In just the second game of the inaugural season of the Australian Baseball League, Red Sox prospect Mitch Dening led the Sydney Blue Sox to a 1-0 win over the Canberra Cavalry with an RBI single in the eighth inning. The win was Sydney’s first victory in the newly formed ABL. While the league is just getting off the ground, Dening, a native of Gosford, New South Wales, has played baseball in Australia for 16 years.
“I’d been playing since I was 6 years old,” said Dening. “I’ve played for teams in my local community, for New South Wales, and for Australia. Baseball here is a little bit different than in America. We don't play high school or college ball -- we only play on the weekend for either our local club or for the State.”
After scouting Dening in Australia for many years, Sox international scout Jon Deeble, who is also the coach of the Australian National Team, approached the outfielder in September 2005 about playing in the United States for the Red Sox organization.
“As a kid, I didn't know if I was good enough to play professionally -- I just knew that I loved the game,” said Dening. “When Jon Deeble approached me and offered me a contract with the Red Sox, I was excited and shocked at the same time. It was my only offer from any club, so I never looked back. It definitely was a dream come true.”
Dening has now played four seasons in the Red Sox system, spending full seasons with each of the rookie-level GCL Red Sox, short-season Lowell Spinners, Low-A Greenville Drive, and the High-A Salem Red Sox. In 331 games over those four seasons, Dening hit .283/.351/.385 with 10 home runs and 54 stolen bases. He’s spent most of his time in the organization roaming right field and center field.
The 22-year-old improved in most statistical categories from 2009 to 2010, including putting up a .345 on base percentage in 116 games with Salem.
“I was more consistent with my daily routines in 2010,” said Dening, “I was mentally stronger, I worked out of my slump earlier on in the year, I was more patient, I drew more walks and I worked more counts. In my eyes, I think I was a tougher out this year.”
He’s also earned the reputation of being a hard-nosed, dirt-dog type of player. While he hasn’t put up much power thus far in his career, he does have a lot of room to fill out, and his swing is such that added strength could generate improved power output.
This offseason, Dening is looking to hone his tools in the ABL. The league, which just got underway this past weekend, is a joint venture of Major League Baseball and the Australian Federal Government, formed with the hope of bringing a professional league to Australia in which Australian major leaguers and minor leaguers can compete during the offseason. The six-team league goes by the same moniker as a now-defunct league that operated in Australia in the 1990s. In prior seasons, and even earlier this fall, Boston’s Australian contingent played for the Central Coast Marlins of the New South Wales League.
“The ABL has the best in Australia competing against one another, as opposed to the New South Wales League, where you just see the best in that state playing against one another,” said Dening, who was assigned to play with the Sydney Blue Sox with fellow Red Sox minor leaguers Boss Moanaroa and Moko Moanaroa. “The ABL is better competition every week - it’s a great league to get ready for the 2011 season.”
The league also imports players from the United States, Korea and the Netherlands. The teams play a 40-game schedule, with four games per week for 10 weeks, followed by a three-round playoff schedule that will run into February. The Blue Sox roster presently has five current or former major leaguers, including Detroit reliever Brad Thomas and Seattle starter Ryan Rowland-Smith.
While the ABL is creating a lot media buzz and player interest down under, there have also been rumblings that this could be the last major push to bring professional baseball to Australia, where cricket is generally the preferred spectator sport. And even though Major League Baseball has taken an ownership stake in the ABL, Dening admits that there are still strides to be made in bringing baseball to the masses in Australia.
“The difference between playing in the States and in Australia is the fan support,” said Dening. “Baseball is just not a high profile sport in Australia -- we only get a maximum of 2,000 fans per game, and it’s usually only a couple of hundred.”
After he wraps up his season with the ABL, look for Dening to make a push for Double-A Portland in 2011. However, he could end up back with Salem to start the season due to the crowded outfield situation in the upper levels of the Boston system. Until then, Dening will focus on increasing strength.
“My main priority is to keep moving up that ladder,” said Dening. “When I came home, I started working out to put on more weight and to improve my strength. My goal is to raise my power numbers up from the previous years and to drive the ball on a more consistent basis. I also want to be more aggressive with my base stealing.”
FALL AND WINTER LEAGUE NOTES
Top prospect Casey Kelly concluded his time in the Arizona Fall League on Oct. 30, ending his four-game stretch with mixed results -- allowing just 1 earned run over 9 innings during his first two outings, but then allowing 11 earned runs in seven innings over his final two starts. On the upside, the right-hander showed stints of increased velocity together with an aggressive strike zone approach; on the downside he showed a lack of command by leaving too many balls over the plate, which advanced AFL opponents were able to take advantage of. While Kelly might push for a spot in the rotation with Triple-A Pawtucket in 2011, the more likely scenario has the 21-year-old returning for a second go-round with Portland.
