Scouting report: Henry Owens, who's headed to Pawtucket

Scouting report: Henry Owens, who's headed to Pawtucket
August 1, 2014, 2:15 pm
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BOSTON -- Henry Owens, the crown jewel of the arms in the Red Sox' system, has been promoted from Double-A Portland to Triple-A Pawtucket, where he will make his debut on Monday. The news was first reported by Alex Speier of WEEI.com. Here's a quick scouting report on the 22-year-old left-hander: 

Where does he stand?

Ask Henry Owens and he says he’s ready. Not to be promoted to Triple-A, but to face big-league hitters.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that I think I can compete with big-league hitters,” Owens said a few weeks ago, when he was still in Portland. “Last year, I thought when I was in Double-A I could compete in Triple-A, but I knew there wasn’t a spot for me. Coming into big-league camp, I knew there wasn’t a spot for me. Now I’m just trying to get better and eventually all I want to do is play for the Boston Red Sox, whenever that time is.”

The 6-foot-7 Owens has had an impressive season for Double-A Portland, going 14-4 with a 2.60 ERA, 126 strikeouts and 47 walks in 121 innings. While he hasn’t always been dominant, he’s impressed those in the Red Sox organization with how he’s grinded through starts in which he hasn’t been his sharpest.

“He’s done a really nice job of it,” Red Sox Director of Player Development Ben Crockett said. “Through his time in Portland this year, he started off hot, went through a time where he did struggle a little bit but made a nice adjustment and has been pitching pretty well ever since. He’s incorporated his breaking ball even more, which has been an area of focus for him, and he’s done a nice job of repeating his delivery effectively.” 

Owens is widely regarded as the team’s top pitching prospect, and according to MLB.com he’s the organization’s No. 2 young star behind only Mookie Betts. Consistency is still somewhat of an issue -- he allowed five runs in four innings in a start on July 24 -- but his pitching coach for the Sea Dogs, Bob Kipper, says that’s to be expected. 

“The ability to have a delivery that is on time is a challenge that all pitchers face, including Henry Owens,” Kipper said. “He’s come a long, long way in that regard. A lot of what he’s done has been really impressive. So now the expectations everyone has for Henry are really high. Then he stumbled a little bit with his ability to command the baseball and he grinded through some outings. But with that said . . . his ability to manage the struggle is pretty impressive. And the way that he does it, keeping his routine, the things he does day in and day out -- his throwing program, improving his length and extension out front, the shadow work that he does -- staying true to that has really allowed him to break through to the point that he is a little bit more familiar with a delivery that is on time. He understands timing a lot better now than he did a month ago.”

Owens participated in the Futures Game during MLB’s All-Star Weekend in Minnesota, starting for the United States in a game featuring baseball’s best prospects. His name has also been bandied about by some as the next Red Sox ace.

Those close to him have said he’s handled the attention very well, not letting it get in the way of his work.

“The ultimate pro,” Sea Dogs manager Bill McMillon said. ”It would be easy for a guy to get the big head and kind of walk around like they’re the big man on campus or whatever. But he goes about his work just like everybody else. He’s fun in the clubhouse. He’s a part of the clubhouse. The guys love him. With everything that people are writing and saying about him, you couldn’t tell that he’s that guy. He’s just that grounded.”

“I’m a pretty laid-back person,” Owens said, “and I do a pretty good job of realizing at the moment right now, I still know I’m a Portland Sea Dog so until that time changes, I’ll move on. But right now, I’m just trying to take it day by day and get better. It’s worked thus far.”

Where do the Red Sox hope he’ll be, eventually?

Is he an ace, or isn’t he? The Red Sox would never put that kind of pressure on a young player and knight him before he’s reached Triple-A. They hope he continues to progress as a starter, and that he’ll be one they can count on when the time is right to call him to Boston.

Where he’ll land in a rotation when he’s big-league ready is still up for debate among scouts.

“He has a really, really advanced feel for his changeup,” said one scout. “Not only for his age, but for the level. He’s going to have the ability to be a front-end-of-the-rotation starter. He still needs to mature physically. But the arm works easy, the delivery is together. He’s able to repeat it for a big guy. He works down in the zone well with all his pitches. He’s got a bright future ahead of him.

“He’s not going to have the stuff that overpowers guys. He’s not going to throw in the mid-90s. He’s going to be in that 88-to-92 range. But he’s going to have a feel to put the ball on the lower part of the zone and work like that. I’m not going to go so far as to say he’s a No. 1. To call him a real ace, there’s probably only a few of those in the big leagues right now. Is he an ace? No. But I think he’ll be a No. 2 or 3 starter when it’s all said and done.”

