Red Sox minor league roundup: Taking stock of the prospects at the start of the season

April 04, 2013 - 9:37 am

NEW YORK -- The other Opening Day is upon us. On Thursday, three of the Red Sox' full-season minor league affiliates open their seasons, with Triple-A Pawtucket, Double-A Portland and Single-A Greenville all set to start play, and High-A Salem of the Carolina League set to open on Friday. As was the case last year, will endeavor (to try, to seek, to find and occasionally to yield to the realities that it's hard to sustain this project on an everyday basis) to offer a daily roundup of the most interesting performances in the Red Sox' minor league system. The emphasis will be less on individual games than it will be on the development of prospects in broader context. The idea is to give a sense of where the players who might impact the Red Sox in the months or years down the road are in the (typically) nonlinear world of their career trajectories. With games set to kick off, here's a level-by-level look at an incomplete list of the most interesting players on each roster with some insight into their performances in spring training. TRIPLE-A PAWTUCKET RED SOX -- Based on the spring, right-hander Allen Webster looks like the Pawtucket prospect with the greatest chance of making a considerable mid-year impact should the opportunity (whether due to injury or poor performance by one of the five season-opening big league starters) arise. His ability to show high-90s velocity with sink on his fastball coupled with a terrific changeup and a biting slider suggest a pitcher with top-of-the-rotation potential if his command can be harnessed. He did a great job of doing just that in big league camp, striking out 14 and walking just one in 11 innings, and continued attack the strike zone once reassigned to minor league camp. "He was very similar to what he'd done at the major league side -- he only had, I think, a couple walks throughout spring training," said farm director Ben Crockett. "A few mechanical adjustments that were made really helped him repeat his delivery a little better and kept him on line a little better, allowing that fastball to play. With as much movement and as much velocity as he has, his focus can be on the big part of the plate and letting it work to the corners rather than being too fine." -- Right-hander Rubby De La Rosa -- who, like Webster, was acquired in the blockbuster deal with the Dodgers last season -- continued to work in two-inning stints over the duration of spring training, just as was the case when he showed eye-opening stuff (albeit inconsistent execution) in big league camp. He will open the year as a starter who will work in short stints, with no strictly defined plan for his progression to build his innings load as he gets further and further removed from his 2011 Tommy John surgery. Because of his early-season innings restrictions, De La Rosa is unlikely to be in the mix as a spot starter for the Red Sox in the early months of the season. -- Left-hander Chris Hernandez received little fanfare as a non-roster invitee in big league camp, but he will be in the mix early if the Red Sox need a spot starter. Over the last two years, he's been the most consistent performer in the team's farm system thanks to a diverse array of pitches that move in all sorts of directions, eliciting bad contact rather than swings and misses. -- Outfielder Bryce Brentz, whose self-inflicted gunshot wound to the leg cost him an opportunity to take part in big league camp but who escaped more serious injury, is set to open the year as the everyday right fielder in Pawtucket. He had good at-bats in his brief exposure to big league spring training games, going 3-for-9 with a walk, a homer a double and just two strikeouts, leading to an impression of a successful spring despite its faltering start. -- Catcher Ryan Lavarnway had a solid performance in spring training behind the plate (it was notable, for instance, that he showed the quickness and arm strength to throw out speedy Phillies leadoff man Ben Revere on a stolen base attempt), but his offense was lacking while in big league camp. In 48 Grapefruit League plate appearances, he hit .136 with a .188 OBP and .159 slugging mark, and the consistent ability to drive the ball that elevated his prospect status in 2011 (and that did not appear consistently in 2012, when he faced a fatiguing physical transition from part-time to full-time catching duty) was not evident. He will get the majority of time behind the plate in Pawtucket, even with another member of the 40-man roster (Dan Butler) available to catch in Triple-A. "He's been a consistent performer offensively throughout his career," said Crockett. "Last year, maybe the power numbers weren't what they had been, but I still think it was a productive year offensively. He'll be working on both sides of the game and getting an opportunity to play a lot." -- Outfielder Alex Hassan, a member of the 40-man roster who never got to play in big league camp while recovering from a non-displaced foot fracture, was fully healthy at the end of camp and will open the season on time in Pawtucket. Despite struggling to a .256 average last year, he still had an advanced enough approach to post a .377 OBP. If the Sox need a right-handed hitter with advanced plate discipline in case of an injury on the big league roster, he could position himself to be that option. DOUBLE-A PORTLAND SEA DOGS -- There is a reason why Anthony Ranaudo was viewed as the top Red Sox pitching prospect entering the 2012 season. His stuff was explosive in spring training last year, but he suffered what at first appeared