Red Sox prospect Connor Wong catching the eyes of Alex Cora at spring training

Red Sox catching prospect Connor Wong is a longshot to make the team’s Opening Day roster out of spring training next month.

As the third backstop on Boston’s catching depth chart, the 24-year-old is more likely to begin the year at the club’s alternate training site in Worcester before heading to Double-A Portland or Triple-A Worcester for the start of the 2021 minor-league season.

All that being said, nothing has stopped Wong from impressing his peers thus far at big-league camp in Fort Myers.

Despite collecting just one hit through his first 10 plate appearances of Grapefruit League play, the Houston-area native has drawn three walks, and that ability to be patient and slow the game down is something that has caught the attention of Red Sox manager Alex Cora.

“He’s a good player,” Cora said of Wong on Wednesday. “Very calm behind the plate. Very athletic. Seems like he and Jason [Varitek], they’ve been working hard on that setup on one knee. He’s made progress. I didn’t see him last year, but what I’ve seen is great. Like I’ve been saying: all these kids, Jeter [Downs], and Nick [Yorke], and Connor. There’s something about them that they’re very calm when they play the game.

“It’s like there’s no panic,” continued Cora. “Even his at-bats. He walks and he takes his time putting the bat down. There’s something good about them. They understand the game, they ask questions, and we have a good one.”

The one hit Wong has recorded so far this spring came in the Red Sox’ Grapefruit League opener against the Twins on February 28.

The 6-foot-1, 181 lb. pounder took over behind the plate for Christian Vazquez in the bottom half of the third inning of that contest and picked up a one-out double in his first trip to the plate a half inning later.

He may have struck out in his second at-bat, but he played ‘outstanding’ defense in the process of doing so.

“He’s another guy that slows down the game,” Cora said of Wong back on March 1. “You could see yesterday, we had a bad inning and then he comes in and it’s kind of like a presence about him. He studies the game. He talks the game, which is very important for a catcher. Seems like he never panicked back there. He keeps working on that one-knee down stance. He has some really good hands.”

Wong, a right-handed hitter, was originally selected by the Dodgers in the third round of the 2017 amateur draft out of the University of Houston. His natural position in college was shortstop — not catcher — but he eventually moved behind the plate and has remained there.

While transitioning to catcher, though, Wong also saw playing time at second base and third base at Double-A Tulsa in 2019 before being part of the trade that sent Mookie Betts and David Price to Los Angeles and Alex Verdugo and Jeter Downs to Boston the following February.

The Dodgers have a history of converting position player prospects into full-time catchers. They’ve done so with Will Smith, who played a little bit of infield and outfield at the University of Louisville, and Austin Barnes, who has appeared in 195 total games at either second or third base at the minor-league level.

Cora recounted a conversation he had with the versatile Enrique Hernandez, who spent the last six seasons with the Dodgers before signing with the Red Sox over the winter, about Wong and Los Angeles’ ability to convert position players into catchers.

“A position player that’s a catcher now. It seems like it’s something they like on the West Coast with Smith and Barnes,” said the Sox skipper. “And this kid can do it, too. Good hands. Very smooth. And offensively, he understands what he can do. But, I really like the fact that communication is No. 1 for him in his defensive game. You see him in the dugout talking to Jason [Varitek], to the pitchers, and for a young guy to be able to do that right now is eye-opening. And it was fun to watch him perform yesterday.”

Going into the new season, Baseball America has Wong ranked as the No. 15 prospect in Boston’s farm system, which is the top rank among catchers in the organization.

Just last week, the folks over at Baseball America picked two potential breakout prospects from every team’s farm system for 2021. Along with 2019 second-round draft pick Matthew Lugo, Wong was the other Red Sox prospect chosen by the BA staff to break out this year.

“Wong was granted a reprieve of sorts when he was traded from the Dodgers to the Red Sox in the Mookie Betts’ trade,” they wrote. “Instead of being stuck behind Will Smith and Keibert Ruiz, he now has a clear path to a future MLB role as a well-rounded backup catcher who can play around the infield as well.”

Added to the Sox’ 40-man roster last November, Wong is projected by both FanGraphs and MLB Pipeline to make his major-league debut at some point this season.

That would likely come in the event of an injury to one of Boston’s major-league catchers or when rosters expand to 28 players in September.

(Picture of Connor Wong: Pawtucket Red Sox)

Red Sox’ Nathan Eovaldi threw to catching prospect, fellow Houston-area native Connor Wong this offseason

Despite more than six years separating them in age, Red Sox right-hander Nathan Eovaldi (31) and catching prospect Connor Wong (24) actually have a lot in common.

They both hail from the Houston-area, they both received offers to play college baseball for Houston-area schools, they were both drafted by the Dodgers, they were both traded to the Red Sox at one point in their careers, and they are both currently on Boston’s 40-man roster.

