FORT MYERS, Fla. – When Arnie Beyeler, then the Portland Sea Dogs manager, talked about his talented team last year, he emphasized one word.
It was a young roster that would make youthful mistakes, Beyeler warned. But the youngsters would get better.
“I’d much rather be sitting here with a lot of talent instead of what you see is what you get (kind of players).”
And that brings us to the 2011 Sea Dogs. This is not a group of established players with proven success in Double-A baseball. Heck, some of them struggled in Class A.
The average age is a shade under 24 and nearly half the team has never played at this level.
But, struggling and getting better is the name of the player development game.
“We’re trying to develop everyday players for the Boston Red Sox,” said Mike Hazen, Red Sox director of player development. “To do that, they’re going to have to play at advanced levels. When they get up to the big leagues, it’s going to be an extremely advanced level.
“We start that process now. When we pushed guys like (Felix) Doubront and (Ryan) Kalish, they showed pretty well (in the majors). I think it’s because it’s not the first time they’ve been challenged. It’s not the first time they’ve struggled or faced hitting or pitching that is more advanced.”
Doubront had some difficult outings for the Sea Dogs and Kalish went through his slumps, but both made it to Boston last year and figure to be there again sometime this season.
SO, WHAT do we have with this group of Sea Dogs?
There are only two everyday players with a full year’s experience at the Double-A level (outfielders Che-Hsuan Lin, 22, and Chih-Hsien Chiang, 23), plus one starting pitcher (Stephen Fife, 24) and four relievers (Tommy Hottovy, 29; Santo Luis, 27; Blake Maxwell, 26; Eammon Portice, 25).
Hottovy will be in Portland for a sixth season
“I know Portland and they know me,” joked Hottovy. But even he is a new pitcher in a way.
When Hottovy first came to Portland in the Sea Dogs’ championship season of 2006, he was a left-handed starter. After years of struggles, including Tommy John elbow surgery in 2008, Hottovy is making himself over as a side-armed reliever.
The results in spring training were positive and with no room in the crowded Triple-A Pawtucket bullpen, Hottovy was sent back to the Sea Dogs to get some work.
Portland’s bullpen features an average age pushing 26.
The exception is Caleb Clay, 23, who was drafted in the supplemental round out of high school in 2006. But he underwent Tommy John surgery the next year.
Clay started 25 of his 26 games for Salem last year (4-14, 4.57 ERA). The numbers are a little deceiving, since he gave up three runs or fewer in nine of those losses.
Fife and returnee Alex Wilson, 24, will be joined by Stolmy Pimentel, 21; Brock Huntzinger, 22; and Michael Lee, 24.
Pimentel is the prospect of the group and was placed on the Red Sox 40-man roster. Wilson also was in major league spring training camp.
The infield is young. First baseman Jorge Padron, 24, is the only returning player. He inherited the starting job once Anthony Rizzo was traded.
Second baseman Oscar Tejeda, 21, and third baseman Will Middlebrooks, 22, are the prime prospects. Shortstop Ryan Dent, 22, has not had a lot of offensive success but is getting that “push” Hazen mentioned.
Jonathan Hee, 25, from the University of Hawaii, will take over the utility job once held by Ryan Khoury.
The outfield includes two players up from Salem: Alex Hassan, 23, and Mitch Dening, 22.
The catching is promising, with both returning Ryan Lavarnway, 23, and Double-A rookie Tim Federowicz, 23, considered prospects to reach the majors.
This year’s team has some talent, although last year’s group will be difficult to match.
That group saw four players go from Double-A to the majors in one season (Doubront, Kalish, Lars Anderson and Yamaico Navarro), and three other prospects develop just fine (Jose Iglesias, Rizzo and Casey Kelly).
The 2010 Sea Dogs finished 70-71 and missed the playoffs.
This year’s players have work ahead of them — their mistakes, their struggles and, if all goes to plan, their advancement to the next level.
Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or at: