Since the Lowell Spinners became Boston's short-season affiliate in 1996, many of Boston's top players have started their professional careers at LeLacheur Park, including Kevin Youkilis, Jonathan Papelbon, Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz. Similarly, many of the current top prospects in the Red Sox system also passed through Lowell, including Casey Kelly, Ryan Kalish, Felix Doubront and Stolmy Pimentel.
The Spinners play in the Single-A New York-Penn League, whose season runs from June 18 through September 5. As a "short-season" league, the player pool primarily consists of 2009 high school draft picks, 2010 college draft picks, and some international signees that have advanced beyond the rookie leagues. Typically, most players are between the ages of 19 and 22 and are less than two seasons into their minor league careers. Considering that LeLacheur Park is only about 30 miles from Boston, Lowell is often the first opportunity for many fans to see Red Sox prospects early in their minor league careers.
It is evident that there will be an abundance of high-end talent taking the field for the Spinners in 2010. For those who have the opportunity to make it up to the Merrimack Valley to catch a Spinners game this season, here are some names who could be joining the company of Youkilis, Papelbon, Ellsbury and Buchholz over the next few years.
The obvious names to watch are Boston's first two picks from June's draft, Kolbrin Vitek and Bryce Brentz. Vitek, 21, was selected 20th overall following his junior season at Ball State. Although he was used as a second baseman this season, the Red Sox are having him start his professional career at third base with the Spinners, returning him to his primary position from his sophomore season. In Monday’s Spinners opener, Vitek displayed all of the reasons why Boston drafted him, showing a smooth, repeatable swing and a refined offensive approach. He really knows how to work the count, sit back and wait for his pitch. Although his frame is somewhat on the slender side now, he should eventually develop average to slightly-above-average major league power. And while some scouts have slated Vitek for an eventual move to center field, it appears to me early on that he has the defensive tools to stick at third base, including a strong arm, solid instincts, and adequate range and fluidity. Fans may not have long to see Vitek in a Lowell uniform however, as a promotion to Low-A Greenville is expected to come in mid-July.
Brentz came into 2010 as one of the most highly regarded college bats in the country after putting up dominant numbers in 2009 with Middle Tennessee State (.465 batting average, 28 home runs, .930 slugging percentage). However, his numbers came back to earth in 2010, which has partially been attributed to an ankle injury and partially attributed to draft nerves. After being selected by the Sox with the 36th overall pick, Brentz has been roaming right field for Lowell. Expect that he might take some time to get adjusted to professional pitching, as he has an extremely aggressive approach at the plate. Coupling that approach with his plus bat speed, he should hit for power, but he also may strike out a lot early on.
Two others to watch are third baseman David Renfroe and left fielder Brandon Jacobs. Renfroe, Boston's third-round pick in 2009, should split time between third base and designated hitter until Vitek's promotion. Somewhat reminiscent of former Spinner third baseman Will Midddlebrooks, Renfroe will also likely take some time getting adjusted to NYPL pitching. There should be some bumps along the road in 2010, but as a devoted student of the game, Renfroe should show steady improvement throughout the season. As for the 19-year-old Jacobs, he should flash a lot of power and speed for the Spinners. As has been mentioned before, he has the potential to be a special player at the major league level, but he’s still very raw and it will likely take him more than a few years to climb the ladder.
A couple of darkhorses worth mentioning are shortstop Jose Garcia and center fielder Felix Sanchez. Garcia is a solid defender off to a nice start offensively, while Sanchez may be one of the fastest players in the entire system -- he just needs to get on base more if he’s going to take full advantage of his wheels.
The two top pitchers on the Spinners' staff this season should be righthanders Roman Mendez and Madison Younginer, both 19-year-olds with mid-90s fastballs. Mendez began the 2010 season with an aggressive promotion to Low-A Greenville, but failed to complete even four innings in five of his six starts (0-2, 11.40 ERA, 10 BB in 15 IP) before hitting the disabled list on May 9, and then being sent down to Lowell last week. He will face more age-appropriate competition in the NYPL, so expect improved results once he builds his confidence back up. His dominant stuff earned him the nod as Lowell's opening day starter, but in that start he continued his struggles, giving up 3 earned runs on 3 hits and 2 walks over 3 innings. He did, however, recover to go 5 innings in his second start, topping out at 99 mph on the radar gun and giving up just 1 run on 2 hits and a walk while striking out 3.
Younginer shined bright in his professional debut for Lowell, allowing just 1 hit and 1 walk over 5 shutout innings on June 19. A 2009 seventh-round draft pick out of Mauldin High School in South Carolina, Younginer received supplemental first-round money to sign out of his commitment to Clemson last August. While his stuff is outstanding, he needs to work on his command and keeping a consistent release point this season. If he can hone the finer aspects of his arsenal, Younginer has top-of-the-rotation potential.
Three other names to watch are starters Tyler Wilson and Hunter Cervenka and reliever Wilson Matos. Wilson and Cervenka are both 2008 draftees that spent the 2009 season in the Rookie-Level Gulf Coast League. Wilson missed a large portion of the 2009 season due to a heart condition, but he looks to be back to full form for 2010. Cervenka is a lefty with a projectable fastball, but he has had control problems early in his career. Matos' fastball already sits in the mid-90s, and if he can hone his control he has the potential to become a solid bullpen arm.
Due to the fact that the New York-Penn League season takes place in the middle of draft signing season, it’s not atypical to see several additions to the Lowell roster throughout the season, including the placement of new draftees and promotions of players from the Gulf Coast League. Also, as a function of being just down the road from Boston, the Sox front office is not shy about placing rehabbing players in Lowell, including upper-level minor leaguers and an occasional major leaguer.
Two well-regarded draft picks who could make their way onto the Lowell roster in 2010 are righthanders Anthony Ranaudo, selected 38th overall out of LSU, and Brandon Workman, selected 57th overall out of Texas. Ranaudo is pitching for the Brewster Whitecaps of the Cape Cod League this summer, but he will likely sign with the Sox for a hefty bonus at the Aug. 15 deadline. Workman’s Texas team was knocked out of the College World Series last week, and despite the fact that he was drafted in the second round, the 21-year-old is looking for first-round money. He will also likely sign later in the summer and should get a few starts in for Lowell by the close of the season.
Other college pitchers who may sign and head to Lowell include seventh-round pick Chris Hernandez out of Miami, eighth-rounder Mathew Price from Virginia Tech, and 25th-round pick Tyler Lockwood out of TCU. TCU remains alive in the College World Series, but Lockwood is expected to sign with Boston and receive an assignment to Lowell once his college season ends.
In terms of players who could receive promotions from the Gulf Coast League, keep an eye out for infielder Jason Thompson and center fielder Keury De La Cruz. An 11th-round pick in 2009, Thompson kicked off opening day of the Gulf Coast League on Monday with a walk-off, three-run home run. De La Cruz is a potential five-tool player who took home the Red Sox Latin Program Player of the Year award in 2009.
Finally, two names that could land in Lowell on rehab assignment are Jed Lowrie and 2006 first-round pick Jason Place. Lowrie should begin his return from mononucleosis in the next month and will likely begin his rehab with the Spinners. Place took a leave of absence from Double-A Portland earlier in the season, but is slated to begin a rehab assignment in the Gulf Coast League this weekend.
Mike Andrews is designer and developer of SoxProspects.com and a special contributor to ESPNBoston.com.