Ever since Tommy John surgery cut short his promising debut season with the Lowell Spinners in 2007, Red Sox minor league reliever Caleb Clay has had nothing in common with the top prospects who populate the Arizona Fall League rosters every year except his status as a first-round draft pick.
But this fall, Clay has improbably become the Red Sox biggest success story out of the AFL. In 13 1/3 innings of work that span 10 appearances, Clay is 1-0 with a 1.35 ERA in the AFL, which is billed as a “prospect finishing school.” For Clay, the month spent playing alongside the best prospects in the game is more of a fresh start than anything else.
Not bad, considering that earlier this season, the 43rd overall pick in the 2006 draft considered calling it quits.
“I had some soul searching early in the year this year, and I was basically questioning if I wanted to continue my career,” Clay said of an April in which he was used just three times and posted a 13.50 ERA, allowing just one fewer run (seven) than he recorded outs.
“I made a decision that I wanted to make a change with my mentality and approach, everything about it really.”
A few weeks later, Clay said he tweaked his delivery so he was more over the top than before, and began putting more effort into his long-toss program.
“I know my numbers didn’t show that, but I felt better in the long run,” Clay said. “I think that’s just starting to show now.”
More than anything, Clay’s unsightly 7.47 ERA in 2011 for Double-A Portland was the result of his slow start and a handful of poor outings.
Clay opened the season by allowing five earned runs in two innings and held opponents off the board in just one of his first 10 starts. He carried a 10.47 ERA into the last week of May and strung together back-to-back scoreless outings for the first time on May 30 and June 2.
But a four-inning, six-run outing on June 18 and a one-inning, six-run outing on July 25 both raised his ERA significantly, and after he missed all of August with an injury, Clay finished the season by allowing five runs in the first inning of a spot start on the final day of the season.
Though he didn’t have much statistical success, Clay took a liking to life out of the bullpen.
“I know that I don’t have to go through the lineup two or three times in an outing,” he said. “I might not even show them all my pitches. Plus you can go out and blow it out for an inning. I think it’s a lot more fun and you get to see the game when it matters most -- toward the end.”
Catcher Dan Butler, who has been behind the plate for four of Clay’s nine outings this fall and briefly crossed paths with him in 2010 with High-A Salem, said Clay is “doing a good job going right after guys and commanding his fastball in the zone to help him get ahead early.”
Clay also credits having command of his fastball, which reportedly has touched 95 m.p.h. and is sitting in the low-90s, for his recent success, along with having at least two of his secondary pitches working to keep hitters off balance -- most notably his cutter.
According to Clay, having command of his pitches and keeping hitters guessing is especially important in a league like the AFL.
“Their plate discipline is pretty good and just about everyone out here has the ability to hit the ball out of here at any moment,” he said. “They’re just overall better hitters out here.”
In short, the AFL is a place for the best of the best, a league where players of Clay’s draft pedigree frequently end up, though his journey to the desert was different from many of his contemporaries.
“I was a first-round pick, but my first couple years I didn’t really pitch a lot,” Clay said. “That kind of knocked the whole prestige off being a bonus baby. I have taken a different path, and I think it’s helped me understand what kind of pitcher I am, and it’s helped me be more mentally tough.”
Butler excelling in his own backyard
For Butler, who climbed the ladder from Salem to Portland then finished the year at Triple-A Pawtucket, selection for the AFL was more than just another step in his improbable ascension to top-prospect status. After spending the entire season on the East Coast, Butler gets to play in his own backyard for the first time since college.
“It’s nice to be able to be home and play baseball in a league that you have grown up watching and hearing about,” said Butler, who grew up in nearby Phoenix. “On top of that, it is fun to have my friends and family be able to come out and see me play professionally when they otherwise wouldn’t.”
The fact that Butler would rank among the league leaders in batting with a .326 average if he had enough at-bats to qualify only makes the experience better. And after posting a .344 cumulative OBP during the regular season, Butler is getting on base at a .500 clip this fall, boosting his OPS to .919 through 14 games.
While the sample size is small -- Butler has shared catching duties with Angels prospect Hank Conger and Nationals prospect Derek Norris -- the undrafted free agent out of the University of Arizona has made good use of his time around some of the game’s future stars.
“There are really good players out here,” he said. “The pitchers down here are all top-level guys. I’ve just really enjoyed playing with and against these caliber guys.”
