Red Sox minor league roundup: Of Sean Coyle, Russian dolls and the Red Sox prospect ceiling question

June 30, 2014 - 8:05 am

They are Russian dolls, but all roughly the same size, an assembly line of 5-foot-8-ish second basemen who are now fanning out across the field in recognition of the reality of the axis around whom they will rotate. Dustin Pedroia started the movement, defying his stature to become Rookie of the Year, MVP and the cornerstone of the Red Sox, a player who is signed through 2021, in what will be his 16th year with the team. His presence, in turn, has transformed other players with their professional origins at second base into valuable contributors elsewhere. Brock Holt has become a glove company's poster boy in waiting (for the record, he possesses two infield gloves that are his own -- one for games, one for pregame work -- borrows Mike Napoli's glove when he plays first base and is using a glove conferred upon him by Alex Hassan when playing in the outfield). Mookie Betts moved from second base to center field a bit more than six weeks ago; he made his big league debut in right on Sunday night. Next up: Sean Coyle? Coyle is the smallest of the diminutive assembly line, yet he is clubbing the ball like a big man. At a time when Holt and Betts have flourished at an unexpected pace and to a somewhat unexpected degree, Coyle, too, is experiencing a fascinating breakout in 2014 in Double-A Portland -- a level where he opened the year at third base in deference to Betts' presence, but has moved back to second with his former teammate now having moved on. On Sunday, Coyle went 3-for-4 with a double and triple as well as a walk while driving in five runs. His numbers are quickly reaching dizzying levels. The 22-year-old -- one year older than Betts, but still young for Double-A (if not inexperienced -- he's in his fourth full pro season) -- is hitting .363 with a .444 OBP and .615 slugging mark, nine homers and 26 extra-base hits in 52 games. Those are better across-the-board hitting numbers than Betts (.355/.443/.551) posted in Double-A (though it bears mention that Betts is one year younger and graduated from the Sea Dogs before the thaw of Portland's typically arctic early-season conditions; also noteworthy is that Betts' plate discipline and pitch recognition were outrageously advanced, suggesting a higher probability of sustaining his performance across levels). Coyle is 12-for-12 in stolen base attempts, and defensively, he's looked strong at both his primary professional position of second base and his new spot on the diamond at third. With a few more plate appearances, Coyle (who spent time on the DL earlier this year with a hamstring injury) will qualify for the minor league leaderboards. If he qualified for them today, he'd be the full-season minor league leader in average while ranking seventh in OBP and fifth in slugging, his numbers ranking among the elite offensive prospects in the minors at an age that wouldn't disqualify him from such consideration. There is a chance that this is something of a mirage. After all, Coyle has shown dazzling flashes in the past, only to see them disappear with the soft afterglow of a lightning bug. Just last year, he exploded out of the gates with nine homers (most in the minors at the time) while hitting .324/.372/.789 through the first five weeks of the season, only to see his season get derailed by a succession of injuries that diminished his production (.241/.321/.513 with 14 homers in 48 games) and left him unable to advance out of Salem, where he spent a full year for the second straight season and fell behind Betts in the organizational pecking order. (In retrospect, no shame in falling behind Betts.) And indeed, he's been unable to achieve any sustained consistency throughout his career, in no small part due to a host of injuries -- thumb, knee, hamstring, a pitch to the face. Indeed, one evaluator wondered whether the beaning he suffered in his first pro season in 2011, while in Single-A Greenville, had contributed to the inability to remain locked in, to maintain an ongoing sense of comfort at the dish. Certainly, the fact that he's shuttled on and off the DL throughout his career has also lent itself to difficulty sustaining his performance -- with enough injuries throughout his professional career to wonder if staying healthy, an oft-overlooked tool, is something that will elude Coyle. Moreover, while Double-A is often considered a separator league, there are instances when success there has been misleading in recent years. Just three years ago, then-Red Sox outfielder Chih-Hsien Chiang -- a player with a modest performance record to that point -- exploded with a .340 average, .402 OBP, .648 slugging mark and 18 homers in 88 games for Portland. He was dealt to the Mariners as part of the 2011 deadline package for Erik Bedard, and has not posted an OBP as high as .300 since, and three years later, he's struggled for the Orioles' Double-A affiliate. So there are caveats and qualifications to Coyle's explosion. Nonetheless, the first three months of 2014 have offered an emphatic reminder of Coyle's tremendous potential. The Sox took him in the third round of the 2010 draft but gave him first-round money ($1.3 million to pass on a scholarship to UNC) because they viewed him as a first-round talent, a potential up-the-middle player with the ability to move to other positions (he showed well at third, and there's some thought that his baseball instincts would allow him to play the outfield as well), good baserunning speed and instincts and a chance for 25-30 homer power. That profile suggests a player with a ceiling matched by few position players in the Red Sox system. Now that Xander Bogaerts and Betts are in the big leagues, a case can be made that Coyle has one of the highest ceilings of any position player in the Sox system, with only Blake Swihart and Rafael Devers clearly ahead of him. Depending on preferred flavor of ice cream, debatable cases can be made for Garin Cecchini (given the potential for huge OBPs), Greenville outfielder Manuel Margot (a possible five-tool player), Deven Marrero and Christian Vazquez (the latter two based