Shortstop Jose Iglesias and catcher Ryan Lavarnway were both starters on the West Team in the Rising Stars Game, the AFL’s equivalent of an All-Star Game. Iglesias went 0-for-2 in the game, while Lavarnway caught 5 innings and went 1-for-2. Lavarnway has demonstrated a solid plate approach during his 15-game stretch with Peoria, hitting .288/.419/.424, among the league leaders in on-base percentage. Meanwhile, Iglesias has put up a .280 batting average, but has only 1 walk and 1 extra base hit in 52 plate appearances.
Cuban outfielder Juan Carlos Linares is hitting .407/.439/.722 with 3 home runs in 54 at-bats with Peoria. That places the 26-year-old slugger second in the league in slugging and OPS, third in home runs and fourth in batting. Linares is pushing for a starting job with Pawtucket in 2011.
In Venezuela, Triple-A outfielder Bubba Bell is hitting .263/.354/.333 in 57 at-bats, while High-A outfielder Ronald Bermudez is hitting .226/.250/.355 in 31 at-bats. Pitcher Michael Bowden has yet to begin his stint with Magallanes, but is expected to head to Venezuela after his honeymoon in late November.
In the Dominican Winter League, infielder Yamaico Navarro has shown some power and patience with a line of .278/.381/.500 in 15 games with Licey. Robert Coello, who will be gunning for a spot in Boston’s bullpen in 2011, is 1-3 with a 5.94 ERA in a starting role with Licey. Outfielder Josh Reddick has demonstrated some plate discipline, putting up a .103 isolated plate discipline, but has managed to hit just .208 with only 3 extra base hits in 53 at-bats for Cibao.
Elsewhere, former Rule 5 pick Miguel Gonzalez is 2-0 with a 2.91 ERA for Mazatlan of the Mexican Pacific League. Triple-A left fielder Aaron Bates has hit just .045 in seven games for Caguas in the Puerto Rican League, while his Pawtucket teammate Jorge Jimenez is hitting .302 for Mayaguez. Greenville first baseman Reynaldo Rodriguez leads the Colombian Winter League in slugging at .755, is tied for the league lead in home runs with 4 and is among the top 10 in batting at .377.
Several recent major league moves could have an impact on the farm system in the not-so-distant future. Among the major league players headed for free agency, Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez are Type A free agents, meaning if the Red Sox offer those players arbitration and they decline and sign elsewhere, Boston will be in line to receive a top pick (likely a first- or second-rounder) from the signing team together with a compensation pick in the supplemental round between the first and second rounds. Jason Varitek and Felipe Lopez are both Type B free agents, meaning the Red Sox will receive a compensation pick if the players decline an offer of arbitration and sign elsewhere.
A slew of minor leaguers also became free agents on Nov. 6, the start of minor league free agency. Boston’s contingent of 2010-11 minor league free agents include pitchers Fernando Cabrera, Fabio Castro, Zach Hammes, Rich Hill, Mark Holliman, Tommy Hottovy, Tyler Lavigne, Robert Manuel, Chad Paronto, Ramon A. Ramirez, Patrick Ryan and Armando Zerpa; catchers Dusty Brown, Kevin Cash and Gustavo Molina; and infielders Ray Chang, Carlos Delgado, Jack Hannahan, Niuman Romero, Luis Segovia and Gil Velazquez.
In a minor move, the Red Sox acquired infielder Brent Dlugach from Detroit on Nov. 4 for a player to be named later or cash considerations. The 27-year-old infielder spent all of the 2010 season with Toledo, Detroit's Triple-A affiliate, posting a .258/.303/.360 line for the Mud Hens. If he’s able to make it through the 40-man roster crunch this offseason, Dlugach will likely start the 2011 season with Pawtucket, serving as insurance in case one or more of Boston’s major league infielders goes down with an injury.
With Toronto’s hiring of PawSox manager Torey Lovullo as Blue Jays’ first base coach, Pawtucket now has two openings on its coaching staff. The PawSox also lost hitting coach Gerald Perry, who signed on for the same role with Oakland last month. Additionally, minor league infield coordinator Gary DiSarcina has left the Red Sox organization to become an assistant to Angels general manager Tony Reagins.