a minor groin injury at the end of camp that ultimately set in motion a year that was virtually lost due to injury, with a 6.69 ERA in just 37 2/3 innings for Double-A Portland. His velocity during the season sometimes failed to climb past 90 mph. This year, after a productive offseason in which he added considerable strength to his 6-foot-7 strength, the power returned to his stuff. In his final outings of the spring, he was sitting at 94-97 mph as a starter, and touched as high as 98 mph, with the ability to command his fastball to different areas of the strike zone while getting swings and misses. He also showed a power curveball in the spring. "His last two outings were dominant, really," said Crockett. "The fastball had electric life and got a lot of swings and misses." -- Shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who in 2013 became the first Red Sox teenager to launch 20 or more homers since Tony Conigliaro almost a half-century ago, will look to sustain the momentum of his meteoric ascent in the Red Sox system. Given that he walked just once in his month in Portland at the end of last year, his ability to manage at-bats -- to avoid letting pitchers bait him into expanding the strike zone and chase breaking stuff -- will be a critical aspect that will determine how quickly he can continue to rocket through the system. The 20-year-old looked good at the end of spring in minor league camp, demonstrating a good tempo and clean mechanics at shortstop that underscored claims among team officials and scouts that he now looks like a player who is capable of reaching the big leagues as a shortstop. -- Right-hander Matt Barnes, the team's first-round pick in 2011, didn't give up a run over his last three outings of the spring, with strikeout-an-inning stuff in which he sat at 92-93 mph and got up to 96 mph. He also showed considerable progress in the usage and comfort with his changeup compared to where he was with the pitch in his pro debut in 2012. -- Right-hander Brandon Workman and left-hander Drake Britton round out a Double-A rotation that's pretty loaded from a prospect standpoint. Britton, who gained notoriety for a DUI in the middle of spring training, apparently has resolved his legal affairs, thus permitting him to make the Opening Day start for Portland. -- Corner infielder Travis Shaw, though somewhat beneath the prospect radar, is looking to build on a tremendous first full season of pro ball. With High-A Salem and Double-A Portland, he hit .287 with a .397 OBP, .517 slugging mark, 19 homers and 66 extra-base hits in 130 games. The soon-to-be 23-year-old has as good a plate approach and command of the strike zone as virtually anyone in the Sox' minor league system (at least as long as Jackie Bradley Jr. is in the majors), and does an excellent job of staying back on the ball and driving it to left-center, suggesting the potential to take advantage of Fenway Park. After dominating in High-A, Shaw's numbers took a hit following his late-season promotion to Portland. But with the Sox' long-term outlook at first base wide open, he has arguably the best chance of any homegrown player in the system to assert himself as a possibility for the job in 2015. He's helped by an advanced feel for the game that is the byproduct of having grown up around it -- his father, Jeff Shaw, was an All-Star closer during his playing career. One example: Though Shaw is anything but a burner, he scored from second on an infield groundout in a spring training "B" game thanks to an excellent jump on the ball off the bat and a good read of the play as it was developing. -- Third baseman Kolbrin Vitek continues to show impressive defensive strides, though while the 2010 first-round pick got on base at a decent clip throughout the spring, he still has yet to show the ability to drive the ball on a consistent basis. However, after a 2012 season that was an ongoing struggle with injuries, he is healthy. In repeating Double-A, this will be a significant year for him to demonstrate whether or not he remains a prospect, particularly given that he will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft after this season if left off the 40-man roster. -- Daniel Bard will open the year in Portland, an assignment meant to emphasize that he's not trying to prove he belongs in the big leagues with every appearance, but instead to have him focus on the longer-term picture of getting back to the form that made him one of the elite relief options in the game. -- Sox officials feel that towering right-hander Miguel Celestino may thrive in relief. He worked at up to 99 mph as a starter last year, and there is a belief that he could reach triple digits with his velocity out of the bullpen. HIGH-A SALEM RED SOX -- Left-hander Henry Owens, coming off a year when he posted incredible strikeout numbers in Greenville, represents a potential breakout prospect who could vault to some national prominence if he dominates in the Carolina League. The 20-year-old's spring intrasquad performance, in which he punched out 13 of the 15 batters he faced with a fastball that touched 95 mph, a devastating changeup and a big league-caliber curveball, was the talk of camp. -- One of the more notable surprises in terms of assignments was the decision to start both second baseman Sean Coyle and outfielder Brandon Jacobs back in High-A Salem to start 2013, the same level where both players spent all of 2012. Coyle had a woeful first half last year, but performed very well in the second half despite being one of the younger players in the league. He hit .297 with a .355 OBP and .451 slugging mark in the second half, with offensive