Brentz, Hazelbaker thrown into the fire

For prospects rising up the ranks, being promoted to the next level is always the short-term goal, but the adjustments necessary to succeed upon arriving can also be the most challenging aspect of their journey to the major leagues. This season, two new Pawtucket Red Sox outfielders are making their adjustments to the highest minor-league level in the thick of a playoff run -- Bryce Brentz and Jeremy Hazelbaker.

“I’m getting a little more comfortable as the at-bats keep coming,” said Brentz, who had just two hits in five regular-season Triple-A games following his promotion from Double-A Portland. “When I first got here, I was trying to press too much and do too much. Now things are starting to fall and hopefully the good at-bats keep coming.”

Brentz was promoted to Pawtucket on Aug. 30 after hitting .296 with 17 home runs in Portland. Though he also struck out 130 times, he is currently rated as the sixth-best prospect in the system on SoxProspects.com, due to the fact that he probably has the most raw power in the system, as evidenced by the 30 longballs he connected on last season. Brentz, a supplemental first-round pick in 2010, projects as a right fielder with a plus arm at the major league level.

The 23-year-old began his Triple-A career with an 0-for-12 stretch and had just two singles in the regular season, but he was the offensive star of the team in its first-round playoff series. In the four games it took for the PawSox to advance past the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, Brentz hit .429 with two home runs and two doubles.

“Coming up to a new league, you have that unknown factor and you’re trying to figure it out,” said Brentz. “Some people start off and don’t miss a beat, some people take some time. Obviously it took me a couple days, a couple at-bats, but it’s getting there.”

Hazelbaker, on the other hand, made the jump from Double-A to Triple-A just three days before Brentz, and had the opposite experience. In his first seven games with the club, Hazelbaker batted .267 with three doubles and three steals, but in the playoffs he’s batted just .154.

“[Hazelbaker] got off to a pretty hot start here,” said Pawtucket manager Arnie Beyeler. “He got on base a few times and got to use his speed a little bit and do some things. He’s a dangerous guy at the plate who can drive the ball with some pop. He’s done a real nice job coming up here and getting on base and setting the table for these guys.”

Hazelbaker, 25, possesses a rare combination of raw power and speed. However, he has always struggled with making consistent contact and maintaining a high batting average. In his second year at Portland this season, he batted .273 with 19 home runs and 33 stolen bases, but also struck out 114 times. With a strong second half of to his Double-A season, during which he posted slugging percentages of .523 or higher each month from June through August and stole 24 bases in 71 games, he appeared ready to make the final jump of his minor-league journey.

“It’s going as well as I could hope for,” said Hazelbaker about the transition. “I’m swinging at good pitches, but I’m missing a little bit. Guys up here obviously have better stuff, that’s why they're in Triple-A ... balls with late life, different movement, things like that. But offensively, it’s a transition as you would expect switching levels.”

Neither of the outfielders complained about learning on the fly while participating in a key regular-season stretch -- the PawSox clinched their playoff spot on the season’s final day -- and the playoffs. In fact, they saw it as a reward for their hard work, as the Portland team they spent most of the season playing for fell short in its own quest to make the postseason.

“It’s kind of a bonus,” said Hazelbaker. “You can’t go out there thinking it’s any different than a regular-season game, but there’s more on the line obviously. The good thing about it is up here in Triple-A, there’s guys who have played in the big leagues and who have played in the playoffs before, so we’ve been there, we know what it's like. It’s the same game, so you just have to go out there and play your same game.”

One thing that Brentz has noticed is the regularity with which pitchers have used secondary pitches against him. Coming up through the system, the powerful outfielder could always kill a fastball, but one of the bigger questions is how he would adjust to upper-level breaking balls. So far, the results have been mixed, but he feels the adjustment is coming along.

“The pitcher's ability to throw consistent off-speed stuff over and over again,” Brentz said of the biggest difference in facing Triple-A pitching. “My last at-bat [in Thursday's game], the pitcher threw me five straight sliders. I was thinking he might try to bust a fastball in, but he didn’t, he stuck with the slider and I happened to get just enough of the baseball to hit it over the second baseman’s head.”

Beyeler compared the situation for these two outfielders to that of Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who received a similar late-August promotion from Double-A last season. In that time, Middlebrooks batted just .161 in 16 games with the PawSox, but he started red hot out of the gates this April, which led in part to a quicker-than-expected promotion to Boston. Hazelbaker and Brentz hope for a similar experience, where the knowledge they gain this season allows them to hit the ground running next year.

“I’m getting a little taste of what it’s like up here,” said Brentz. “It always helps if you play a little in the league because you know what to expect.”

Hazelbaker put it more succinctly: “I kind of like to think it's a jump-start to kick off next season.”

If either of these two outfielders can start next season even close to where Middlebrooks did this year, the work they're putting in now under playoff pressure will be more than worth it.