Red Sox minor league roundup: A new season -- and a search for the next Mookie Betts -- begins

April 04, 2014 - 6:09 am
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A year ago, the idea of Mookie Betts going 4-for-4 with a homer would have bordered on inconceivable. The second baseman had never hit a home run in his previous professional season in Lowell; for that matter, he'd never hit one in high school. He looked like he might be able to deliver the offense -- hitting for some average, drawing some walks -- of a solid big league utility option. And then 2013 happened, with Betts emerging as one of the top prospects in the Red Sox system. He vaulted from a ranking as Baseball America's No. 31 Sox prospect after the 2012 to its No. 7 prospect after the 2013 season on the strength of a dynamic year in which he hit .314 with a .417 OBP, .506 slugging mark, 15 homers and 38 steals (in 42 attempts) -- one of the most impactful all-around seasons of anyone in the minors. And so, when the 21-year-old Betts went 4-for-4 while leading off the game with a homer in his debut for Double-A Portland, the performance on Thursday came as validation rather than a shock. Such has been the nature of his prospect ascent. It is unlikely that anyone in the Red Sox system in 2014 will experience as dramatic a rise as Betts experienced a year ago. Players almost never go in one year from looking like a potential utility player to having the look of a potential big league All-Star. Nonetheless, one of the fascinations of the beginning of every year is the sense of possibility with prospects, the idea that tools and/or performance may come together for various players in a fashion that launches them into a different prospect stratosphere. So who are some Red Sox minor league candidates to make a considerable jump in prospect status in 2014? Based on both observations on the back fields during spring training in Fort Myers and conversations with numerous evaluators, here are some candidates, listed in approximate order of consensus regarding their breakout candidacy: POSITION PLAYERS -- CF Manuel Margot (Single-A) Margot is far from unheralded, as he was just outside of most Red Sox top 10 prospect lists (No. 13 in Baseball America). But the 19-year-old, who spent last year in Lowell, has a chance to take a considerable step forward in 2014 based on his five-tool skill set and a plate approach that showed improvement in spring training. In Lowell, he hit .270/.346/.351 with 18 steals and just 11 extra-base hits in 49 games. But Margot possesses the tremendous bat speed to suggest the possibility of considerably more extra-base pop, he has legitimate center field skills and the speed and aggressive approach to be an impact base stealer. It's a skill set that suggests a chance for a considerable increase in his industry value. -- 3B Sean Coyle (Double-A) Coyle faces a pivotal year in his development after repeating last year at High-A Salem. He's still just 22, but if he performs well this year, he could force his addition to the 40-man roster. Betts' emergence as a standout second base prospect has resulted in Coyle shifting to third this year in Double-A Portland, and early returns suggest that he's taken well to the position change. He strikes out a ton but there have been times -- most notably 2011 in Greenville -- when he showed an approach to get on base, and despite his 5-foot-8 frame, he generates significant right-handed power.In spring, he seemed less pull-oriented at times, something that could help him to unlock a more consistent performance. -- SS Javier Guerra (Extended spring training) A shortstop who shows very impressive, smooth actions with good range and a strong arm at the position who looks similarly under control at the plate. His pro debut as a 17-year-old in the Dominican Summer League last year was statistically underwhelming, but he shows a sound fundamental approach at the plate with the ability to deliver line drives to all field. Now 18, he was one of the more impressive Sox performers both in fall instructional league and in spring training; while he'll probably make his U.S. debut this summer in either the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League or Lowell, he has the ability to go from obscurity to putting his name on the map -- though his prospect stock might not truly take off until he plays full-season ball in 2015. -- SS Deven Marrero (Double-A) Marrero's first full pro season in 2013 yielded a .252/.338/.317 line in High-A Salem and Double-A Portland, with a .236/.321/.236 line (and, obviously, no extra-base hits) in 19 games in Double-A at the end of the year. But the 23-year-old's modest offensive numbers were at least in part a function of the lack of a base that resulted from early-season leg injuries. He looks stronger this year, and if he remains healthy, Marrero could challenge the 2013 view that he is primarily a defensive shortstop. He's probably not ever going to be a prolific home run hitter, but he has good strike zone judgment and a bat path that can permit consistent line drives that can translate to average, some doubles and decent on-base numbers. And, of course, he is a defensive stalwart, to the point where if the Sox needed an everyday big league shortstop, he would be a consideration to get bumped up from Double-A. -- C Carson Blair (High-A) At 24, Blair is old for a prospect in the Carolina League, but he's about to get his first opportunity as a pro to be a primary catcher, and he made a very favorable impression in spring training as a solid