PORTLAND — When Arnie Beyeler talks about this year’s edition of his Portland Sea Dogs, it is obvious he’s got some young pups.
The Sea Dogs’ manager has a team with great potential but also one with a lack of exposure to the Double-A level. With a team with so much potential, there’s a great upside, but there may also be some growing pains before they run with the big dogs of the Eastern League. The season just may hinge on those dynamics.
“The starting nine or 10 or 11 guys are very young,” said Beyeler, who is in his fourth year with Portland. “The pitching rotation is very young. We have some experience, but it’s a young team. That’s a great problem to have. It’s a tribute to our scouting staff and the guys down below that they’ve developed and have got these guys up here so quick to compete at this level. The guys have a lot of talent, and it’s going to be fun to watch them play.”
The Sea Dogs went 67-74 last year and hope to improve upon that when they start play tonight in Reading. Portland has seven straight games on the road before opening at home next Thursday against Trenton.
“It’s a pretty good team this year,” said pitcher Felix Doubront, who was the Sea Dogs’ pitcher of the year last year. “We have a lot of new faces, but I think the team will be really good. We just have to put it together.”
Portland can boast four of Boston’s top 10 prospects, according to Baseball America. First baseman Lars Anderson and outfielder Ryan Kalish are two of those four and played in Portland last year. Pitcher Casey Kelly and shortstop Jose Iglesias are new to Portland. The Sea Dogs also have 10 of the Red Sox’s top 30 prospects, including infielder Yamaico Navarro, pitchers Stephen Fife, Doubront, Kyle Weiland, catcher Luis Exposito and outfielder Che-Hsuan Lin.
“We’re going to be good,” said Kalish, who had 13 homers and 56 RBI with a .271 average in 103 games in Portland last year. “I really think there’s a lot of really good players around here. There’s a mix too. There’s some really young guys, and we have some older guys that have been around and will help shape everything. I think we’ll have a really fun team.”
Portland also has 13 players returning from last year. They’ll play a key role in getting a lot of the younger players acclimated. Kelly, the second-ranked prospect in the organization played in Single-A last year while Iglesias is a first-year pro.
“We expect guys to step in and kind of lead the way a little bit,” said Beyeler. “But, even our experienced guys are young.”
Pitching should be a strength for the Sea Dogs. Kelly played short and pitched last year in Salem and Greenville. This year he’s focused on just pitching. After a strong spring, he’s ready to show what he can do.
“I threw a couple innings in the big leagues in spring training and felt really good out there,” said Kelly. “Being around the older guys and seeing how they go about their business helped me tremendously.”
He’s joined in the starting rotation by Doubront, Fife, Weiland and Ryne Miller. Doubront went 8-6 with a 3.35 ERA last year while Miller was the MVP of the California League/Carolina League All-Star Game. Weiland ranked second among Boston minor leaguers in strikeouts (112) and eighth in ERA (3.46) last year.
In the bullpen, Bryce Cox returns after earning 12 saves and posting a 2.88 ERA with Portland last year. Andrew Dobies, Tommy Hottovy and Ryne Lawson also return to the pen.
“From what we’ve done in spring training, we should have good pitching and defense,” said Beyeler. “As soon as you say that, we’ll come out and not pitch and not play defense. We’ll catch the ball and pitch okay. It should give us a chance night in and night out. We’ll just see what happens with the hitting.”
Exposito joins returnee Juan Appodaca behind the plate. Anderson at first and Iglesias at short are the biggest names in the infield. Anderson struggled last year after being Boston’s top offensive player in the minors in 2008. He had just nine homers and 51 RBI while batting .233 in 119 games in Portland.
“I feel way more comfortable,” said Anderson. “I’ve felt more comfortable all spring. I’m definitely really excited. The game is so much about comfort and comfort breeds confidence.”
Iglesias is considered the best defensive player in the system and is joined by Ray Chang, Navarro and Nate Spears in the infield. There will be some adjustments for the new players, especially Iglesias.
“The biggest difference is that he doesn’t have his family here,” said coach Alex Ochoa, serving as an interpreter. “To come here and play baseball, obviously it something he’s done all his life and something he can adjust to and effect on a day to day basis, but not having his family will be tough for him.”
The outfield is lead by Kalish. Lin is considered the best defensive outfielder in Boston’s system while Jason Place was the Red Sox’ first round pick in June 2006.
“We’ve got some good arms and defensively, I think we’re going to be a pretty sweet team,” said Anderson. “I think you’ll be hard pressed to find a better outfield than what we have.”
The potential is certainly there. Beyeler says he expects his team to face some inconsistency and struggles. There’s always the possibility of a lot of player movement up and down over the course of the year. Still, Portland starts the season with some fresh faces and a positive outlook about what’s ahead.
“I think it’s going to go well,” said Kalish. “It’s exciting. We have speed. We have power. We’ve got it all. We’ve got guys from all over. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. “