Red Sox Pitching Coach Dave Bush Tells His Pitchers to Maintain ‘Normal Throwing Programs’ While Awaiting MLB’s Return

At this point exactly one year ago, Red Sox pitchers had combined to throw exactly 411 innings through the club’s first 46 games of the 2019 season.

Flash forward to 2020, and that number of innings pitched on the same date stands at zero, and it appears that it will stay at zero until at least early July.

First-year Red Sox pitching coach Dave Bush, who was appointed to the position last October in place of Dana LeVangie, would be learning the ropes of his new post under normal circumstances. Instead, due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has put Major League Baseball on hold for the time being, Bush, like many across the sport, have to find new ways to coach up his players.

In a recent conversation with The Athletic’s Peter Gammons, Bush, 40, said that he has told the Boston pitching staff to stick with “normal throwing programs” until they know when they can get back to a spring training setting and can “begin a supervised program for the season” from there.

This is the same sort of sentiment Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom echoed earlier this month in a radio interview with WEEI’s Ordway, Merloni, and Fauria regarding the pandemic-induced shutdown’s effect on players.

“Even if we have a spring training, however long that spring training is, guys will need to get ramped up well in advance of that to make sure they’re in shape and make sure they can safely get back up to ready to roll whenever the season does start,” he said. “We are so used to working backward from a specific start date and we can’t do that right now. So we’re trying to keep them at a level that is responsible where we’re not trying to get them at too high a gear and then ask them to hold. But we also want to make sure they don’t run out of time to get up to speed if and when we do get a specific start date. So we’re just trying to find that happy medium.”

The conventional version of spring training was suspended by MLB on March 13th. The majority of Red Sox players left Fort Myers at the time to return to their respective homes, but it appears that some individuals, such as Alex Verdugo and Chris Sale, have returned to work out at the Fenway South complex in recent weeks. More could return relatively soon, too, considering how Florida has been loosening its COVID-19-related restrictions across the state.

According to Gammons, MLB clubs are currently terrified of two things. The first being a potential second wave of the coronavirus and all the ramifications that come with it, and the second being “that the re-ramping-up process, coming four-plus months after the initial ramping-up process, will result in a rash of injuries.”

To add on to that, Gammons writes, “Two prominent orthopedic surgeons with significant baseball experience have predicted waiting lines at the doors of Dr. James Andrews, Dr. Neal ElAttrache and the many other physicians who have preserved so many careers.”

The re-ramping up process that Gammons mentions should be a concern for pitching coaches and general managers across the league. I can’t say for sure, but it seems like these guys went into ‘prepare for the season mode’ around the same time they are accustomed to and then all of a sudden were told to go into ‘offseason mode’ just like that. I’m no pitching guru, but disrupting someone’s routine like that has to have negative connotations, right?

For now, it will be fascinating to see how Bush continues to coach his pitching staff without being in the same physical location as them.

Who Could Red Sox Target in First Round of This Year’s MLB Draft?

The start date and length of the 2020 MLB first-year player draft may both be unknowns at this point in time, but that’s not stopping clubs from doing their due diligence ahead of the annual amateur selection process.

After not having any first-round picks last year due to luxury tax-related penalties from 2018, the Red Sox are slated to make their first selection with the 17th overall pick in this year’s draft. That being the case because at 84-78, Boston finished with the 17th-worst record in baseball last season.

According to Baseball America, the 17th overall pick in the 2020 draft has an assigned slot value of approximately $3,609,700, meaning that’s how much money the Sox will have to spend on that pick, although they can go over that allotted amount if they are willing to incur some tax penalties.

Personally, I’m no draft expert, but since the 2020 MLB Draft is right around the corner, I thought it would be a good idea to look into who Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom and Co. could be targeting in the earliest stage of this year’s draft. Let’s get into it.

Target No.1: RHP Nick Bitsko, Central Bucks High School East (Doylestown, PA)

In his mock draft from April 15th, CBS Sports’ Mike Axisa had the Red Sox taking high school right-hander Nick Bitsko out of Doyleston, Pa.

Bitsko, 17, was initially set to graduate from Central Bucks High School East in 2021, but he will instead graduate early, adding on to an already impressive list of draft-eligible pitching prospects this year.

A University of Virginia commit, Bitsko posted a 1.18 ERA over six starts during his sophomore season last year, per MaxPreps.

According to a Baseball America scouting report from 2019, “Bitsko has a great pitcher’s frame, standing at 6-foot-4, 220-pounds and has a smooth and easy operation on the bump, with an overhead windup and clean three-quarter slot.”