With those connections in mind, it does not come as much of a surprise to learn that the pair have virtually become bullpen partners at this point.

The first instance of this arose shortly after spring training was shut down last March due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

At that time, as previously noted by MassLive.com’s Chris Cotillo, “Eovaldi returned home to Texas and completely shut down his throwing program for about a month. After ramping back up, he got together with Wong — a fellow Houston area resident — and was able to stretch himself out to five or six innings in simulated outings.”

Putting that work in during the shutdown surely helped Eovaldi put together a solid 2020 campaign in which he posted a 3.72 ERA over nine starts and 48 1/3 innings pitched and head into the offseason with a positive mindset.

Throughout this past offseason, the veteran righty again got together with Wong back home in Texas, as he told NESN’s Tom Caron on Thursday.

“Over the years, I’ve been able to acquire a pretty good workout setup in the garage and everything like that,” Eovaldi said. “So I’ve been able to get all my workouts done. And then this offseason as well, I was able to throw to Connor Wong a lot. So, that was nice having a solid catcher behind the plate and being able to work with him.”

Wong, who was part of the Mookie Betts trade with the Dodgers last February, was added to the Sox’ 40-man roster this past November in order to receive protection from the Rule 5 Draft.

The right-handed hitting backstop is currently regarded by SoxProspects.com as the organization’s No. 22 prospect, ranking second among catchers behind only the recently-acquired Ronaldo Hernandez.

He is currently one of nine catchers (including Kevin Plawecki) at major-league camp in Fort Myers and is projected to begin the 2021 season with Double-A Portland.

As for Eovaldi, the 6-foot-2, 217 lb. hurler is about to embark upon his third full season with the Red Sox and is feeling confident going into a year that could be full of uncertainties, especially for pitchers.

“It’s kind of the unknown for everybody right now,” he said. “A lot of guys weren’t able to get the normal innings that they normally do. We haven’t talked too much about inning limits or control like that yet. And I feel really good coming into spring training. My body feels great, my arm feels fresh, so I’m definitely excited to see what we got.”

As previously mentioned, Eovaldi made just nine starts last year on account of missing a few weeks of action from late August until mid-September due to a right calf strain. But, even while being somewhat limited, the flame-throwing righty put up some of the best numbers of his career in regards to strikeout rate (26.1%), walk rate (3.5%) and swinging-strike percentage (13%).

“I go out there and I try to attack the strike zone,” stated Eovaldi. “I feel like a lot of the times I get behind guys too often and then I have to battle back, and then there’s long at-bats, which end up resulting in walks or hits. So, trying to attack the strike zone, get that first-pitch strike, and stay in the aggressive mode. I think, too, over time you just get to learn your mechanics a little bit better. You find what’s working for you. And then for me, being able to work with [pitching coach Dave Bush, assistant pitching coach-turned-bullpen coach Kevin Walker, and former bullpen coach Craig Bjornson] last year, just really working on my mechanics. And finding what works the best for me was the key to limit my walks.”

In order to replicate the same sort of success he enjoyed last year, Eovaldi will have plenty of work to do over these next few weeks in Fort Myers. He’s been limiting himself to some degree thus far, but that will soon come to an end with Opening Day just less than six weeks away.

“Arm’s ready to go. It feels great. I’ve been trying to control myself out there in the bullpen sessions, hold back a little bit, but we’re going to start ramping it up here soon,” he said.

(Picture of Nathan Eovaldi: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

Jaxx Groshans evaluates some of the top pitching prospects in the Red Sox farm system

He’s caught them. He’s hit against them. When it comes to some of the more intriguing pitching prospects in the Red Sox organization, there aren’t many better people to ask about them than catching prospect Jaxx Groshans.

When speaking with BloggingtheRedSox.com earlier this week, the 22-year-old backstop shared his thoughts on the likes of Jay Groome, Noah Song, and Ryan Zeferjahn, all of whom are regarded by SoxProspects.com as top-15 pitching prospects within Boston’s farm system.

Here are those thoughts put into writing.

LHP Jay Groome (SoxProspects’ No. 7 pitching prospect)

“I’ve faced off against Groomy multiple times and I got to catch him when I was in Lowell and at fall instructs both years (2019 and 2020). His stuff has grown a long way, man. He’s got big-league caliber shit, and I think that’s going to carry him for a while.”

RHP Noah Song (SoxProspects’ No. 6 pitching prospect)

“I caught Noah in his debut in Aberdeen… As far as Songy is concerned, that’s some of the best pure stuff I think I’ve ever seen. I applaud him for going back and serving [in the Navy] like he was supposed to, but that’s a damn shame because that kid probably could have been in the big-leagues this coming year. He probably could have made an appearance in the league out of the ‘pen last year to be honest with you, because his stuff is that good.”