numbers on the year (.249, .316, .391) that weren't far from league average in the Carolina League, a level that predominantly features players who were a couple years older than the second baseman was as a 21-year-old last year. Jacobs, meanwhile, had a solid but unspectacular season in Salem (.252, .322 OBP, .410 slugging, 13 homers, 17 steals), though his overall numbers on the season were suppressed by a) the fact that the Carolina League is an extreme pitchers' league and b) he suffered a wrist fracture early in the year that impacted his swing. Why will both players -- who still have the ceilings of major league starters -- repeat at Salem to start the year? "Tough decisions on both," said Crockett. "With Jacobs, [the decision was based on a] continued focus on having consistent at-bats -- I think that was one of the things we really talked a lot about, being consistent in everything he does on both sides of the ball. We feel like him going back to Salem, a level where he had a solid season -- didn't necessarily dominate the level -- we're looking for more consistency in everything he did, and felt like that was the best place to get him going. "Coyle is similar. A little different in the second half last year, which was definitely positive. Looking at the bigger picture of the season, he didn't necessarily display the strike zone control that he had before and that we think he's capable of. '€¦ That's something he improved in the second half of last year but remains a focal point for him going forward." -- Outfielder Keury De La Cruz had one of the more impressive springs of any position player in Red Sox minor league camp, building off a 2012 campaign that saw him reach 20 homers and 20 stole bases by impacting the ball from left to right-center on a consistent basis, including against more advanced competition. He can be extremely aggressive on fastballs early in the count (regardless of location), but when he finds a happy medium of aggressiveness without over-aggressiveness, the 21-year-old has shown the ability to be a pretty intriguing hitter. -- Catcher Blake Swihart, a first-round pick who received a $2.5 million signing bonus in 2011, impressed with his strides as a catcher in his first pro season but proved an inconsistent offensive performer (.262, .307, .395, 7 homers) as a 20-year-old in Greenville. Still, he closed his year with a strong stretch, and now -- after spending 2012 in a timeshare behind the plate with Jordan Weems -- will have a chance to catch on a more regular basis. His athleticism behind the plate impresses, but it will be interesting to see whether, with an increased catching load, he can make offensive strides as well. "He had a decent spring. The at-bats continued to improve. He didn't have a ton of success statistically, but I think it was a lot more process-focused, and he wasn't throwing at-bats away while getting comfortable," said Crockett. -- Third baseman Garin Cecchini showed up in tremendous shape after hitting better than .300 with an OBP approaching .400 (albeit with limited power) In Greenville last year. His on-base skills and strike zone management (as well as an excellent feel for the game that helped him reach 50 steals) make him a prospect, but if the added muscle yields power, then like Owens, he could zoom up some prospect lists. -- Kyle Stroup will open the year in High-A Salem. The giant right-hander has faced a career path like few others -- a 50th round pick in the 2008 draft, he blew out one ACL in spring training in 2010, made a tremendous commitment to improving his fitness and conditioning while returning from that injury and had an outstanding season in Single-A Greenville in 2011, mixing a mid-90s fastball with a very good changeup. However, at the end of spring training in 2012, he blew out his other ACL, and so once again had to endure an arduous year-long rehab process. He did so, and in spring training, he showed similar stuff to what he had pre-injury, with the potential for a three-pitch mix (fastball, curveball, slider) as a starter. He averaged 93-94 mph during his spring outings and topped out at 96 mph. -- Shortstop Deven Marrero showed tremendous poise during his brief time in big league camp, despite the fact that he has just a couple months of professional experience under his belt. He has an advanced feel for the game on both sides of the ball, with very smooth actions and good range at shortstop and a solid swing in which he keeps the barrel of the bat in the strike zone in a fashion that results in consistent line drives up the middle. -- Right-hander William Cuevas was one of the bigger surprises in the Red Sox system last year. A slight righty who had previously worked with a fastball that topped out around 90-91 mph started built his velocity to 94 or 95 mph last year, and showed the ability to mix that heater with a changeup and curveball that he can throw for strikes. He went 8-2 with a 1.40 ERA (a record for a Lowell Spinners pitcher) while punching out 8.4 and walking just 1.7 batters per nine innings. His fastball velocity this spring was down a bit from the end of last year -- averaging 90-91 mph, topping out at 93 -- but with enough power and command to permit him to make the aggressive leap from Lowell to Salem. -- Right-hander Noe Ramirez is moving the rotation to the bullpen, where the Sox anticipate that his willingness to pound the strike zone with a low 90s fastball and a swing-and-miss changeup could allow the 2011 fourth-rounder with a funky delivery to move quickly. SINGLE-A GREENVILLE DRIVE -- Left-hander Brian Johnson, the Sox' second first-round pick last year, showed an impressive