receiver with the ability to impact the ball. -- UT Mike Miller (DL) The 24-year-old had impressed in spring training, looking like a potentially solid big league utility player, until he broke his hamate in the final days of spring training. -- SS Mauricio Dubon (Extended spring training) The Honduras native, 19, who moved to the States while in high school in order to play baseball, made a positive first impression in the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League after being taken in the 26th round. He'll likely have an opportunity to build upon that in Lowell this year. -- 1B/OF Nick Longhi (Extended spring training) The 18-year-old has considerable power for his age, and in spring training, he showed an improving offensive approach that could allow that raw tool to manifest itself. His ability to impact the ball to all fields commands notice in a system short on power bats. -- 2B Wendell Rijo (Single-A Greenville) That Rijo, 18, is in Greenville to open this year speaks to how advanced a feel for the game the son of a scout has. He projects as a shortstop who will deliver above-average offense, with a swing that suggests strong doubles totals and the ability to hit for average and get on base at above-average rates. Some forecast strong numbers for him in Greenville and believe he won't really be challenged till he reaches Salem. -- UT Carlos Rivero (Double-A Portland) He's not a breakout candidate, per se, but Rivero could possess unexpected organizational value as a player who can play all four infield spots (he's played third, short and first in his career), makes powerful contact and receives strong marks for his makeup and personality. Now in his fourth organization, the 25-year-old will open in Portland, but stands at least a chance to navigate his way up the ladder to at least Triple-A, with some chance of being a big leaguer. -- C Jake Romanski (Single-A Greenville) The Red Sox are turning into a catching factory, so ignore any of their backstops at your own peril. Romanski impresses behind the plate as a high-energy guy with a plus arm, and he shows the ability to impact the ball if he can remain under control in his offensive approach. -- 3B Rafael Devers (Extended spring training) Devers is a standout offensive talent who will make his pro debut this summer at a level to be determined; he stands at least a chance of skipping the Dominican Summer League and debuting in the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League based on his ability to hold his own in both instructional league last fall and spring training this year. He already shows above-average power, and so if he hits against more advanced competition, he has a chance to turn heads and move significantly up the prospect rankings. -- SS Tzu-Wei Lin (Single-A Greenville) There are questions about his durability and whether he can withstand the physical demands of being a professional baseball player, but if he can stay on the field, his speed, defensive skill and ability to hit for average all suggest someone who could impress. PITCHERS -- LHP Cody Kukuk (Single-A Greenville) Kukuk showed potentially overpowering stuff last year, but no ability to harness it with any consistency. But this spring, there were outings where he sat comfortably at 93-94 mph and threw strikes while also showing the ability to miss bats with his slider and changeup. He showed flashes of very strong performance last year and he's coming off a strong spring training. The soon-to-be-21-year-old has a starter's physicality and impressive athleticism that permits evaluators to daydream on the potential to make a jump in the consistency of his delivery and hence his command with nasty stuff. -- RHP Jamie Callahan (Single-A Greenville) Callahan features a powerful 93-94 mph fastball, spins a really tight curve with considerable separation from his primary offering and has a chance to develop a change that would make him a starter; if not, given his bulldog makeup, he still looks like an interesting potential back-end option. The 19-year-old arrived in spring training in fantastic shape and with some improvements in his velocity that had many observers believing he could make the jump this year. -- RHP Simon Mercedes (High-A Salem) Like Callahan, Mercedes showed up in great shape this spring, and he showed outrageous stuff in his outings: a fastball that registered up to 100 mph, a diving swing-and-miss change and a swing-and-miss curveball that hadn't been present last year in Lowell due to a finger injury. If he sustains his curveball, the 22-year-old will change perception and assert himself as a potential big league starter with multiple plus offerings. -- RHP Mario Alcantara (Single-A Greenville) The stuff -- which begins with his impressive mid-90s velocity -- is unquestioned. The command is. If -- a big if -- he can harness it and throw strikes, he has some serious upside, even if he's not a high-probability bet at this stage of his career. -- LHP Corey Littrell (High-A Salem) Littrell, 22, had a 1.74 ERA with nearly a strikeout an inning in his pro debut last year in Lowell. He shows a left-handed starter's pitch mix along with a good feel for his craft. -- LHP Brian Johnson (High-A Salem) Johnson struggled out of the gate in 2013 following an offseason when he couldn't have a normal workout program while recovering from a line drive to the face that left him unable to eat for months. But he got stronger as the season progressed, forcing a year-end promotion, and he showed some noteworthy power to his fastball -- along with the