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.

Red Sox make Will Venable hiring official, announce other coaching staff changes for 2021

Red Sox manager Alex Cora’s coaching staff for the upcoming 2021 season is now set.

While pitching coach Dave Bush, hitting coach Tim Hyers, assistant hitting coach Peter Fatse, first base coach Tom Goodwin, and third base coach Carlos Febles will retain the same roles they held this past season, changes have been made in other areas.

For starters, Will Venable has officially been named Red Sox bench coach after it was reported on Tuesday that he was going to get the job.

The former big-league outfielder had spent the previous three seasons as a first and third base coach with the Cubs, and he was one of several candidates who interviewed for Boston’s managerial opening last month.

That vacancy was ultimately filled by Cora, but the 38-year-old Venable now has the chance to strengthen his resume as a bench coach for the first time in his coaching career.

“Will is a bright, young mind that will add a lot to what is already a strong collection of coaches,” Cora said of Venable in a statement released by the team earlier Friday.

With Venable succeeding Jerry Narron, who succeeded Ron Roenicke, as bench coach, the Red Sox also named Jason Varitek as the club’s new game-planning coordinator.

For the past eight years, Varitek had been working for the Red Sox in a special assistant/catching coach capacity. He, like new quality control coach/interpreter Ramon Vazquez, will now step into more significant roles within the organization moving forward.

“I am also pleased that both Jason and Ramón will step forward and play larger roles for us,” Cora added.

Finally, Kevin Walker, who was named assistant pitching coach under Bush last October, has been named the Sox’ new bullpen coach. That position opened up when Craig Bjornson was let go by the club last month.

With his promotion, it would appear that the Red Sox could be in need of a new assistant pitching coach to take over for Walker unless they otherwise choose not to carry one next year.

That being said, Cora seems pleased with his new-look coaching staff as he prepares to embark on his second stint as Red Sox skipper.

“I am thrilled to have so many great baseball minds on our staff,” he said, “and I look forward to their contributions as we set out to achieve our goals.”

Red Sox’ Nathan Eovaldi Tosses Four Scoreless Innings in Intrasquad Action at Fenway Park

For the first time in nearly 10 months, the Red Sox played a baseball game at Fenway Park on Thursday afternoon.

Granted, it was a 5 1/2 inning intrasquad contest that was umpired by Jason Varitek and featured a handful of hitters batting for both teams, but regardless of that, it was still nice to get baseball back in some capacity.

As announced by manager Ron Roenicke earlier this week, the two starting pitchers for this game were right-handers Nathan Eovaldi and Chris Mazza, with the former representing the home side and the ladder representing the away.

Making his first in-game start since March 7th, Eovaldi picked up right where he left off in Florida by twirling four scoreless, one-hit innings at Fenway on Thursday.

Over those four frames of work, Eovaldi fanned four hitters while walking one and plunking another. The 30-year-old hurler finished with a final pitch count of 58, 34 of which were strikes. And even though there was no radar gun available on the Red Sox’ live stream of the game, it definitely looked like Eovaldi’s fastball was humming, as per usual.

On having former Red Sox captain Jason Varitek calling balls and strikes, Eovaldi said, “I thought he did good. I liked it. I like having him back there behind the plate and felt like he was making some really good calls for me.”

On the flip side of things, Mazza, one of several candidates the Sox are considering for a back-end starter/opener/bulk role, was also effective in two fewer innings pitched.

The 30-year-old Californian worked two scoreless frames for the Away Sox while walking one and facing the minimum six batters over that stretch. All while rocking stirrups.

Among the relievers who appear to be locks to make Boston’s Opening Day roster, Marcus Walden fanned a pair and walked another in a shutout third inning of work for the Away Sox, Heath Hembree stranded a pair of runners in scoring position in the fourth for the Away Sox, and Brandon Workman got rocked for four runs in the fifth for the Away Sox.

Josh Osich and Colten Brewer, meanwhile, combined to work a scoreless top half of the fifth and sixth inning in relief of Eovaldi to wrap up the 4-0 victory for the Home Sox.