RHP Ryan Zeferjahn (SoxProspects’ No. 11 pitching prospect)

“Zef’s a good dude, man. He’s got some electric stuff, too. I’m very, very excited to see how his career pans out because I think he can be a successful big-leaguer for a long time, especially if he figures out control of all his pitches and finetunes them. We’ll just have to wait and see from here. Like I said, he’s got a lot of special stuff and he’s very blessed with the arm he has.”

Groshans and Zeferjahn both played college baseball together at the University of Kansas. They were both selected by the Red Sox within hours of each other during Day 2 of the 2019 MLB first-year player draft.

“Before we got drafted, we were in Bricktown (Oklahoma City) playing Kansas State in the Big-12 tournament,” Groshans recalled. “Me and Zef were sitting on the bench, and Zef was like ‘Man, how cool would it be if the both of us got drafted by the same team? It would be sick because I’d get to throw to you and we’d be teammates again.’

“And I was like ‘Yeah, dude. That would be sick. That would be awesome,'” continued Groshans. “Then I saw Zef got picked by the Sox in the third [round], and I was like ‘Damn, okay. What’s going to happen? How’s this going to go?’ Then my agent texted me and he was like ‘Red Sox.’ So, I kind of kept it in for a second and as soon as my name got called, Zef was one of the first people to text me. He was like ‘Let’s freaking go! That’s awesome, man!’ I was like ‘Yeah, meet me in Florida and let’s have some fun.'”

BONUS: Former University of Oklahoma outfielder and Oakland Athletics first-round draft pick Kyler Murray, who is currently the starting quarterback for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals

“I know Kyler. I grew up around the same area — before I moved to Houston — that he was from. So I was from Plano, he was from Allen (Texas). I met him off and on the field, too. He’s a freak athlete, man.

“I saw something the other day where they were putting out on SportsCenter: Who of these NFL athletes would be successful in the minor-leagues if they played?’ It’s Kyler 100% hands down,” Groshans said. “He’s said it before. I don’t believe his time in baseball is done yet. I think if at any point he decides to come back, he could definitely do it. 100%.”

(Picture of Jaxx Groshans: Kelly O’Connor/ sittingstill.smugmug.com)

With no minor-league season, Red Sox catching prospect Jaxx Groshans spent part of his summer playing independent league baseball: ‘I think that helped me grow as a player tremendously’

Even with no minor-league baseball season in 2020 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Red Sox catching prospect Jaxx Groshans still made the best of things on multiple fronts.

For starters, in lieu of not being able to experience what was supposed to be his first full season as a professional, the 2019 fifth-round draft pick out of the University of Kanas was able to partake in the Constellation Energy League, an independent summer league in Sugar Land, Texas.

Despite only playing in five games for Eastern Reyes Del Tigre, Groshans certainly appreciated the opportunity so that he could get some reps in among other things. The 22-year-old backstop said as much when speaking with BloggingtheRedSox.com earlier Monday.

“Originally, at the beginning of the offseason, I reached out to Mike Capel, and he was the manager for Team Texas and I had played with his son,” Groshans explained. “I heard about the Constellation League, so I called him and said ‘Hey, if you guys need any catchers or anything like that, I’m more than willing to come play.’ I’m just trying to get some innings in and see some live pitching so that I’m not too far behind. Originally, at the time, they said they didn’t have a spot, so I came back to Arizona — I live out here and I work out here now — and I was actually going to get dinner with my girlfriend when the GM for the league called me. He had me go down there and it was a great experience.”

Consisting of four teams who each played 28 games against one another, the Constellation Energy League was comprised of current and former major-leaguers, current and former minor-leaguers, and current and former independent-leaguers.

“My first game, the first guy I faced was Taylor Jungmann, he has big-league time with the [Yomiuri] Giants,” said Groshans. “Travis Lakins pitched down there, and then you got a lot of former big-leaguers. I got to work closely a lot with Scott Kazmir. I got to catch him quite frequently whenever he’d make his outings. It’s hard to get a feel for a competitive atmosphere — especially when you’re not necessarily playing for anything — but I got my reps in down there and it was great. I got to pick a lot of guys’ minds who are older than me, been in the system longer, and I think that helped me grow as a player tremendously.”

In addition to the Constellation Energy League, Groshans also had the chance to face off against and catch major-league caliber pitching earlier in the year, before the start of the truncated 2020 season. He did so at a facility in Arizona, where plenty of other players reside as well.