From that same scouting report, Bitsko’s arsenal includes a 92-96 MPH fastball, a 76-83 MPH curveball, and an 86-87 MPH “firm” changeup.

If drafted by the Red Sox over the summer, Bitsko would presumably become one of the top right-handed pitching prospects in the organization, although there certainly are some minor concerns given just how young he is and how he didn’t get the chance to really throw in front of scouts this year.

Target No. 2: C Patrick Bailey, North Carolina State University

Moving to the college ranks now, Dan Zielinski III of the Baseball Prospect Journal has the Red Sox taking North Carolina State backstop Patrick Bailey in his latest first-round mock draft.

The 20-year-old out of Greensboro was drafted by the Twins in the 37th round of the 2017 draft, but he opted to honor his commitment to North Carolina State instead, and it looks like that decision is going to pay off for him.

Although he played in just 17 games for the Wolfpack this year due to the college baseball season being shut down last month, Bailey produced over the course of that small sample size, as he slashed .296/.466/.685 with six home runs and 20 RBI.

Per a March scouting report from Perfect Game USA, Bailey “has significant value as a switch-hitting catcher with pop on both sides of the plate to go along with strong defensive skills.”

If taken by the Red Sox this summer, I would guess that Bailey would slide behind Connor Wong as the second-best catching prospect in Boston’s farm system.

Target No. 3: RHP Tanner Burns, Auburn University

The first college hurler on this list, My MLB Draft’s most recent 2020 mock from earlier in the month has the Red Sox taking Auburn right-hander Tanner Burns in the first round.

Another former 2017 37th-round pick, Burns was limited to just four starts and 22 1/3 innings pitched this season due to the aforementioned shutdown. In those four starts though, the 21-year dazzled by posting a 2.42 ERA and averaging nearly 13 strikeouts per nine innings.

Listed at 6’1″ and 205 lbs., MLB Pipeline has Burns ranked as their No. 28 draft prospect. They describe the junior as a hurler, who “can work at 92-97 mph with his fastball and locate it to both sides of the plate. His breaking ball can be a plus pitch at times, combining slider velocity in the low 80s with curveball depth, but it gets slurvy at others. He hasn’t had much need for his changeup, though it has some sink and shows some signs of becoming an average third pitch.”

Burns also comes with some durability concerns, as he dealt with right shoulder soreness throughout the majority of his sophomore season in 2019.

Like Bitsko, Burns would presumably become one of the top right-handed pitching prospects in the Sox’ farm system if he is drafted by Boston at some point this summer.

Target No. 4: LHP Garrett Crochet, University of Tennessee

Sticking with the Southeastern Conference here, Prospects Live has the Red Sox selecting University of Tennessee southpaw Garrett Crochet in their 2020 Mock Draft 2.0.

A native of Mississippi who turns 21 in June, Crochet was only able to make one start for the Volunteers this year due to upper back soreness. To add on to that, the left-hander broke his jaw last May after taking a line-drive to the face in his final start of the 2019 regular season that resulted in him missing two weeks of action.

According to a Prospects Live scouting report from Crochet’s lone outing of the 2020 campaign against Wright State in March, the junior’s pitch arsenal included a fastball that sat around 95-97 MPH and maxed out at 99 MPH, an 84-86 MPH slider, an 80-90 MPH changeup, and an 80 MPH curveball.

MLB Pipeline has Crochet ranked as their 18th-best draft-eligible prospect, so he could very well still be on the board by the time the Red Sox make their first pick at No. 17.

Target No. 5: OF Heston Kjerstad, University of Arkansas

Last but not least, we have the lone outfielder on this list in the University of Arkansas’ Heston Kjerstad, who Perfect Game USA’s Brian Sakowski has going to the Red Sox in the first round of his most recent 2020 mock draft from late last month.

The Amarillo, Texas native did nothing but rake in his three seasons as a Razorback, putting together a .343/.421/.590 slash line to go along with 37 home runs and 129 RBI over 150 total games dating back to 2018.

Sakowski’s scouting report for Kjerstad looks a little something like this:

The left-handed slugger has double-plus raw pop along with the bat speed and impact generation to crush balls with wood. There are some positional questions long-term, but the Red Sox have shown the willingness to take prospects with big power and figure out how to get them into the lineup later.”

MLB Pipeline has Kjerstad ranked as their 10th-best prospect in this year’s draft, so he might not even be on the board by the time the Red Sox make their first selection at No. 17, but if he is, and the Sox take him, that would be quite the addition to an already fascinating mix of outfield prospects that includes Jarren Duran, Marcus Wilson, and Gilberto Jimenez to name a few.

