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May 26. 2014 8:17PM

On Baseball: Sea Dogs give Sox fans reasons for optimism


Portland Sea Dogs players celebrate their 6-3 win over the New Hampshire Fisher Cats at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium in Manchester on Memorial Day. (Mark Bolton/Union Leader)

There are those who make their living scouting professional baseball players who will tell you that the Red Sox organization has a tendency to overrate its prospects. That may be true, but there’s no denying the fact that an abundance of talent is being seasoned with Boston’s Double-A affiliate, the Portland Sea Dogs.

According to SoxProspects.com, Portland is home to the organization’s top three prospects: second baseman/center fielder Mookie Betts (No. 1), left-handed pitcher Henry Owens (No. 2) and catcher Blake Swihart (No. 3).

New Hampshire residents had the chance to see all three players over the Memorial Day weekend, as the Sea Dogs posted three victories in a four-game series at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium that concluded with Portland’s 6-3 triumph on Monday. Red Sox fans in attendance had to be encouraged by what they saw.

Let’s start with Markus Lynn Betts, who has become a household name throughout New England this year. His offensive strengths — the ability to get on base and steal bases — as well as his versatility in the field were on display in Manchester.

Betts, who was given his nickname while his parents were watching former NBA point guard Mookie Blaylock, opened the series at second base — his primary position when the season started — but patrolled center field for the final three games. He played center field in high school, but was used at that position as a pro for the first time earlier this month.

“They just came up and told me, ‘We’re going to start looking at you to play some center field for us,’” Betts explained. “I was like, ‘OK, that’s fine.’ I just want to make it to the big leagues at whatever position it is. It doesn’t matter to me.

“People think the outfield is easy, and it’s really not. People don’t realize how much responsibility and how much you have to do out there. It doesn’t seem like I’m learning anything new, but I really am. The main thing that caught me was, on routine ground balls there’s always a place to be. I didn’t really know that. Then, when they told me, on every ground ball I was running somewhere.”

After going hitless in five at-bats Friday, Betts reached base nine times (4 hits, 5 walks) in the next three games. He also stole two bases in the series, raising his Eastern League-leading totals to 22 in 25 attempts.

Betts also leads the league in batting average (.363), which begs the question: How much more does he have to prove in Double A?

“Wherever the opportunity comes I’ll try and take advantage of it,” Betts said.

Owens was impressive in his start Saturday night, but he wasn’t pitching under much pressure. The Sea Dogs scored six runs in the first inning en route to an 18-0 victory.

Owens held the Fisher Cats to four hits in seven shutout innings, improved his record to 5-3 and lowered his ERA to 2.83. Perhaps the best news from a Red Sox standpoint is the fact that on a night when all Owens had to do was pound the strike zone, there was no sign of the control problems that have plagued him this season.

Owens, compensation for losing Victor Martinez to free agency, entered Saturday’s start having walked 14 batters in his last 15 ⅔ innings, but walked only one during his seven-inning stint. He consistently threw in the low 90s, and looked the part of a top pitching prospect.

“When he’s on the mound, he thinks he’s better than the hitter that’s stepping into the box,” said Swihart, who was behind the plate Saturday. “That’s something you need, a competitiveness like that. His changeup is almost unhittable. He used to throw like 94 (mph), but now he works on filling up the zone, hitting his spots and working in that offspeed every once in a while.”

Swihart, a switch-hitter who had 71 Division I scholarship offers coming out of high school, may have the most upside of Boston’s top prospects. He didn’t start catching until 2010 — one year before the Red Sox drafted him — and even then he was used sparingly behind the plate.

“I caught a couple games my senior year when scouts asked me to, but I usually just played shortstop and third base,” he said. “I just started working on (catching) that year.

“I was going to the University of Texas to play third base and outfield. (The Red Sox) were one of the only teams I believe that was going to have me catch.”

Swihart obviously is a fast learner, since he was named Boston’s Minor League Defensive Player of the Year last season with High-A Salem, where he led Carolina League catchers in caught-stealing percentage (44-of-106, 41 percent). He’s thrown out 12 of 25 runners who attempted to steal this season (48 percent).

Swihart is small for a catcher (6-1, 175 pounds) and some have speculated a position change could be in his future. Given a day off on Sunday, he went 6 for 13 in the series to raise his average to .291. He hit a two-run home run Monday — his fifth homer of the season — when he was in the lineup as the designated hitter.

So while things aren’t going well at the top level of the Red Sox’ organization, the silver lining is this: There appears to be plenty of help down below.

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FOUR other players ranked among Boston’s top 22 minor league prospects by SoxProspects.com began the weekend with Portland: shortstop Deven Marrero (No. 10), outfielder Henry Ramos (No. 20), infielder Sean Coyle (No. 21) and first baseman Travis Shaw (No. 22). ... Marrero looked good in the field, but went hitless in three of the four games. His average dropped to .263. … Ramos went 2-for-5 Friday, but didn’t play Saturday or Sunday because of a sore shoulder. He returned to the lineup Monday and was 0 for 4 with two strikeouts. Ramos is hitting .333 this season. … Coyle, who has bounced around the Portland infield, wasn’t in the lineup Monday, but went 7-for-14 with a home run and four RBIs in the series. He came off the disabled list Thursday. … Shaw was promoted from Portland to Triple-AAA Pawtucket after New Hampshire’s 1-0 victory Sunday. Shaw, the son of former major league closer Jeff Shaw, was hitting .305 and led the team in home runs (11) and RBIs (37) at the time of his promotion.

rbrown@unionleader.com


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