Another scout projects Owens as more of a bottom-half-of-the-rotation starter -- even drawing a not-so-favorable comparison to another young Red Sox lefty starter who didn't work out as planned.

“I don’t see him as a No. 1,” he said. “I see him in the mix at the back of a rotation, like a No. 3 or 4 starter. He doesn’t have a knockout breaking ball that [Clayton] Kershaw has or [David] Price has. Those guys are different. They’re horses. Not only do they have good stuff, but they answer the bell. The [Justin] Verlanders, those guys, that’s a big role.

“I think he could be as good or better than [Felix] Doubront. I think his command is spotty at times. I love the changeup. He has good deception with the fastball, he moves it around. But he throws that soft curveball that’s just so slow and I think the better hitters will hurt him.

“I know he’s had good outings in Portland, but a couple times he gets bopped a little bit. I’m curious to see when he gets up [to Boston]. I think he’s the next guy as a starter that helps them along with maybe [Allen] Webster and [Brandon] Workman. I have him ahead of [Anthony] Ranaudo and [Matt] Barnes, just because he knows how to pitch a little bit and he figures it out. He’s got really good game presence, but I don’t see a knockout breaking ball from him. Owens doesn’t have the curveball. It’s soft. It’s low-70s. It’s effective but most of the strikeouts come on the fastball or the changeup.

“That doesn't mean he can't go 18-7 as a starter someday. I just don't see him as front-of-the-line guy that makes a team say, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got no shot against this guy.’ I don't see him being that. I will say this that if he was 25 right now, he's probably their third or fourth starter. I just don't see the power arm.”

Kipper insists that the best is still yet to come for Owens. In his mind, if he has the talent to be a potential No. 3 or 4 starter right now in the eyes of some, how will he not be better in a few years with some seasoning? Owens turned 22 in July.

“At [22] years old, do we really think he’s maxed out?” Kipper said. “Probably not. That’s my common sense talking. Do I know that for certain? No. But my gut would tell me he’s going to be better. If that means he’s going to be more consistent than he is now, that’s better. If that means he’s going to throw the ball harder, that’s better. If that means he’ll command the baseball better, that’s better. If that means creating more power to his curveball, which is something that’s coming right now, then that’s better. He’s [22] years old. It’s hard for me to think a [22]-year-old kid isn’t going to get better.”

What he needs to do to get there

By most standards, Owens’ changeup is already an elite pitch and it helps him to be even more successful against righties -- because it runs away from them -- than he is against lefties. But his curveball, as the above scout said, could use work.

Owens worked with Kipper to add power to his curveball, which means increasing the pitch’s velocity and its tightness.

“It’s size of the break and how late the break is,” Kipper said. “It’s just a process of him being able to identify and throw it off of the fastball. He’s not trying to create break too soon in the delivery but getting it late. That’s the timing he’s working on.”

If he can make his rare bumpy starts a little fewer and a little farther between, an improved curveball would seem to have Owens on a pretty steady path to the big leagues.

“In a perfect world, if he can be patient, I would say he’s probably a year-and-a-half away,” a scout said. “I think you have to let some guys succeed at every level before you force the issue. He still has had some up and downs in Double-A.

“Could he pitch in the big leagues now? Well, do you want him to be a spot guy? Or do you want him to be up there and stay up there? I’m sure that the Red Sox will want him to go and stay, not be a floater between Triple-A and the big leagues.” 

Those in Portland say it’s only a matter of time.

“I think he just needs some time and he needs the right opportunity to present itself,” McMillon said. “He’s probably extremely close. He just needs the opportunity. He competes well. He does everything that you ask him. He’s just waiting.”

Owens wouldn’t pinpoint one particular aspect of his game to improve upon in order to help him make that next step. He’s planning to go about his business as he always has and wait for the call.

“I just come to the ballpark every day and know every single drill I do, every single bullpen I throw, there’s always something I can work on to get better,” he said. “I think I’ve done a really good at that this year. It’s helped me out tremendously.”

Trade him or keep him?

There is enough doubt out there in Owens’ ability to be front-line arm that he’s not necessarily untouchable. But he’s close. The Red Sox would have to get a massive return if they were to part ways with him -- especially with the future of Boston’s starting rotation in flux.