Well, there you have it. Five prospects the Red Sox could take with the 17th overall pick in the 2020 first-year player draft. If they do wind up taking one of these five young players with their first pick, you can come back here and remember that I had it first.

Also, the 17th overall pick is the lowest first-round pick the Red Sox have had since 2016, so it’s probably important that they hit on it in order to improve a poorly-regarded, but steadily-improving farm system.

Red Sox Interim Manager Ron Roenicke on Not Having Any Games to Manage in Late April: ‘This Is so Strange’

In an ideal world, Red Sox interim manager Ron Roenicke would presumably be in his Boston home right about now, preparing for his team’s 26th game of the season against the Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

Instead, the coronavirus pandemic that has halted the sports world has led the baseball lifer to have no games to coach or manage at a point in time he would typically be doing so.

“I’ve been through some strikes, some lockouts, some crazy late starts in spring training, but nothing like this” Roenicke told NESN’s Tom Caron in a TV interview Tuesday. “This is so strange. I wake up every morning knowing and know I should be going to the ballpark and I’m at home. That’s just really weird.”

Roenicke was officially named interim manager by Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom on February 11th, so the 63-year-old had a little more than a month to make preparations for the 2020 campaign before Major League Baseball suspended spring training and delayed the start of the season on March 12th.

From that point, Red Sox players, coaches, and staff, for the most part, have all left the Fenway South complex in Fort Myers and returned to their respective homes.

Roenicke, a California native, still has to communicate with his players though, and that has been a lot easier to do now thanks to modern technology.

“With the players, it’s [mostly] texting and phone calls,” Roenicke told Caron. “I know Chaim and [GM Brian O’Halloran] are reaching out to some guys with some things on what’s going on. It’s a lot of text messaging. It’s hard for players also to be sitting at home during this time. Anytime we can be with them in a text or phone call, it’s helpful for them just sitting and wondering what’s going on.”

Although there is no set date for the start of the 2020 MLB season, Roenicke still believes three to four weeks is all his players need to ramp things back up.

“I don’t think we need to go longer than that,” the interim skipper said of the three to four week training period. “If MLB can give us a little bit of a heads up so guys can start getting at it more at their home or wherever they are, it certainly would help to speed this thing up.

“It’s the starting pitching, trying to get them stretched out,” said Roenicke. “If we can get those starters to start throwing some bullpens, even if they’re at home. Some up-downs. And we start up this thing, we won’t need those 3-4 weeks. It will shrink down, and if we can get them maybe three starts or something in a spring….That’s what some of the conversation we had with the commissioner, the managers trying to figure out what we can do and how we can get these starters back in shape.”

Per The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, “Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke for one hour [Friday] morning with major-league managers” in which he “offered no specifics on how the season might begin.” That’s the conversation Roenicke was referencing.

Speaking of Manfred, Roenicke, like seemingly everyone else in the Red Sox organization, still does not know when the results of the league’s investigation into the 2018 team will be released.

“I don’t know,” Roenicke said. “I think there’s so many other things that I’m thinking about and just trying to think about getting the season started again. And also obviously concerned about what’s going on in the country with the jobs and with people losing their lives and the people that are sick. These things go on. Sometimes they’re easy for some people and sometimes they last for 4-6 weeks. So, hopefully we can get this controlled.”

That’s the same sort of sentiment Bloom echoed in an interview with WEEI last week, when he said, “It is obviously frustrating that we don’t have that outcome yet. But with what is going on in the last month I think it is understandable. I know the commissioner was on a timetable doing everything he could to wrap it up before the season. Sometime early to mid-March, the coronavirus took over pretty much of every ounce of everybody’s available time and energy. I think we’re still at that stage. We are hopeful at some point when everybody gets a chance to come up for air…I know the commissioner has said the investigation is complete and it’s a question of getting into the report. We’re hopeful there is time to do that so we can all see the results and move forward. I think you have to cut everyone some slack given our industry and everybody has been dealing with something we really haven’t faced before, something for which there is no road map and understandably it has dominated everyone’s attention for the last month or so.”

To watch the full interview between Caron and Roenicke, click here.

Could Alex Verdugo Be Next Two-Way Player for Red Sox?

Coming out of high school in 2014, Red Sox outfielder Alex Verdugo was seen by clubs as both a tantalizing hitting and pitching prospect ahead of that year’s amateur draft.

While attending Sahauro High School in Tucson, Ariz., Verdugo played for the varsity baseball team all four years he was a high school student.

