PORTLAND — Grab yourself a seat for the Portland Sea Dogs’ home opener one week from Thursday and you’ll see arguably the most talented team in the Boston Red Sox minor league system.
Pick a random game some lazy Tuesday evening in late July, and let the buyer beware.
Such is life at Hadlock Field, little more than a whistle stop for Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester and Jonathan Papelbon on their way to World Series jewelry.
There’s no telling if Casey Kelly will wind up anchoring the rotation with Lester and Josh Beckett in two years, or if Pedroia to Jose Iglesias to Lars Anderson will emerge as the double play combination that dominates this decade.
Kyle Weiland and Eamonn Portice arrive in town with lesser bonus checks but equal promise.
Commit their names to memory. But don’t get attached. These guys are like your cardiologist, your mechanic and your crazy uncle’s parole officer: If everything goes well, you won’t see much of them.
“Hopefully we get off to a good start and kind of force the organization to move them up,” said Portland Sea Dogs manager Arnie Beyeler. “That’s what we’d like to see, and that’s what the organization would like, so hopefully they have to send us some new ones. That’s minor league baseball. If we’re not getting the new ones, we’re not doing our job.”
Portland starts its season-opening, seven-day road swing through Reading and New Britain with a roster that is decidedly young and tantalizingly talented.
Of the top five prospects in the Red Sox organization as anointed by Baseball America, three will start the season in Portland.
Kelly (No. 2) will coax the most flash bulbs and autograph seekers as a 20-year-old right-handed pitcher with a can’t-miss repertoire.
Maybe we’re already spoiled by our everyday exposure to first baseman Anderson (No. 4) and outfielder Ryan Kalish (No.5). They merely combined for 22 home runs and 107 RBIs here last summer.
Lurking at No. 9 without so much as a single professional at-bat is Iglesias. Born in Cuba, he’s, um, at least allegedly the first player in Sea Dogs history born in the 1990s. He’s also a $6.25 million bonus baby, speaks through an interpreter, and yes, is being groomed to fill the shortstop vacuum that has prevailed since Nomaaaaah was dealt away in July 2004.
And we haven’t even aired out the live arms of Portice, Weiland, Robert Coello and Ryne Miller. They combined for 28 wins at Single-A Salem in 2009.
Not much seems to separate them on the hill. No offense to the neighborhood, but not one of them wants to be here a day longer than is necessary to punch a ticket to Pawtucket.
“That’s a good thing in my mind. High expectations make you want to do better,” said Weiland, 23, a third-round selection out of Notre Dame in 2008. “It’s a lot of competition between your own teammates to try to make it to the next level and beat the guy next to you. The Red Sox do a really good job of promoting competition between each other and at the same time being good teammates. It’s been a good journey for me from day one with the Red Sox. They do everything right.”
Double-A is where the flagship franchise’s vision begins to take shape, occasionally at the expense of wins and losses.
Portland finished fourth in the Eastern League’s Northern Division last season, seven games south of the .500 threshold. It’s hardly a reflection of what has emerged as one of baseball’s elite scouting and player development programs.
And there are too many variables to think about printing playoff tickets yet. Kelly, the presumed ace, is pitching full-time after two years of starting at shortstop on his off days. He didn’t hurl 100 innings in either of his first two professional seasons.
Portice, plucked in the 12th round in 2007, has been told he will start the spring No. 2 in the rotation. Then the organization plans to reinvent him as a set-up man for closer Bryce Cox.
“They’ve kind of told me they want me to transition slowly,” Portice said. “Give me a few innings at the start and then less and less until it’s an actual relief role where I can go out there every day.”
The Sea Dogs know what to expect from their holdovers.
Jon Still topped the more trumpeted Anderson and Kalish with 17 home runs and 89 RBIs a year ago. The catching platoon of Juan Apodaca and Luis Exposito remains intact.
Cox spun a stellar 2.88 ERA and saved a dozen games.
“We’ll score some runs. A few of us have talked about it that it’s going to be fun just to watch our team in the field,” Cox said. “With the guys coming in, there’s definitely a lot of talent in the locker room. It’s a matter of just going out on the field and putting it together.”
No matter what combination of puzzle pieces are sitting on the manager’s desk, say, seven weeks from now.
“They’re all earned their way up here for one reason or another, and we’re excited to see them work,” Beyeler said. “Hopefully these guys will get after it and we’ll get some opportunities up top to move them up. And maybe some of those guys who start here will move through to Boston and have an opportunity to do some work up there.”
Kalle Oakes is a staff columnist. His email is [email protected]