Delcarmen is headed to high Class A Sarasota after going 7-8, 4.10 in 136 innings for Augusta last season.

• The Red Sox have moved Carlos Rodriguez from the outfield to the mound. Armed with one of the best outfield arms in the system, his struggles at the plate led to the switch this spring. In his first outing on Tuesday, the 25-year-old retired the side in order with 90-91 mph fastballs and one rudimentary changeup. He batted .213 and .220 for Sarasota the last two years. Brian Esposito, who hit .210 in his first three seasons as a catcher, also moved to the mound this spring. He has a good delivery and a potential power fastball that was in the upper-80s Monday.

• Righthander Luis Mendoza has made a positive impression early in spring. Long and loose, Mendoza was clocked at 87-90 on Monday, but regularly touches 92. The 19-year-old was raked for a .329 average in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League last year, but he progressed over the offseason and showed improved secondary stuff. He's still working on his changeup, but his fastball features good movement and he showed the ability to spin a decent slurvy breaking ball.

• Third baseman Brett Bonvechio has been hampered by injuries in his first two years, which hasn't allowed him to get out of the GCL. Finally healthy, the 20-year-old has moved back to his natural position--third base--after spending last year at first base. Bonvechio has a fluid lefthanded stroke with plus bat speed. He showed good reactions at third and has an above-average arm.

• Righthander Aneudis Mateo broke into the Red Sox Top 10 after several players ranked ahead of him were traded and/or lost via the Rule 5 draft. At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, Mateo has a long but quick arm action. He generated 90-91 mph heat and showed potential with his curveball, which has good bite in on lefties.

• Righthander Anastacio Martinez worked the ninth inning for Sarasota and fired 91-93 mph heat.

• Cuban signee Gary Galvez is still awaiting his work visa and is currently in the Red Sox' Dominican academy.

All radar gun readings are courtesy of the Stalker Sport.

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