In his final season before graduating, Verdugo put up a gaudy .532/.593/.861 slash line in addition to posting a 2.26 ERA over 10 appearances (nine starts) and 52 2/3 innings of work as one of his team’s standout left-handed pitchers.

Those impressive numbers on both sides of the ball made the Tuscon native one of the top high school players in the state of Arizona, and they also made it difficult for team’s scouting departments to determine what the future held for the young left-hander/outfielder.

The Red Sox, under then-general manager Ben Cherington, had two opportunities to draft Verdugo in the first round of the ’14 draft but passed on him both times. Sox scouts, according to The Athletic’s Chad Jennings, “had him as a hitter on draft day, but it was a close decision and their scouts were split.”

Verdugo instead fell to the Dodgers with the 62nd overall pick. Despite how much they liked him as a pitcher, though, Los Angeles ultimately chose to label him as an outfielder, “believing he could always transition back to the mound if hitting didn’t work out.”

As it turned out, hitting did indeed work out for Verdugo, as he raked his way to becoming one of the top outfield prospects in baseball ahead of the 2017, 2018, and 2019 seasons.

Still, even with a solid track record as a hitter and a solid OPS of .817 in his first full-ish season in the majors last year, Verdugo remains interested in pitching and likens it to his little league days.

“I would be like a little kid again,” he said to Jennings in regards to being a two-way player. “Just playing ball again. Driving to the games or the tournaments, that was cool coming out of center field to go throw one inning … just try to freakin’ blow up the doors, and after that, I go back to center and we have another guy come in.”

As he told Jennings back in March, Verdugo, who turns 24 next month, understands that all this talk about pitching is just a fantasy for the time being. Until he can get through a full season healthy, it will stay that way. If he can stay healthy for a full season and produce at a high level though, Verdugo will then implement a plan that involves an offseason throwing program, building strength and durability in his arm, throwing a full bullpen sessions in Fort Myers during spring training, and then, if the Red Sox are getting blown out in a game, be used as a reliever in mop-up duty.

“I’d be like, ‘All right, I won’t throw hard today, I promise you guys!'” Verdugo told Jennings. “I’ll just go out there, and maybe I’m throwing 70 percent and touching 90 (MPH). And then they’re like, ‘Wait a minute!'”

Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom told Jennings via email that although he generally does not like “to take options off the table,” the priority right now is “helping Alex through his rehab so he can impact us at the plate and in the outfield! It just goes to show how confident he is.”

The Rays, Bloom’s former employer, drafted two-way player Brendan McKay out of Louisville in the first round of the 2017 draft, when Bloom was still there. McKay, 24, made his big-league debut for Tampa Bay last June, and posted a 5.14 ERA over 13 outings (11 starts) while going 2-for-10 with one home run at the plate.

Like McKay, Verdugo is both a left-handed hitter and pitcher. It does not seem like the easiest transition to make as a baseball player.”

“It still takes a special player to do both and a lot of work on the part of the staff to help manage workload on both sides of the ball” Bloom said. This is especially important in Verdugo’s case, considering he came to Boston as the centerpiece in the Mookie Betts and David Price trade with a stress fracture in his lower back and will likely be monitored closely once baseball activities do eventually resume sometime in the near future.

For now though, it was fun to ponder on this hypothetical possibility and it will be something to pay even closer attention to in 2021 or 2022.

Red Sox Free Agency Targets: Collin McHugh

It’s pretty late to do being one of these with spring training well underway and less than a month ago until Opening Day, but with the news that ace left-hander Chris Sale will start the 2020 season on the injured list, the Red Sox find themselves in need of starting pitching help.

With the news of Sale starting the year on the shelf, in addition to trading David Price to the Dodgers earlier in the month, the Sox’ starting rotation only has three established starting pitchers at the moment in Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi, and Martin Perez.

Guys like Brian Johnson and Hector Velazquez could fill in in either the No. 4 or No. 5 spots, and it also appears likely that an opener or two could be used, but that shouldn’t stop chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom from looking at external options as well.

Obviously, with it being the last day of February and all, the free-agent market has essentially been thinned out, but there is still one intriguing name out there in former Astros right-hander Collin McHugh.

According to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman, the 32-year-old has “recently been given the go-ahead to begin throwing after a [non-surgical] tenex procedure alleviated an elbow concern” and “nearly every team has checked in” on him thanks to his versatility.

Appearing in 35 games, eight of which were starts, for Houston last year, McHugh posted a 4.70 ERA and 4.34 xFIP over 74 2/3 total innings of work while dealing with ongoing right elbow discomfort.

