Owens, Swihart earn Red Sox Minors awards
Top prospects are honored prior to Saturday's game at Fenway Park
BOSTON -- Two of Boston's top prospects are best friends. They had career years in the Minor Leagues.
One pitches, the other catches, and together, Henry Owens and Blake Swihart are coloring in a future as bright as the present in the Red Sox organization.
Boston announced its Minor League awards on Saturday, and Owens, who threw 19 1/3 consecutive no-hit innings in High Class A Salem, was tabbed Pitcher of the Year, while Swihart earned Defensive Player of the Year honors. Second baseman Mookie Betts was named Offensive Player of the Year, while shortstop Deven Marrero earned Base Runner of the Year honors.
Swihart, who caught every inning during Owens' terrific stretch and is ranked by MLB.com as Boston's No. 10 prospect, made a bold projection.
"He'll be here [at Fenway Park] next year, I bet," Swihart said. "That guy is amazing. He gets all guys out with any pitch. Every pitch is a strength, he doesn't have a weakness. He's amazing."
Owens, ranked as the No. 4 prospect, is every bit as impressive in person as he is on paper. At 6-foot-6, 205 pounds -- and just 21 years old -- it's easy to see how he struck out 169 hitters in 135 innings between Salem and Double-A Portland this year.
Swihart was part of the reason why. The 21-year-old has made tremendous progress as a pitch-caller behind the plate in just more than two years in the Minors. He and Owens were both selected out of high school in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, but Swihart had signability concerns due to a commitment, and strong desire, to go to the University of Texas.
"I'm so dedicated to Texas," he said during a conference call with the media immediately after his selection in 2011. "I've always wanted to go there. That's Plan A right now."
But the price was ultimately right, as Swihart signed for $2.5 million, which, at the time, was the largest bonus given to a high school player by then general manager Theo Epstein.
Two years later, Swihart has become a premier defender, throwing out 42 percent of basestealers this season while posting a .794 OPS at Salem.
"I feel like I learned a lot over the past two years," Swihart said. "I'm very pleased now, but it was the toughest decision I ever had to make. I sat down with my family, we had a talk, and it was the best decision I could make at the time."
Swihart has worked with Jason Varitek, former Red Sox catcher and current special assistant to executive vice president/general manager Ben Cherington. The experience has been invaluable, and Swihart's progress has captured the attention of the front office.
"You know, really nothing surprises me with Blake," said director of player development Ben Crockett. "He's such a good athlete and he's such a hard worker, and he's really competitive in everything he does. He's kind of taken that to his approach to defense.
"He does a great job of separating the offense and defense. He's always focused on the pitching-catcher relationship, and I think the athleticism and the hard work have paid off so he could take those steps forward to be an excellent defensive catcher in an organization that has a couple pretty good defenders."
Swihart's relationship with Owens is telling for a young player. And Owens' progress has been so steady it's not too far off to think he could be helping the Red Sox in some capacity in 2014.
"They'll tell me when I'm ready -- or, I'll tell them when I'm ready and they won't tell me," he said. "I thought I made strides in my first season, kind of got my feet wet my first season and then came into Spring Training expecting to succeed, and I ended up going to Portland expecting to succeed there, too. It's good, but still a lot of room for improvement."
Betts, a 5-foot-9, 156-pound second baseman, hit zero home runs in 292 plate appearances with Low Class A Lowell in 2012. He hit 15 homers in 551 plate appearances between Class A Greenville and High-A Salem in 2013.
"I surprised myself," he said. "I learned that hard work in the offseason pays off."
Betts has always possessed plate discipline. He walked 81 times to just 57 strikeouts this season while posting a .417 on-base percentage.
Crockett is a believer that power can be developed with natural progression as a hitter. Swinging at the right pitches consistently creates more opportunities to drive the ball.
"I think from a pure raw power standpoint, I don't know that he made enormous gains," Crockett said. "I think a lot of that is him being aggressive on pitches he can drive and learning his approach. Obviously that, with the physical strength gains he's made, made that a possibility."
The idea of better pitch selection and driving up on-base percentage has been one pushed throughout the organization.
And even as Boston won its second American League East title in 18 years, its Minor League progress hasn't been overshadowed.
"It's something that we've focused on for a while," Crockett said. "Really since the big league teams of '03, '04, that's been kind of the focus for our Minor League hitting philosophy is selective aggression: aggressive to pitches we can drive but trusting in our ability to hit with two strikes and trusting the guy behind you if you don't get a pitch to hit.
"It was definitely a positive year. I think there are areas where we can improve and areas where we can continue to work. But anytime you can look at the Major League roster at points during the year and certainly in September, and there are young players that are not only on the roster, but enjoy contributing in meaningful ways, it's definitely the position we're trying to put guys in."