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2014 Minor League Team Of The Year: Mookie Betts Leads Talented Sea Dogs

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Mookie Betts (Photo by Gordon Chibroski/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

When Mookie Betts stepped to the plate on April 3 to open the season for the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs, he had something to prove. He'd delivered a breakout season in 2013, going from a performer without particular distinction in 2012 in short-season Lowell to someone who had landed on the prospect map with standout performances in low Class A Greenville and high Class A Salem in 2013.

Still, it remained to be seen whether his eruption in 2013--a 15-homer explosion after he hadn't gone deep once in 2012--was a harbinger or an outlier.

“You never know how guys are going to adapt to a new level. Double-A is filled with rosters of prospects," Portland manager Billy McMillon said. “With better players, with the travel of the Eastern League, you just never know how some guys are going to respond."

Betts responded by taking five pitches and then turning on the sixth from Phillies prospect Jesse Biddle, hammering it over the fence in left-center to set in motion a 4-for-4 day. Shortstop Deven Marrero, who showed little extra-base pop in his first full pro season in 2013, slammed a pair of doubles. Catcher Blake Swihart went 2-for-3 with a triple. And on the mound, lefthander Henry Owens proved utterly dominant, tossing six no-hit innings while punching out nine.

MINOR LEAGUE TEAM OF THE YEAR
1993Harrisburg/Eastern (Expos)
1994Wilmington/Carolina (Royals)
1995Norfolk/International (Mets)
1996Edmonton/Pacific Coast (Athletics)
1997West Michigan/Midwest (Tigers)
1998Mobile/Southern (Padres)
1999Trenton/Eastern (Red Sox)
2000Round Rock/Texas (Astros)
2001Lake Elsinore/California (Padres)
2002Akron/Eastern (Indians
2003Sacramento/Pacific Coast (Athletics)
2004Lancaster/California (Diamondbacks)
2005Jacksonville/Southern (Dodgers)
2006Tucson/Pacific Coast (Diamondbacks)
2007San Antonio/Texas (Padres)
2008Frisco/Texas (Rangers)
2009Akron/Eastern (Indians)
2010Northwest Arkansas/Texas (Royals)
2011Mobile/Southern (Diamondbacks)
2012Springfield/Texas (Cardinals)
2013Daytona/Florida State (Cubs)
2014Portland/Eastern League (Red Sox)

“In hindsight, we can say that kind of set the pattern," McMillon said of Baseball America's Minor League Team of the Year. “But we didn't know what exactly the guys were going to do, how they were going to respond. It was really nice as you look back on it, but I don't think anyone could have projected we would win 88 games."

Portland went on to post an 88-54 record, the best mark in the 21-year history of the Double-A franchise. That regular season excellence (which preceded a five-game, first-round Eastern League playoff exit against the Binghamton Mets) was driven by a number of superb prospect performances that took a number of shapes.

A trio of 2011 high school draftees--Betts (.355/.443/.551 with six homers and 22 steals in 54 games before his promotion to Triple-A and then the majors), Swihart (.300/.353/.487 with 12 homers before his move up to Triple-A) and Owens (14-4, 2.60, 9.4 K/9)­--excelled. A pair of 2012 college first-rounders--Marrero (.291/.371/.433 in 68 games) and lefthander Brian Johnson (10-2, 1.75, the lowest Eastern League ERA by a qualifying starter since 1985)--likewise flourished. First baseman Travis Shaw (.305/.406/.548 with 11 homers in 47 games) mashed his way to Triple-A.

In short, it was a prospect-laden team on which virtually every player seemed to blossom. While the performances took on a variety, there was a visual common denominator that offered some insight into the creation of a culture that allowed players to excel.

For years, the Red Sox had observed a ban on beards in their minor league system. Facial hair below the mouth was verboten. But that standard unofficially eased late in 2013, with a number of players on McMillon's Salem team (which went on a late-season tear en route to the high Class A Carolina League championship) joining the 2013 Red Sox' celebration of facial hair.

In spring training, while the policy wasn't officially altered, word spread: The beard prohibition was no longer in effect. Portland's players celebrated it, creating a team-wide bonding mechanism that permeated the club's culture on and off the field.

“I actually shaved right before I came up (to Portland from Salem) because of that rule. I didn't want to be the new guy who came up with the beard," Johnson said. “(But) it was almost like if you didn't grow a beard, (the other players would) be upset with you. So I said, 'Don't worry--I won't shave. I promise.' . . . I didn't even know I could grow a beard. My mom came up. She got mad at me because I didn't look like her son anymore."

Ultimately, the pursuit of things hirsute represented little more than a revealing footnote. The players had a blast, and they performed like it.

That, in turn, led to turnover. McMillon and the Sea Dogs graduated 14 players to Triple-A, with Betts as the headliner given that he adapted to an on-the-fly position shift (he started playing center field in May after having spent virtually all of his pro career at second base) and kept cruising into the big leagues by the end of June. In the big leagues, the 21-year-old hit .291/.368/.444 with five homers and seven steals in 51 games, looking like a potential multi-dimensional standout.

Betts represented the crest of the wave of 2014 Portland prospects who have a chance to impact the Red Sox for years to come. By all appearances, there will be more--and soon.

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