Minor league award winners honored

BOSTON -- With the American League East wrapped up on Friday and baseball’s best record heading into the final week of the season, the sky is the limit for the 2013 Boston Red Sox season. Fittingly, Saturday marked the day that several of their top prospects were in the building as well.

Henry Owens, Blake Swihart, Mookie Betts and Deven Marrero were each honored with awards Saturday for their achievements during the minor league season, meeting with the media in front of the Red Sox dugout an hour before the start of the night’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays. Latin Pitcher of the Year Dedgar Jimenez and Latin Player of the Year Victor Acosta were also on hand for the event. Steven Wright was awarded the Lou Gorman award, which is given annually to the minor leaguer who demonstrates perseverance in making it to the majors.

“It’s a great day,” director of player development Ben Crockett said. “It’s an honor for these guys to get a chance to be recognized for the seasons that they had. I think certainly there’s some pride that goes in from my end and from all of us in player development, all the staff, for these guys to get a chance to be recognized for their accomplishments.”

Headlining the class of prospects was Owens, whose 2.96 ERA and 169 strikeouts in 135 innings between the Advanced-A Salem Red Sox and Double-A Portland Sea Dogs made him an obvious choice for the award.

“I thought I made strides from [my] first season,” Owens said. “[Got] my feet wet the first season then came into spring training expecting to succeed, I guess. Ended up going up to Portland and succeeding there, too. It’s good but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.”

A supplemental first-round pick in 2011, the 6-foot-7 Owens put himself on the map this summer with an impressive stretch of no-hit magic that spanned 19 1/3 consecutive innings with Salem.

“I really didn’t think about it at all. I went out, threw, then at the end of my outings I’d go, ‘Oh, I didn’t give up a hit again,’” Owens nonchalantly said of the streak.

On July 31, Owens was promoted to Portland, where he allowed only six earned runs and struck out 46 in 30 1/3 innings to finish his spectacular season.

Defensive Player of the Year and fellow 2011 first-rounder Swihart had high praise for the 21-year-old Owens.

“He’ll be [in Boston] next year I bet,” Swihart said. “That guy’s amazing, gets all guys out with any pitch. Every pitch is his strength, he doesn’t have a weakness.”

Swihart is easy to trust when it comes to knowing Owens. The 21-year-old catcher from Bedford, Texas spent the 2012 and 2013 seasons as Owens’ battery mate, catching nearly every one of Owens’ starts until his promotion. On Saturday the two spent most of their time together, Owens even pretending to hold a recorder and joining reporters while Swihart spoke.

“Anytime he pitched, I was catching,” Swihart said proudly of their time together in Salem.

Committing only 10 errors in 841 chances (.988 fielding percentage) and leading the Carolina League in both putouts and assists, Swihart played a strong role in Salem’s postseason run that culminated in a league championship. Swihart also topped the league in caught stealing percentage (42 percent).

“When I can throw someone out it’s all thanks to the pitcher, they give me the ball on time,” Swihart said. “The pitcher helps me out.”

Meawhile, Betts was someone who wanted to help no pitcher out. A fifth-round pick in the same draft class as Owens and Swihart, Betts hit .314 in 127 games between Single-A Greenville and Salem. The 20-year-old second baseman also stole a system-high 38 bases, a feat helped by his impressive .417 on-base percentage.

“I take a lot of satisfaction in [this year] but you can never be completely satisfied until you make it to the bigs,” Betts said. “I was very surprised in myself. I learned that hard work in the offseason pays off and now with another offseason I’m ready to work hard and see what happens next year.”

The biggest surprise to Betts were his power numbers, hitting 15 home runs and 36 doubles on his way to the system’s highest slugging percentage (.506). Many tabbed Betts as one of the minor leagues biggest breakout players due to the improvements he made from his 2012 season (zero home runs in 71 games).

“Going through what I went through last year, I didn’t do that well and I knew as I was moving up it was only going to get harder,” Betts said. “Now that I’m here and I won [this award], I feel like I can hopefully keep doing it as I keep moving up.”

Betts was promoted from Greenville to Salem July 9, and his production didn't slow down at all. In fact, he posted better numbers, hitting .341 in 51 games compared to his .296 average in 76 games with Greenville.

“Swinging at good pitches is how you hit,” Betts said of his plate discipline. “It’s important to have good pitch selection, good pitch recognition, I feel like I do that pretty well. That’s how I have a little success.”

Marrero, named the system's top baserunner, had plenty of success swiping bags. The 2012 first-round shortstop was 27-for-29 in stolen base attempts between Salem and Portland this season, including a perfect 6-for-6 in 19 games with Portland.

“I learned a lot [this year]. Learned how to play a full season, how to play a lot of games and how to save my body and get my reps in,” Marrero said. “We have a great organization and they take care of me and they appreciate how hard I work and stuff like that. To get noticed for that is cool and I’m just happy to be in this organization and to play here.”

The 23-year-old Marrero earned his promotion to Portland Aug. 12.

“That’s what you want to do, you want to keep on moving up and get here and play in front of all these people and play for this city,” Marrero said.

Promotions have been somewhat of a theme for recent Red Sox minor league award winners as 2012 Pitcher of the Year Brandon Workman, Offensive Player of the Year Xander Bogaerts and Defensive Player of the Year Jackie Bradley Jr. all have made their major league debuts this season.

“They made significant strides handling promotion within the minor leagues very well and then obviously once they got in [Boston],” Crockett said. “The work ethic the players have put and the upper-level staff [preparing] these guys for that final step has been huge. Hopefully we can see that continue going forward.”

Although expectations run high for this year’s award winners, each was sure to enjoy the moment with their friends and family on Saturday, taking in the sweet feeling of standing on the field that they may soon call home. To get there, however, is easier said than done.

“I don’t really know where my ceiling is,” Owens said. “Just got to keep working hard, trying to get better every year.”

Once Owens and the other honorees make it to the big leagues is when those ceilings are sure to be discovered. Until then, the sky is the limit.