“There’s actually a place out here that I work out at. It’s called Fuel Factory,” Groshans said. “It’s run by a guy named Jon Huizinga, he has a little bit of affiliate time, and he runs the place. I work out and am facing guys like Ken Giles, Liam Hendriks, Matthew Liberatore, guys like that. It’s a very, very competitive space and you got a lot of good arms throwing. Everybody was throwing bullpens and live at-bats, trying to simulate what the season would be — and this was before the alternate site happened. So before Sugar Land, I was doing live at-bats, went down to Sugar Land, and then I came back and did them afterwards as well.”

In the weeks following the conclusion of the Constellation Energy League season, Groshans arrived in Fort Myers for his second go-around at the Red Sox’ fall instructional league. And although fall instructs in 2020 were different from fall instructs in 2019 on account of COVID-19 protocols, the Lousiana native actually enjoyed the most recent version more.

“Last year (2019), we didn’t have to do any of the stuff related to COVID,” stated Groshans. “But honestly, I liked this year’s (2020) fall instructs a lot more just because we got to play a lot more games than we did last year. Last year, we were doing a bunch of stuff off machines and stuff like that because everybody just got done with their season or hit their innings limit. So, we couldn’t really see a whole lot of arms.

“This year, we did,” he continued. “We got a lot more personalized stuff, one-on-ones with our coaches — I got a lot of work in with Chad Epperson, our catching coordinator — and I enjoyed it. Honestly, it’s kind of hard not to look forward to something like that, especially in a year like this where we haven’t been able to do anything. Really, there was no other place I would have wanted to spend my time.”

Groshans, who does not turn 23 until July, is looking on improving two aspects of his game in 2021: blocking and throwing down.

“Blocking and throwing down,” he said. “I mean, my arm is strong. I believe that. There’s some new things that we started doing with mechanics for footwork, so I’m going to work on that and that’s what I mean by throwing down. And then, you can never stop getting good at blocking. I believe my blocking is good now, but there’s always something there to improve on.”

As for where Groshans will begin the upcoming minor-league season, that really does not matter as long as he’s given the chance to go to work.

“At the end of the day, I’m just trying to keep my nose to the grindstone and do my job,” the 6-foot, 210 lb. backstop said confidently. “Whether I’m in Low-A, High-A, Double-A, Triple-A, it doesn’t matter. I’m just going to be doing my thing.”

While Groshans waits to do his thing at the onset of spring training come February, you can follow him on Twitch by clicking here.

“I’m 10 followers away from affiliate, so that’s been the big thing for this offseason,” he said. “I’ve been trying to keep myself busy by playing video games and stuff. It’s been great.”

(Top photo of Groshans: Kelly O’Connor/sittingstill.smugmug.com)

Red Sox catching prospect Connor Wong ‘made a lot of progress’ in 2020, Jason Varitek says

Of the three players the Red Sox acquired from the Dodgers in the infamous Mookie Betts trade back in February, catching prospect Connor Wong is undoubtedly the least well-known and the least heralded.

Alex Verdugo — the headliner of the deal for Boston — has the makings to be an All-Star caliber major-league outfielder, Jeter Downs is the organization’s top prospect, and then there’s Wong.

This isn’t to say the 24-year-old is not a talented prospect, because he is. So much so that MLB Pipeline has him ranked as the top catching prospect in the Sox’ farm system.

In his last minor-league season with the Dodgers in 2019, Wong posted a solid .281/.336/.541 to go along with 24 home runs and 82 RBI over 111 total games played between High-A Rancho Cucamonga and Double-A Tulsa.

The majority of Wong’s playing time last year came behind the plate, but he also proved capable of playing multiple positions around the infield, which is something he did quite frequently at the University of Houston since he was originally recruited as a shortstop.

Despite that added dose of versatility, the Red Sox still view the 2017 third-round pick as a catcher primarily. Newly-promoted game planning coordinator and former Sox backstop Jason Varitek made that much clear when speaking with The Boston Globe’s Pete Abraham last week.

“I saw him a lot, from spring training and spring training 2.0, and probably three weeks when he was on the taxi squad and around the team,” Varitek said of Wong. “He works extremely hard. He didn’t get in any [major-league] games, but he showed his abilities and made a lot of progress. He can play other positions, but I think he’s a catcher. There’s a lot there we can work with.”

Indeed, Wong did not appear in any games for Boston this past season, but as noted by Varitek, he still spent plenty of time around the club during spring training as well as parts of the summer and fall on account of being included on the 60-man player pool for the entirety of the 2020 campaign.

On top of that, the Houston native was added to the Sox’ 40-man roster earlier this month, so it would appear he is primed to make his major-league debut sooner rather than later.

With Wong being added to the 40-man, the Red Sox currently have four catchers — Wong, Deivy Grullon, Kevin Plawecki, and Christian Vazquez — on their major-league roster.