four-pitch mix after having his professional debut cut short when he was hit in the face by a line drive while pitching for Lowell. Johnson competed at the most advanced collegiate level of anyone in the Greenville rotation, with a profile of a pitcher who, once acclimated to the five-day routine of starting, could get promoted quickly to Salem if he dominates less experienced hitters in the South Atlantic League (following a course that other prominent college draftees such as Ranaudo and Barnes followed in recent years). He's a strike-thrower who has a four-pitch mix (low-90s fastball with good angle, curveball, slider, changeup). His ability to elevate his fastball and use his breaking stuff below the strike zone, Crockett suggested, gives him a chance to get swings and misses. -- Rare have been the Red Sox minor league rotations to feature not just one but two left-handers with high ceilings. But Greenville has just that this year, as not only Johnson but also Cody Kukuk will open the year in the Drive's rotation. Kukuk, who turns 20 next week, was selected in the seventh round of the 2011 draft as a raw pitcher with high upside. In what should have been his first professional opportunity last year, he barely got to pitch after being suspended by the organization following an arrest on a charge of a DUI -- a charge that was ultimately dropped. But he got on the mound in the Gulf Coast League at the end of the year, punching out 16, walking three and allowing just one run in 10 innings. He's 6-foot-4, touched 95 mph in spring training (though sitting mostly around 90-91 mph) while showing some feel for a slider and changeup. "He's got velocity, throws strikes and has the makings of two off-speed pitches," said Crockett. -- Right-hander Pat Light, taken in the supplemental first round by the Sox in the 2012 draft, could feature one of the more overpowering fastballs in the organization. He's a huge (6-foot-8) right-hander who, in college, did a great job of leveraging a mid- to high-90s fastball down in the strike zone to get an obscene number of groundballs. The velocity also creates the potential for a lot of swing and misses if he changes eye levels with the fastball, and he showed some interesting progress with his slider last year in Lowell from where it was when he was pitching in college; it's an inconsistent pitch at this point, but has the potential to be either an early bad-contact pitch or a late swing-and-miss pitch. He's also working to integrate a changeup that represents a work-in-progress.. -- Right-hander Frank Montas, after spending last season in the Gulf Coast League, gets his first exposure to Single-A. He's one of the hardest throwers in the system. The Sox saw a pitcher who sat comfortably at 94-98 mph with what Crockett called "flashes of a pretty good slider '€¦ and the development of the beginnings of a changeup as well." -- Right-hander Madison Younginer will move to the bullpen, where he'll work in multi-inning stints, as the Red Sox see if he can channel a power fastball-slider combination to permit him to move forward in his development. This will be his third straight year in Greenville, but he still has a big arm. -- The middle infield tandem of shortstop Jose Vinicio. 19, and second baseman Mookie Betts, 20, will be something to behold. It is perhaps the most undersized middle infield combination in all of baseball. Combined, the two weigh less than 300 pounds. Nonetheless, both are wildly athletic, energetic players with good defensive skills sets and speed. Betts showed advanced strike zone command while seeing his first extensive professional action in Lowell last year, with more walks (32) than strikeouts (30), while the 137-pound, switch-hitting Vinicio makes surprisingly sound contact for a player who looks like he accidentally drifted off a Little League field (though his approach this spring was hyper aggressive). -- One interesting sleeper: Third baseman Nick Moore. The 20-year-old former two-sport high school athlete out of Georgia has a massive frame and considerable power. He's a switch-hitter who made strides over the course of last season, showing both plate discipline and some extra-base pop that are not typically seen in the Gulf Coast League. "He's got good power, he's got some arm strength at third base and the more reps he's gotten, the more he's improved defensively," said Crockett. "He's flashed some hitting ability at times. He's a guy who should be able to compete at that level." AND JUST WAIT FOR... -- Manuel Margot. The 18-year-old outfielder displayed five-tool talent in the Dominican Summer League last year, in fall instructional league and again this spring. While he'll open the year in extended spring training as he transitions to baseball in the States, the Dominican native has a chance to push the envelope on his player development. He's the most exciting prospect to come out of the Sox' Dominican Academy since Bogaerts. A normal progression as an advanced prospect out of the DSL would have him open this year in Short-Season Lowell. But there's at least a chance that, like Bogaerts, he could see his first assignment to an affiliate in the U.S. with Greenville. -- Also of note: right-hander Mario Alcantara had a considerable jump in velocity this spring. He spent much of last year tinkering with his mechanics, and while he struck out 38 in 43 2/3 innings, his fastball was topping out in the low-90s, he walked 35 batters and he had a 5.15 ERA in the Gulf Coast League. This spring, his mechanics had smoothed out, and he was regularly working in the mid-90s, touching as high as 97 mph. He'll start the year in extended spring training.