Offensively, all four runs for the Home Sox came off Workman, as previously mentioned.

Worcester native John Andreoli was responsible for three of those, as he took Boston’s closer deep to right for a three-run blast around Pesky’s Pole in the bottom half of the fifth.

Veteran backstop Jonathan Lucroy, who was added to the Sox’ Summer Camp player pool as a non-roster invitee last week, also had two hits.

Following the 4-0 victory for the Red Sox, Roenicke announced that the club is planning on having a six-inning  intrasquad game at noon on Friday and may even “experiment” with some fake crowd noise.

Not sure who the starting pitchers for that game on Friday will be yet, but I will leave you with this quote from Roenicke.

 

New Red Sox Catcher Jonathan Lucroy: ‘I Feel a Lot Better Than I Have in a Long Time’

New Red Sox catcher Jonathan Lucroy is entering uncharted territory as he enters his 13th season in professional baseball. That being a veteran on a minor-league deal when just a few years ago you could argue he was one of the top catchers in the game.

When speaking to reporters at JetBlue Park for the first time on Thursday, the 33-year-old backstop did not make light of how he ended up in his current predicament.

“It’s a little strange,” Lucroy said on attending big league camp as a non-roster invite. “This is the first time I have had to do this. But, it’s OK. It’s just a part of the business side of baseball. Honestly, it’s what I deserve. I haven’t played good. So, it’s kind of where we’re at. You make your bed, you got to sleep in it. It’s just something I have to deal with and that’s OK. It’s a part of life.”

Spending last season with the Angels and Cubs, Lucroy posted an unimpressive .232/.305/.355 slash line to go along with eight home runs and 36 RBI over 101 total games played. He also ranked as one of the worst defensive catchers who caught at least 500 innings, according to FanGraphs.

The Florida native did miss time last year due to a broken nose and concussion, and he underwent major neck surgery earlier in the offseason to replace a cervical disc that he discussed in detail on Thursday.

“I had a herniated disc in my neck the past three years,” said Lucroy. “I’d like to sit here and make excuses to say that was the reason I haven’t played good, but I’m not going to. It did effect me, but I got it taken care of and I feel a lot better than I have in a long time.”

Going back to his days with the Brewers, Lucroy does have some familiarity with Red Sox interim manager Ron Roenicke, who served as Lucroy’s skipper from 2011 until May 2015.

“I’ve known Ron for a long time,” Lucroy said. “We had a lot of good times together. He’s a really good guy, a really good manager. He’s a quality pickup for the Red Sox. Speaking from experience with him, he’s a huge positive for the Red Sox for sure.”

Lucroy also said that before signing with Boston, he received a call from Roenicke to essentially recruit him.

“He called me and wanted me to come,” Lucroy said of Roenicke. “He was like ‘Look, you got an opportunity here. You come here and you got an opportunity to make a team’ and right now, that’s all you can ask for as a guy in my position.”

The two-time All-Star also mentioned how enticing it was to get the chance to work with Jason Varitek, as the former Sox captain “is very respected in the catching world.”

The road for Lucroy to break camp on Boston’s Opening Day roster is not an easy one, with the club already having former Mets and Indians backstop Kevin Plawecki on its 40-man roster and on a guaranteed deal for the 2020 season, albeit for only $900,000.

Lucroy did not sound all that concerned about playing time in the majors for the time being though, as he emphasized how he has to “make the team first and contribute where he can to help the [Red Sox] win.”

For someone who has the kind of résumé Lucroy does, you might think he would be one to feel disrespected by the notion of not receiving a major-league contract offer, but as previously mentioned, he was brutally honest about his recent performance over the last few years.

“Analytically, I’ve been terrible,” he said. “Seriously, I’m not trying to make excuses. So, I’m not surprised I didn’t get a big league offer. Not at all.”

If he is able to regain some of the form he put on display during the middle parts of the previous decade, Lucroy could be an intriguing addition to a Red Sox team that dealt Sandy Leon to the Indians back in December.

According to WEEI’s Rob Bradford, Lucroy would earn $1.5 million if he plays in the majors this season. He will be wearing the No. 12.