His days of pitching anywhere between 150 to 200 innings in a season are probably behind him and he likely wouldn’t be ready for the start of the 2020 season if he were to sign soon, but there are still plenty of things working in McHugh’s favor.

First off, there’s the versatility piece I mentioned earlier. Maybe it’s just me, but I could see McHugh starting, serving as an opener, or working in relief once he gets up to speed with whatever club he signs with this year.

Second, he probably won’t be demanding much as a free agent. A one-year deal for cheap or even a minor-league deal could get it done. That way, if things didn’t work out, it would not be all that costly to cut ties.

Per MassLive.com’s Christopher Smith, the Red Sox now have a little more than $13 million in payroll flexibility to work with before reaching that $208 million luxury tax threshold they got under by dealing Price and Mookie Betts to Los Angeles.

McHugh would surely not command more than 25% of that $13 million as a free agent, so the rewards in this case would far outweigh the risks, in my opinion.

Outside of McHugh, free agent starting pitchers who remain unsigned include old friends Clay Buccholz and Andrew Cashner, Jason Vargas, Clayton Richard, and Marco Estrada.

Red Sox’ Chris Sale to Start 2020 Season on Injured List

Red Sox ace left-hander Chris Sale will start the 2020 season on the injured list, interim manager Ron Roenicke announced Thursday.

Sale had been recovering from a bout with pneumonia as camp broke earlier in the month, which set him back about two weeks in his preparations for the 2020 season. Because of that setback, it had already been determined that the 30-year-old would be unable to get the six spring starts the Red Sox wanted him to make before Opening Day.

Roenicke did say that the reason for Sale’s soon-to-be IL stint is completely pneumonia-related, and has nothing to do with the build-up of his arm, which is going “great.”

According to The Athletic’s Jen McCaffrey, Sale has “been throwing bullpens and has progressed to simulated games with a chance of appearing in his first game next week.”

Entering his fourth season with Boston, Sale is coming off an injury-shortened 2019 campaign where he made just 25 starts and threw 147 1/3 innings, the lowest totals of his career since he became a starter in 2012.

The Red Sox shut the lefty down in August due to inflammation in his left elbow, and he received a PRP injection from Dr. James Andrews that same month.

Another visit with Dr. Andrews in November resulted in Sale being cleared to throw with an eye towards spring training, so in terms of where he is at with his arm, everything appears fine.

Sale is set to earn $30 million in the first year of the five-year, $145 million extension he signed with the Sox last march.

As MassLive.com’s Christopher Smith notes, “IL stints for pitchers will increase from 10 days to 15 days this season.” Meaning that Sale will likely remain sidelined for the first two weeks of the 2020 campaign.

Sale’s absence to begin things means the Red Sox now have three viable starters — Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi, and Martin Perez — in their rotation.

Right-hander Ryan Weber looks like an early favorite to take David Price’s spot, but who the Sox turn to to fill in for Sale will be interesting to see.

 

Red Sox Prospect Chih-Jung Liu Being Quarantined Due to Coronavirus Concerns

Red Sox Taiwanese pitching prospect Chih-Jung Liu is being quarantined in a hotel room by the team, according to The Boston Globe’s Pete Abraham.

Per Abraham, Liu departed Taipei on a flight to San Francisco last week, where he, along with all international travelers, was screened for the virus.

Arriving in Fort Myers with the hopes of being ready for minor-league camp, the 20-year-old right-hander is instead “being quarantined in a hotel room by the Sox to guard against the coronavirus.”

The most recent reports from the Centers of Disease Control state that there have been 31 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Taiwan, and according to a team spokesman, the Red Sox are using “an over abundance of caution” with this international issue, as they also quarantined Taiwanese infielder Tzu-Wei Lin earlier in February.

“I had been here for a week and they said I needed to go back to my apartment,” Lin told Abraham. “I was fine. I stayed away for one day and that was it.”

While in quarantine, Liu is “being delivered three meals a day, doing some weight training, and going for an occasional run,” per his Facebook page.

The Red Sox signed Liu as a two-way international prospect out of Taiwan for $750,000 back in October, but according to vice president of player development Ben Crockett, the plan is to have Liu develop as a pitcher.

“We’re just really excited to get our hands on him,” Crockett said of Liu to The Athletic’s Chad Jennings. “This guy has good stuff, and we know he’s athletic, and we’ve heard really good things about him as a person, too.”

According to MLB Pipleine, Liu is ranked as the Sox’ No. 17 prospect. If he is healthy, which he says he is, he is expected to report to Fenway South on Saturday.