potential for a broad array of (mostly average) secondary offerings in spring training. He shows a feel for pitching and could accelerate the pace of his player development this year; a lot of team officials like him as a future No. 3 or No. 4 starter. -- RHP Myles Smith (Single-A Greenville) The 2013 fifth-rounder is somewhat slight for a starter, but he had high octane stuff (mid-90s fastball, a standout cutter that emerged last year) that suggests a chance to dominate in the lower levels and create some prospect heat. -- RHP Kyle Martin (High-A Salem) The 23-year-old, a 2013 ninth-rounder, employed a rediscovered over-the-top delivery (after years as a low three-quarters guy) to dominate in his pro debut, going 4-2 with a 1.25 ERA, 30 strikeouts, 10 walks and great groundball rates in 36 innings between Lowell and Greenville last year. He's not on the map right now, but if he performs in similar fashion this year, he'll demand the attention of scouts and find a place somewhere in the organization's top 30. TRIPLE-A PAWTUCKET RED SOX: 4-0 LOSS VS. LEHIGH VALLEY (PHILLIES) (BOX) -- Right-hander Allen Webster struggled in his Opening Day start, allowing three runs on seven hits (a homer and two doubles) while striking out four, walking two and uncorking a wild pitch in just 3 2/3 innings. Webster labored through 81 pitches (46 strikes; 57 percent) in which he struck out four and walked two with a wild pitch. -- Third baseman Garin Cecchini, in his Triple-A debut, went 1-for-2 with a single, a walk and a strikeout. -- Left-hander Craig Breslow, in Pawtucket on a rehab assignment, walked two and recorded two outs while throwing 10 of 20 pitches for strikes. Breslow will pitch again in Pawtucket on Friday and then be re-evaluated as to whether he's ready for activation or will require further rehab appearances. -- Ryan Lavarnway got his first professional regular season start at a position other than catcher, playing first base and going 0-for-4. Christian Vazquez was behind the plate, going 0-for-3. DOUBLE-A PORTLAND SEA DOGS: 5-0 WIN (6 1/2 INNINGS) AT READING (PHILLIES) (BOX) -- Ho-hum. Henry Owens logged six no-hit innings, a stint that the rain elevated into his first career complete-game no-hitter. The accomplishment is hardly a novelty for Owens, who had three outings in 2013 in which he didn't permit a hit. In his last 10 minor league starts dating to last July, Owens has held opponents to a .120 average with 81 strikeouts (13.3 per nine innings) and 27 walks (4.4 per nine) in 55 innings. For a complete breakdown of how Owens proved unhittable on Thursday, click here. -- Feats of Mookie: Mookie Betts went 4-for-4 with a homer in his Double-A debut. Betts, the third-youngest position player in the Eastern League, had four four-hit games in 2013. -- Blake Swihart went 2-for-3 with a triple in his Double-A debut and, of course, was in sync with Owens behind the plate. -- Deven Marrero, who did not have a single extra-base hit in 19 games in Portland last year, delivered a pair of doubles in Portland's season opener. It was his fifth career game with multiple extra-base hits -- and his first since last May in Salem. HIGH-A SALEM RED SOX: 10-3 WIN AT MYRTLE BEACH (RANGERS) (BOX) -- Carson Blair is 24 years old, an age where players are rarely considered prospects in the Carolina League. But the 2008 35th-rounder -- who was converted to catcher once in the Sox system -- hasn't ever had a chance to be an everyday guy due to both injuries and catching crowds at the levels where he's played. The Sox see a potential late-bloomer behind the plate, and Blair got off to a solid start in pursuing such status, going 1-for-2 with a triple and three walks. -- Left-hander Brian Johnson picked up where he finished 2013, tossing five innings and allowing two runs (one earned) on four hits while punching out seven and walking two. -- Right-hander Kyle Martin logged three innings of relief, allowing one run on six hits (five singles and a double) while punching out four, walking none and getting three groundouts. -- Right-hander Kyle Stroup -- a starter since 2011 -- pitched the ninth inning, working a scoreless inning with a strikeout. SINGLE-A GREENVILLE DRIVE: 3-1 WIN AT KANNAPOLIS (WHITE SOX) (BOX) -- Left-hander Cody Kukuk, who is repeating in Greenville to open the year, proved a customarily uncomfortable look for opposing hitters. Though he walked four batters -- a somewhat disappointing number given the sense that he was making strides in his command this year -- he allowed just one run on three hits in five innings while striking out four. Opponents hit .197 against him last year, underscoring the fact that his ceiling is like few others in the Sox system -- if he can command. -- Shortstop Tzu-Wei Lin went 3-for-3 with a pair of steals. It was his third career three-hit game and marked the first time ever that Lin, 20, recorded multiple steals in a game -- perhaps a sign that he's learning to be a more aggressive player, something that the Sox hoped to see from him as he becomes more comfortable in pro ball. -- Right-hander Joe Gunkel worked a scoreless ninth for the save. An 18th-round selection last year, Gunkel dominated in Lowell in a fashion that led to some conversations about whether he should develop as a starter. But with a low-90s fastball that opponents simply don't seem to pick up and an ability to generate groundballs in volume, the team has elected to let Gunkel work in the bullpen, where he has a chance to move quickly through the farm system.

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