on Gold Glove-caliber defense at premium positions and adequate offense, with much higher probabilities of achieving that status than Coyle based on their track records) as having bigger ceilings than Coyle's. A few other players, such as Double-A outfielder Henry Ramos, recently drafted Sam Travis (if he can move to third base and becomes more lean) and rookie level shortstop Javier Guerra represent deeper projection candidates for such a status. And it's worth stating: Ceiling doesn't define the better prospect, since prospect status must account for the probability that a player lands at his ceiling or floor, and the relative distance between those two positions. But those caveats aside: There aren't many in the Sox system who show the pure potential of Coyle. His track record makes him a wild card to ever scrape that projection ceiling, but the Sox will enjoy the opportunity to daydream about a player with the potential to emerge as the next of the Russian dolls. TRIPLE-A PAWTUCKET RED SOX: 7-4 WIN VS. DURHAM (RAYS) (BOX) -- Left-hander Chris Hernandez will likely lose his spot in the Pawtucket rotation in the next few days, with Rubby De La Rosa moving back down to Triple-A. If that happens, the 25-year-old closed out his recent run with a compelling case for future opportunities. On Sunday, he permitted two runs on three hits and a walk in seven innings, punching out eight. In nine starts this year for Pawtucket, he's posted a 3-4 record but with a 3.18 ERA, 6.7 strikeouts and 3.4 walks per nine while holding opponents to a .214 average and yielding just one homer in 51 innings. That performance is in line with what Hernandez has done everywhere since the Sox took him in the seventh round of the 2010 draft, save for a horrendous 2013 in Pawtucket, where he went 3-9 with a 5.72 ERA. Hernandez lacks power stuff, but shows an ability to execute pitches (none straight) to both sides of the plate and he's unafraid of living with what is more accurately characterized as mid- to high-80s warmth than heat. He's behind too many pitchers in the Sox system to have a likely chance to start in the big leagues for Boston, but he's positioning himself to get an opportunity in the big leagues with someone. -- For the third time in four games, Drake Britton allowed two runs in an inning of work, doing so on two hits (including a homer) and a walk without a strikeout. His ERA is 5.06, he's walked more (24) than he's struck out (20) in 32 innings and opponents are hitting .315 against him. There is some transition occurring as Britton is still acclimating to the life of a full-time reliever for the first full season of his career. Nonetheless, given that this is his last season with options, his performance struggles raise significant questions about the future of his spot on the 40-man roster. -- Travis Shaw went 1-for-4 with a homer, his sixth extra-base hit in five games. That matches the number of extra-base hits he had in his first 27 games in Pawtucket. The 24-year-old is now hitting .266/.299/.435 in 32 games in Triple-A. -- Catcher Dan Butler's June surge continued, as he went 3-for-4 with a homer. On June 17, he was hitting .199/.298/.286. Less than two weeks later, a hot stretch that has seen him reach base in 12 straight games has him at .224/.311/.323. DOUBLE-A PORTLAND SEA DOGS: 13-9 WIN AT READING (PHILLIES) (BOX) -- Derrik Gibson went 2-for-3 with a triple and a pair of walks, continuing his unexpected reemergence as a potential big leaguer after years languishing in the Sox system. Gibson is now hitting .321 with a .408 OBP and .403 slugging mark. At 24, he's old for a traditional prospect, but he looks like a different hitter than he did in his prior two full seasons in Portland in 2012 and 2013, suggesting the possibility of a future as a big league role player who can offer -- if his offensive development proves sustainable -- the ability to hit and get on base with no power, some speed and defensive versatility. He's hitting .403/.466/.481 against lefties. -- Outfielder Keury De La Cruz went 2-for-5, and in 25 games this year following a season-opening two months on the DL, he's hitting .313/.327/.438. HIGH-A SALEM RED SOX: 4-2 WIN VS. WILMINGTON (ROYALS) (BOX) -- Right-hander Pat Light had one of his best outings since being promoted to High-A, tossing five innings in which he allowed one unearned run on five hits while walking two and punching out three. The outing represented a noteworthy rebound from the 23-year-old's prior two outings, in which he allowed 15 earned runs on 20 hits in 6 1/3 innings. -- Mike Miller went 2-for-3 with a pair of doubles, improving to .290/.347/.333 after 25 games after missing all of April and May following a broken hamate at the end of spring training. The 24-year-old is considered a potential big league utility player. SINGLE-A GREENVILLE DRIVE: 4-3 LOSS (10 INNINGS) AT HICKORY (RANGERS) (BOX) -- Right-hander Jamie Callahan had his longest outing of the year, allowing three runs in six innings while walking one and striking out three. He gave up just three hits -- all solo homers. The 19-year-old took a no-decision, and is now 2-7 with a 6.59 ERA in 15 starts this year. -- Outfielder Kendrick Perkins went 2-for-3 with a double and walk, adding to the best stretch of the 22-year-old's career. In his last eight games, he's hitting .423 with a .483 OBP and .769 slugging mark, with two homers and a double in his last three games. For the year, the 2010 sixth-rounder is hitting .324/.380/.521 with six homers in 44 games. SHORT-SEASON SINGLE-A LOWELL SPINNERS: 7-5 WIN AT VERMONT (ATHLETICS) (BOX) -- Second-round pick Sam Travis is heating up in his adjustment to pro ball. The 20-year-old out of Indiana went 3-for-5 with his second homer, and for the third straight game, he drove in a pair of runs, and the homer was his second in three games. He's hitting 273/.273/.432 with no walks and six strikeouts in his first dozen pro games. -- Shortstop Mauricio Dubon went 2-for-5 with a double, his sixth multi-hit game in 14 contests this season. The 19-year-old is hitting .276/.317/.397 thus far. ROOKIE LEVEL GULF COAST LEAGUE RED SOX: OFF DAY DOMINICAN SUMMER LEAGUE RED SOX: OFF DAY