WITH THE BOSTON RED SOX spring training games under way, we’re reading about veterans getting in their work and up-and-coming prospects hoping to make an impression.

Spring training is also a time for minor leaguers looking to hold on, to show they belong on a track to the majors.

At least 12 players in the Red Sox system are facing a crossroad as they get older, beyond the age when they are considered prospects.

Many of the players listed below signed after a four-year college career, so their pro careers began with a smaller window. They need to perform right away and cannot afford to struggle for long.

Most of the dozen are coming off down years because of poor performance or injuries.

Bubba Bell, 27, outfield. He starred in advanced Class A in 2007 (.370, 22 home runs), looking like a five-tool player.

Bell was promoted to Portland that year but hasn’t been able to stay healthy or productive. He reached Pawtucket last season but batted .208 with one home run in 71 games.

Jeff Natale, 27, infield. After Natale came out of Division III Trinity in 2005, he tore up Class A pitching for two years. He leveled off in Portland in 2007 (.270) and has been limited by injuries since. He batted .282 for Pawtucket last year in 58 games.

Zach Daeges, 26, outfield. After leading the Sea Dogs with a .307 average in 2008, Daeges made the Baseball America Prospect Handbook and was invited to major league spring training in 2009.

But injuries slowed Daeges. Last year, a severely injured (but not broken) ankle kept Daeges out of all but nine Triple-A games. He has succeeded at every level, but he needs to stay on the field.

Kris Johnson, 25, pitcher. When Johnson pitched at Hadlock Field last year, it was not a good sign. Johnson already did his time in Portland in 2008. He recorded a 3.63 ERA then and showed enough promise to be invited to major league camp.

Johnson, a lefty, was drafted in the sandwich round (40th overall) of the 2006 draft. The Red Sox pushed his development, but Johnson went backward in Pawtucket (3-13, 6.35 ERA in 22 starts), eventually landing back in Portland, where he was 0-3 with a 6.35 ERA in three starts.

A move to the bullpen may be in the works, which could jump-start Johnson’s effectiveness.

Kason Gabbard, 27, pitcher. After returning to the Red Sox from Texas last April, Gabbard has worked to recover from surgery on his elbow. He made five starts for the Sea Dogs and gave up 30 runs.

Gabbard said he felt fine but needed to make adjustments. An extra year may make a difference.

• Devern Hansack, 31, pitcher. After helping the Sea Dogs to the 2006 Eastern League title, Hansack was promoted to the Red Sox and threw a rain-shortened no-hitter. In 2007 spring training, he was the last reliever cut from the major league team.

Hansack has scuffled since and underwent shoulder surgery last year.

Tommy Hottovy, 28, pitcher. A fourth-round draft pick in 2004, Hottovy also was a starter for the Sea Dogs in their championship season.

Injuries have been a problem, however. Hottovy underwent Tommy John surgery in 2008, returning last season to relieve 16 games for Portland (3.46 ERA).

Andrew Dobies, 26, pitcher. Like Hottovy, Dobies was a high draft pick in 2004 (third round) and started for the Sea Dogs in their championship run. And, like Hottovy, Dobies has had injury issues and moved to the bullpen.

He made 27 appearances for Portland last year (3.69 ERA).

Bryce Cox, 26, pitcher. Cox burst into professional baseball after being drafted in the third round in 2006. He moved to Class A that year and had a 0.74 ERA. But in Portland in 2007, his ERA ballooned to 4.91.

Cox stayed in Class A in 2008 and made 45 appearances for the Sea Dogs (2.88) last year. A good spring could send him to Pawtucket.

Ryan Khoury, 25, infield. Khoury, who turns 26 in 12 days, has spent two full seasons in Portland. Injuries have limited him to 194 games. After hitting .284 in 2008, Khoury hit .223 last year, although with 63 walks and a .346 on-base percentage.

Chad Rhoades, 26, pitcher. Rhoades is another two-year member of the Sea Dogs. Durable, Rhoades has made 97 appearances over the past two seasons, compiling a 3.94 ERA last year. He’s showing progress but turns 27 this week.

Daniel Nava, 27, outfielder. In two seasons in the Red Sox system, all Nava has done is hit .345, including .364 in 32 games with Portland. That includes a .479 on-base percentage.

So why hasn’t Nava moved up faster? The consummate underdog, Nava has never been considered a prospect, and he had to grind through the independent leagues.

If he keeps putting up good numbers, though, the Red Sox can’t ignore him.

 

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or at:

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