SoxProspects: PawSox lineup loaded

With a bevy of high-profile offseason acquisitions, Boston Red Sox fans certainly have a lot to be excited about for the upcoming season. Forty-seven miles down Route 95, Pawtucket Red Sox fans also have ample reason for enthusiasm, as the PawSox roster looks like it will be loaded with highly-regarded prospects and a number of other players with significant major league experience.

While all of the roster spots will be open for competition, Pawtucket’s starting rotation should be comprised of left-handers Felix Doubront, Andrew Miller, and Lenny DiNardo, as well as right-handers Brandon Duckworth and Kyle Weiland -- barring injuries or additional moves. Righty Adam Mills should also compete for a spot in the PawSox rotation.

Doubront is the wild card of the bunch, as he could easily land a role in Boston’s bullpen to start the 2011 season, particularly after he impressed in 25 innings of major league work in 2010. Miller, 25, could also begin the season in the Boston bullpen -- or perhaps even in the Pawtucket ‘pen. While Theo Epstein has indicated that he sees the former No. 6 overall pick as a starter over the long term, the general manager also stated that Miller is likely to spend spring training working as a reliever. The most likely outcome is that Doubront and Miller will see significant time with the big-league bullpen in spring training, only to get stretched out in late March in order to start the season in Pawtucket’s rotation.

DiNardo, now in his second stint in the organization, put up a 3.40 ERA for Triple-A Sacramento in 2010, but pitched in only one game after Memorial Day following surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. However, there have been no reports of lingering health concerns for DiNardo heading into the 2011 season.

Duckworth, 34, has over five years of major league service time on the mound. He put up a 3.32 ERA in 25 games with Triple-A Lehigh Valley in 2010, striking out 102 batters in 105.2 innings.

Weiland, Boston’s third-round pick from the 2008 draft, is a well-regarded prospect who could end up contributing to the Red Sox bullpen later in the 2011 season. The 24-yeard old mixes a solid 90-95-mph fastball with an effective high-70s curveball and a very good 79-83-mph changeup. He spent 2010 at Double-A Portland, striking out 120 batters in 128.1 innings, but a few bad outings pushed his ERA to 4.42 for the season.

Mills, a former eighth-round pick, started 25 games for the PawSox in 2010, going 4-10 with a 5.47 ERA.

Additionally, upwards of 20 pitchers will be vying for a spot in the Pawtucket bullpen. At the top of that list are right-handers Michael Bowden, Robert Coello, Jason Rice, and Jason Bergmann, and lefties Rich Hill, Randy Williams and Kris Johnson. Bowden, Coello and Hill each saw time with the Red Sox in 2010, and each should be back in the majors at some point in 2011.

Rice, 24, went 3-2 with 13 saves, a 2.85 ERA, and 71 strikeouts in 60 innings with Portland in 2010, but he still needs to improve his control and cut down on the walks. Johnson, a former first-round pick, spent most of 2009 and 2010 in the Pawtucket rotation, putting up a 5.50 ERA in 50 games. The 26-year-old may be better suited for a relief role, particularly as he historically fares better against lefties and early on in his appearances. Both Bergman and Williams have ample major league experience and should provide injury depth at the Triple-A level.

Other pitchers competing for a spot include former third-round pick Bryce Cox, recently DFA’d Matthew Fox, Dominican righty Santo Luis, Boston College alum Ryne Reynoso, 25-year-old Ryne Lawson, who spent 2008-2010 in Portland, and T.J. Large, a righty with a major-league-caliber cutter but subpar control.

Four other names that could be on the bubble between Portland and Pawtucket are 26-year-old Blake Maxwell, who led the organization with 11 wins at three levels in 2010; former third-round pick Stephen Fife, who put up a 4.75 ERA in 26 games with the Sea Dogs in 2010; and minor league free agents Clevelan Santeliz and Tony Pena, Jr., both of whom spent time in Triple-A in 2010.

Daniel Turpen, who was selected by the Yankees in the Rule 5 Draft this past December, could end up with the PawSox if he doesn’t make New York’s 25-man roster. It’s also conceivable that Sox right-hander Matt Albers doesn’t make the major league roster, resulting in an outright to Triple-A, where he’d be a welcome addition to the PawSox bullpen.

With respect to position players, the projected roster is loaded with highly-regarded prospects. The catching role will be manned by 23-year-old Luis Exposito and 26-year-old Mark Wagner, both of whom are on Boston’s 40-man roster. Exposito spent 2010 with Portland, hitting .260/.339/.416 in 125 games. He’s a big, durable backstop with excellent raw power and impressive catching tools, but he needs to improve his plate discipline and make some refinements to his defensive game to succeed at the next level.

Wagner flourished with Portland in 2009, putting up an .887 OPS, but struggled after a mid-season promotion to Triple-A that season. He missed a large portion of the 2010 season with a hand injury. He’s considered an above-average defensive catcher with solid leadership skills and an inconsistent bat. Over his six-year minor league career, Wagner has put up a line of .264/.349/.420. The former ninth-round pick is considered a future major league backup at this point.

Because both Exposito and Wagner are on the 40-man and both have options, they can be moved freely from Triple-A to the majors over the course of the season, providing valuable and versatile depth in the event one of Boston’s catchers goes down with an injury.

In addition to the two backstops, it’s typical for the organization to bring in a defensive-minded minor league veteran to serve as Pawtucket’s third catcher, similar to the role played by Gustavo Molina in 2010. Boston has yet to sign any catchers for that role this offseason.

The PawSox starting infield should be comprised of Lars Anderson at first base, Nate Spears at second base, Hector Luna at third base and Yamaico Navarro at shortstop. All have major league experience with the exception of Spears, who spent 2010 with Portland, hitting .272/.380/.463 with 20 home runs. Additionally, all have multiple options remaining with the exception of Luna, who has none. Anderson and Navarro are both still considered solid prospects, but both need more development time if they’re to become impact major leaguers, and they should get that with Pawtucket in 2011.

Defensive whiz Jose Iglesias also has a strong chance to make the Pawtucket club out of the gate, in which case Navarro would likely shift over to third base and Luna would likely become the utility man/designated hitter. However, Iglesias missed a lot of 2010 with a hand injury, so it may be slightly more likely that he breaks camp with Portland this spring, if only to stay there for a short time. Among the team’s versatile infield bench options will be first baseman Aaron Bates (who also plays left field), third baseman/first baseman Jorge Jimenez, and utility men Brent Dlugach and Drew Sutton, both of whom have major league experience.

The Pawtucket outfield should be loaded with major league-caliber depth, including Ryan Kalish, Josh Reddick and Daniel Nava, all of whom saw playing time in Boston last season. While Kalish isn’t categorized as a “prospect” anymore in many circles because he exhausted his rookie eligibility in 2010, he is largely considered the most talented player in the Red Sox farm system, and could be in line for a starting job with the major league club in 2012.

In 2010, Nava proved to be a valuable insurance option for the major league club at the very least, and should continue in that role in 2011. Meanwhile, Reddick must work on refining his plate approach after hitting .266 with Pawtucket and .194 with Boston last season. In addition to those players, Bubba Bell should also see substantial playing time in the outfield and in a designated-hitter role. Bell showed as much consistency as any of his outfield teammates in 2010, hitting .293/.366/.399 in 104 games for the PawSox and landing among the team leaders in hits, batting average, and on-base percentage.

Other candidates for the Pawtucket outfield include Matt Sheely, Che-Hsuan Lin, Juan Carlos Linares, and Jorge Padron, but all four could begin the season in Portland.