Even in the winter, when progress can’t be tracked by stats or scouting reports, every prospect in the Red Sox organization is working toward the goal of playing big-league ball. Many have their own routines; nuanced approaches developed from experience.
But a few Sox have been training at a facility that has become synonymous with high-level training for athletes of all ilk -- Athlete’s Performance Institute, shortened by many to “API.” Third baseman Will Middlebrooks and catcher Carson Blair are training at API’s Frisco, Texas, location alongside major-leaguers like Angels outfielder Torii Hunter and A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy. Catcher Ryan Lavarnway, who spent September with Boston, is training at the Athletes’ Performance facility in Arizona with Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, but declined interviews during his training.
A typical day in Frisco begins with stretching, then moves to the facility’s turf field, where the focus is on speed and movement, before hitting the weights. While the lifting routine varies each day, Performance manager Jennifer Noiles said there’s a daily focus on rotational strength -- "which is everything that they do." In addition to the physical work, the facility trains athletes in proper nutrition and educates them on their body’s mechanics.
After urging from Blair and outfielder Ryan Kalish, Middlebrooks began training at API in November, embarking on perhaps the biggest offseason of his life. Middlebrooks, 22, burst onto the national scene in 2011, when he hit .302 with 18 home runs in 96 games for Double-A Portland before an August promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket. He played in the MLB All-Star Futures Game and last month was named Boston’s top prospect by Baseball America. He has also been ranked the system’s top prospect since late July by SoxProspects.com. That means Middlebrooks, who was added to the 40-man roster in November, will arrive at big-league camp with lofty expectations. But has anything changed for Middlebrooks?
“Not at all,” he said. “I put the same amount of pressure on myself to do well, whether I was ranked number one in the organization or number 100.”
He did, however, enter the offseason with a specific set of goals, which included improving on his overall speed and movement at third base.
“I’ve been working on first-step quickness, things like that that I can use a lot,” he said. “Being able to get to the ball on my backhand, forehand, stealing bases.”
Noiles said Middlebrooks has “completely embraced” the program, and that it’s giving Middlebrooks “the experience of what it takes to stay at the next level and to really make an impact at the next level within the Red Sox organization.”
While Middlebrooks is new to API, Blair is something of a veteran.
“Last year, I came down to do some shoulder-strengthening exercises at the end of the season because my shoulder was weak,” he said. “I came down and saw the whole atmosphere, so I wanted to do the full training [this year].”
And though Middlebrooks and Blair train together, the two have different focuses that reflect where they are in their careers. Blair, a 35th-round draft pick in 2008 who spent this past season with the Single-A Greenville Drive, is training to better equip his body for the rigors of catching. Drafted as an infielder, Blair played six games at third base in 2008 before shifting behind the plate that fall.
“I had never caught a game in my life,” Blair said. “They probably saw my arm and bat and liked that, but the old 60 [yard dash] time wasn’t too great, so the middle infield days were kind of limited. Tools, or lack thereof, kind of guided me towards the catching position.”
Ankle and hip flexibility, which he struggled with early in his career, are his focus this winter. Since he shifted behind the plate, he learned the importance of stretching and flexibility.
“I always equated working hard to lifting weights, and I had to learn there was a lot more to it than pushing weights,” he said.
He’s also taking advantage of his proximity to the program’s pitchers to work on his receiving.
“Those guys want to throw flat ground, bullpens, and sides, so I get to work on that actual catching aspect as well,” Blair said.
Blair is also using his time at API to learn how to sustain muscle mass over the course of a long, grueling minor-league campaign.
“I lost over 10 pounds every year [during the season], so in the offseason, I need to build up my weight so I can sustain it and have something to fuel off of in the later months of the year,” he said.
Several other Red Sox prospects coming off their full-season debuts have carried their own lessons into the offseason. Outfielder Brandon Jacobs drew rave reviews this past season in Greenville for the offseason transformation in his body. Once a star running back who was offered a scholarship to play football at Auburn, he showed up to spring training last season with a much more tapered physique, thanks largely to getting away from heavy lifting to focus his routine more on becoming an outfielder. He said his routine is similar this offseason, but with a focus on arm strength.
“I want to get my arm stronger, become an all-around outfielder,” Jacobs said at the Jimmy Fund New Stars for Young Stars fund-raiser on Jan. 14. “I had the speed there last year, making some plays, but I want to be an all-around outfielder with a great arm, so I’m doing some long tossing this offseason to strengthen that up.”
Third baseman Garin Cecchini, who hit .298 with the Short-Season-A Lowell Spinners before a season-ending wrist injury, has been focusing on baseball activities recently in advance of his first full season. Cecchini has been having a “mini spring training” in Louisiana with his mother, father and brother Gavin -- himself a projected first-round pick in the 2012 MLB Draft.
“[I’m] still working out every day, but trying to really get into the baseball stuff, get my arm back in shape and get into baseball-playing shape,” he said. “And you’re not really going to get into baseball-playing shape unless you actually do the baseball stuff.”
Middlebrooks -- a player whose ascension through the system Cecchini would do well to emulate -- said a player’s first full season, which Cecchini is likely to experience with Greenville, “kicks your butt.”
“In July, you hit a wall,” Middlebrooks said. “You catch a second wind, but August and September are tough. It gets better every year. It’s something you get accustomed to and learn how to train for better.”
Jon Meoli is a senior columnist for SoxProspects.com. SoxProspects.com Executive Editor Chris Hatfield contributed reporting to this story.