The competition level has helped Butler improve in all facets of his game. At the plate, Butler said he’s learning to control the strike zone and to hit off the fastball. Behind the plate, he’s working to involve and mix the pitchers’ offerings more effectively.
“I’ve learned how important it is to maintain a good mix of pitches in this league, as every hitter can hit a fastball,” he said.
But in a year full of highlights for Butler -- he swatted a winning home run in a major-league exhibition game in March and was thrust into a playoff race with Pawtucket in September -- just the chance to play on such a bright stage in front of his friends and family is special.
“I have enjoyed being out here among these caliber of players and doing so in front of my family and friends,” he said.
Fall and Winter League updates
Top prospect Will Middlebrooks is one of six other players who have seen time for Scottsdale this fall. The third baseman, who spent time with Portland and Pawtucket this season, was batting .250 with four home runs and 11 RBIs in 56 at-bats before injuring his thumb in pursuit of a foul ball.
Ryan Dent, an infielder who began playing center field for Portland in 2010, has played second base for the Scorpions and is batting .225 with 5 RBIs in 14 games. Outfielder Alex Hassan, who spent 2011 with Portland, is hitting .286 with a .420 OBP in 21 games. J.C. Linares, the Cuban outfielder who posted a .397/.423/.662 line for Peoria in last year’s AFL, has returned from an ankle injury that sidelined him since May to pick up two hits, including a home run, in four games for Scottsdale.
Other than Clay, Boston’s pitchers in Arizona haven’t found much success. Brock Huntzinger, who started 25 games for Portland this season, has a 5.09 ERA in 23 innings of work, while Jeremy Kehrt and Will Latimer have each posted an ERA approaching double digits this fall. Kehrt, a right-handed pitcher who split time between Portland and Pawtucket in 2011, has a 9.28 ERA in nine appearances, while Latimer, a left-handed pitcher who spent 2011 with Salem, has a 9.82 ERA in 14 2/3 innings of work.
Outside of the United States, Red Sox players are currently participating in five leagues.
Catcher Ryan Lavarnway, considered one of the top hitting prospects in the organization, returned to America from the Venezuelan Fall League because of an illness on Nov. 1, according to Gordon Edes. Before he got sick, Lavarnway hit .357 with a .979 OPS in 14 at-bats for Margarita. Ronald Bermudez, who spent time with Salem, Portland, and Pawtucket in 2011, is hitting .154/.185/.192 in 26 at-bats for Caracas. Franklin Morales, who was a stabilizing force in the Boston bullpen in the second half of the season, has two strikeouts and a walk in three innings for Caracas.
Right-handed pitcher Stolmy Pimentel, who plummeted down the prospect rankings after a subpar season with Portland and Salem, has a 4.91 ERA in 11 innings of work for Estreallas de Oriente of the Dominican Winter League. Pimentel held opponents hitless in two of his first three outings before allowing four runs on five hits in two innings on Nov. 2 against Licey.
Also in the Dominican Winter League, Portland left-hander Cesar Cabral has a 1.59 ERA in 5 2/3 innings of relief for Aguilas, while teammate Tony Pena Jr., a converted infielder who spent 2011 with Pawtucket, has a 1.54 ERA with nine strikeouts in 11 2/3 innings. He hasn’t allowed a run in his last 10 1/3 innings, a streak that spans eight outings.
Boss and Moko Moanaroa, both of whom spent 2011 in Lowell, are playing under Portland manager Kevin Boles for the Sydney Blue Sox of the Australian Baseball League. Boss, a first baseman, is batting .304 with a .820 OPS in 23 at-bats, while Moko, an outfielder, has a single in three at-bats.
Right-handed pitcher Miguel Gonzalez, who spent time with Salem, Portland, and Pawtucket in 2011, has a 3.60 ERA in five innings for Mazatlan of the Mexican Pacific League, while GCL outfielder Jesus Loya has a single to show for his eight at-bats with Hermosillo.
Sixteen additional players were granted minor-league free agency on Nov. 2: pitchers Matt Fox, T.J. Hose, Blake Maxwell, Matt Rusch, Kyle Fernandes, Tommy Hottovy, Royce Ring and Greg Smith, catchers Jeff Howell and Mark Wagner, infielders Ryan Khoury, Hector Luna, Alex Valdez, Brent Dluglach and Vladimir Frias, and outfielder Brett Carroll.