Boston Red Sox outfield prospect Juan Carlos Linares is already 26 and he’s played in only 13 games at the Double-A level.
Does that mean fans should write him off as a potential major league contributor? Not necessarily.
A stocky, Kirby Puckett-esque center fielder with decent speed and gap power, Linares came up through the amateur ranks in Cuba with players such as Kendry Morales and then spent three seasons playing for La Habana in the Cuban League from 2007 to 2009. During the 2009 season, he hit .325 BA/.430 OBP/.588 SLG, leading his club to the league title.
“During that last year playing in Havana, we had a great team,” said Linares, through translator Eddie Romero, Jr., the Red Sox's assistant director of Latin American operations. “Our rotation -- our top five pitchers -- were also the top five pitchers on the national team. I also felt like we had three or four hitters that could come through at any time in a clutch situation, and that led us to the championship.”
After the 2009 season, Linares defected from Cuba to the Dominican Republic to pursue a career in the major leagues, despite the fact that he was already well past the age many international prospects make that move. Several teams began showing interest, Boston included.
“I was working out in the Dominican Republic when the Red Sox started showing interest,” said Linares. “That excited me because I’ve always been a Red Sox fan. When that opportunity arose, there was no doubt that it was the team that I wanted to sign with.”
The signing became official in July 2010, and Linares was assigned to the Rookie-Level Gulf Coast League the following month. After just four games with the GCL squad, Linares was assigned to Double-A Portland, where he hit .239/.271/.391 in 13 games.
During his time with the Sea Dogs, Linares demonstrated above-average range, solid defensive instincts, an average arm, good speed, decent present power and solid-to-average bat speed. However, he also showed a tendency to be pull-happy at the plate and a lack of selectivity against advanced secondary pitches.
Following the 2010 season, the outfielder was assigned to Peoria in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .397/.423/.662 in 17 games with the Javelinas. He finished among the top hitters in the league in several categories.
“I loved it in Arizona, it was a great experience -- a really nice place to play,” said Linares. “I got to play with and talk to a lot of great prospects down there. But the biggest key for me was the preparation. I had a lot of time to prepare before I went down there and while I was there, and that allowed me to have a little bit of success.”
Red Sox director of player development Mike Hazen recently addressed Linares’ whirlwind year.
“We haven’t gotten a ton of looks at him -- we saw him in the Fall league; he did really well,” said Hazen. “He also looked good in the first couple weeks -- the only couple weeks -- we had him in Double-A.”
Hazen also indicated that Linares is not a typical prospect and emphasized that he should not be written off due to his age.
“Yes, he’s a little older age-wise, but he does have some experience in Cuba,” said Hazen. “But it’s still a difficult transition for any player. People look at him and think that because he’s 26, his assimilation to this country may be that much further ahead, but that may not necessarily be the case. He’s still learning the language and getting accustomed to being here, very much like a younger player.”
To help with that transition, the Red Sox sent Linares to the Rookie Development Program in Boston earlier this month with 10 other prospects who the team considers to be players who could impact the major league roster in the next 12 to 18 months.
“It’s been a great experience, especially working with the kind of staff and trainers that we have here and mixing in with guys that have played at the major league level,” said Linares. “Those guys being here just shows you what you need to work on on a daily basis to improve.”
Another part of the transition is getting used to New England weather. For Linares, waking up to 18 inches of new fallen snow earlier this month was a site to behold.
“I’ve been in Boston a couple times -- right after I signed and on another occasion,” said Linares, “but this is the first time that I’ve even seen snow. It’s something else.”
That fact alone is evidence that Linares is only in the early stages of the process of transitioning to playing in a new country.
“He’s an exciting player but the book hasn’t been written on him yet,” said Hazen. “I think the age is a little bit misleading because he’s still going through a lot of the assimilation transitions that our younger Latin American players go through -- he’s just doing it at a more advanced level.”
In gearing up for the offseason, the front office has Linares focusing on the physical aspects of his game.
“I’ve been working on my speed,” said Linares. “That’s been my area of emphasis. But I also recognize that you have to be a complete player. While I’m concentrating on speed, I know I can’t fall back in other areas.”
“He’s probably never been on a structured physical program from start to finish, offseason and in-season,” said Hazen. “That’s something we’ve had numerous conversations about. That’s probably his number one priority. Number two is just learning a physical, daily routine within a 140 game schedule at the minor league level. A lot of the stuff that we talk to our rookie-ball and A-ball kids about -- we need to make sure we don’t skip that step for him.”
This spring, Linares will likely be on the bubble for a roster spot between Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket. That decision will likely hinge on his spring training performance and his level of comfort in the assimilation process, which could benefit from a return trip to familiar surroundings in Maine to start the 2011 campaign. In Portland, Linares could end up pared with fellow countrymen Jose Iglesias, Jorge Padron and Adalberto Ibarra, all of whom defected from Cuba and signed with the Red Sox since the end of the 2009 minor league season.
Fall and Winter League Wrap-up
The Australian Baseball League regular season ended on Jan. 22, closing the door on the fall and winter league season.
The top offensive performer this offseason was undoubtedly Linares, but first baseman Reynaldo Rodriguez also impressed with Monteria in the Colombian League, hitting .328/.377/.655 in 116 at-bats. Other top hitters included third baseman Jorge Jimenez, who hit .283 in the Puerto Rican League; PawSox outfielder Bubba Bell, who hit .290 with Caracas in the Venezuelan Winter League; and Yamaico Navarro, who put up a .878 OPS with Licey in the Dominican Winter League. All three are likely to start the 2011 season with Pawtucket. In Australia, first baseman Boss Moanaroa hit .278/.341/.519 for Sydney. He’ll likely start the 2011 season with short-season Lowell.
On the mound, a trio of upper-level pitchers showed some success in small sample sizes. Santo Luis, a reliever who finished the 2010 season with Pawtucket, put up a 2.79 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP in 9.2 innings with Cibao in the Dominican Winter League. Another PawSox pitcher, Kris Johnson, went 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA in 24 innings with Escogido in the same league. Former Rule 5 pick Miguel Gonzalez, likely slated for Portland in 2011, went 3-2 with a 4.22 ERA in 64.0 innings for Mazatlan in the Mexican Pacific League.
Since our last update on Dec. 8, the Sox signed a bevy of minor league free-agent pitchers to compete for the final spot in the major league bullpen and/or to serve as major league depth at the higher levels of the system, including Andrew Miller, Lenny DiNardo, Rich Hill, Randy Williams, Clevelan Santeliz and Tony Pena, Jr. Additionally, Boston signed outfielder Ryan Harvey, a former first-round pick of the Chicago Cubs with a .244 career batting average. The Red Sox will attempt to convert Harvey to pitching in 2011, as the 26-year-old apparently had a 94-mph fastball in high school.
Boston also signed Hector Luna, a versatile utility man with ample major league experience in four different organizations, to a minor league deal. Luna will likely serve as a valuable depth option in Pawtucket this season.
The Red Sox also lost a handful of minor leaguers since Dec. 8. Gustavo Molina, Fernando Cabrera, Ray Chang, Gil Velazquez and Taylor Buchholz all signed elsewhere as free agents. Max Ramirez and Jordan Parraz were both claimed off waivers after being designated for assignment. Boston also released Jon Still, Randy Consuegra and Wilson Matos.