April 21, 2013

On Baseball: The kid's a man, and expecting to meet those expectations

By Kevin Thomas kthomas@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Michael Almanzar showed enough tangibles for the Boston Red Sox to gamble.

click image to enlarge

Michael Almanzar may be just 22, but he signed his first pro contract at age 16 and had to undergo struggles before starting to realize his vast potential with the Sea Dogs.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Go down the checklist:

Athletic, with a body that had potential for power.

Obvious baseball skills.

Good bloodlines. His father was a major leaguer.

So the Red Sox opened up owner John Henry's checkbook and wrote out seven figures, handing a $1.5 million signing bonus to Almanzar.

He was 16 years old.

That was July 2, 2007. Almanzar received one of the biggest bonuses that July. Every summer, major league teams toss out money to teenagers from countries whose players are not subject to the major league draft, focusing on those in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. The young players are free agents and go to the highest bidders.

Big money translates into big expectations for kids who would be finishing a sophomore year in an American high school.

When Almanzar played third base and took his first professional swings in 2008, as a 17-year-old in the rookie Gulf Coast League, the Red Sox had to be smiling. He batted .348 with a home run in 23 games.

He was so good, the Red Sox promoted him two levels that year, past another rookie league in Lowell to Class A Greenville.

Then the struggles began.

From those 35 games in Greenville through 2011, Almanzar never got out of Class A, batting a combined .222 in Lowell, Greenville and advanced Class A Salem.

"Obviously a lot of attention was brought his way," said Portland Sea Dogs Manager Kevin Boles, who managed Greenville in 2008 and '09. "Being a younger guy with a lot of potential when you get that much attention in the spotlight, that can take its toll."

Almanzar, now 22, will admit to "trying to do too much (but the pressure) was not hard. I know how to play. Someday it would be all right."

Welcome to someday.

Almanzar, 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, began to break out last year in Salem. He batted .300 with a combined on-base/slugging percentage (OPS) of .812. He played both third base and first.

"He's keeping his body under control," said Sea Dogs hitting coach Rich Gedman, who worked with Almanzar last season in Salem. "More than anything he's not changing his approach. He's really worked hard on letting his swing work."

That natural ability continues to shine this season, Almanzar's first with Double-A Portland. Through Friday, Almanzar was batting .321 (.983 OPS) with a team-best four home runs.

"Couple years ago to now, he has absolutely matured," Boles said. "His skills are coming out. He's starting to produce in games. He's a completely different player."

Almanzar is different, yet is becoming the player the Red Sox envisioned. We are still dealing with a small sample size this season, but the signs are encouraging. Almanzar knows he has changed.

"I don't think too much. I'm not thinking I have to get a hit," Almanzar said. "Just see the ball and hit the ball."

Sounds so easy but of course it isn't. Almanzar has faced challenges, not only early in his pro career, but as the son of Carlos Almanzar, who pitched in the majors from 1997 to 2005.

The elder Almanzar pitched for the Blue Jays, Padres, Yankees, Reds and Rangers. He often brought his son to the ballpark.

"He would pitch to me for batting practice," Michael said.

Did dad take it easy? "No," Michael said. "Not easy. Change-up. Slider. Everything."

After 2005, Carlos Almanzar continued to pitch in the minors. The Red Sox signed him in 2007 -- an interesting move since Boston was in the process of wooing his son -- and Carlos actually pitched in three games for Portland.

Now his son is here. Michael Almanzar is not yet a major leaguer but the Red Sox have always believed in his potential.

"He's an exciting talent," Boles said.

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

kthomas@pressherald.com

Twitter: ClearTheBases

 

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