When Theo Epstein assumed the role of Red Sox General Manager prior to the 2003 season, one of his missions was to build a “$100M player development machine.” While his goal was certainly ambitious, he faced two big obstacles: a barren farm system and constant external pressure to build a champion. Always seeing the big picture, Epstein understood the importance of building for both the short and long-term. He understood the importance young, cost-controllable home-grown players and the role they played in building competitive teams; especially for a team already blessed with a seemingly endless supply of financial riches. Graduating prospects had several benefits: young, cheap labor with upside; surplus value; payroll flexibility; and valuable trade pieces that could be used on a rainy day.
The first half of the Theo era was highlighted by a string of successful prospect promotions and productive drafts. Here’s a look at the Red Sox’s biggest successes (based on year of promotion).
2004 – Kevin Youkilis (2001, 8th round)*
2005 – Jonathan Papelbon (2003, 4th round)
2009 – Daniel Bard (2006, 1st round)
* It should be noted that Youkilis and Lester were not selected during Epstein’s tenure as GM. In Lester’s case, Theo should be partially credited for the selection as he played a major role in baseball operations during the 2002 season.
Since Bard was promoted in 2009, the rate of successful prospect graduation slowed greatly. Prospects like Josh Reddick, Ryan Kalish, Felix Doubront, Kyle Weiland, and Ryan Lavarnway made a few small contributions in 2010 and 2011, but nothing to where we could really call them “impact players.” With the farm system in transition (a bridge, if you will), the Red Sox were forced to look elsewhere to fill their holes; hence, turning to the expensive and inefficient free agent market.*
* Another side bar…Anthony Rizzo (since graduated with the Cubs) and Casey Kelly were, at one time, two of the Red Sox’s most promising prospects. As we all know, they were both traded to the Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez deal in December 2010.
In 2012, the Red Sox farm system has started to turn itself around. Already, we have two prospects we can add to the “successfully graduated” category: Doubront (2004, International Free Agent) and Will Middlebrooks (2007, 5th round). Additionally, Kalish (2006, 9th round) and Lavarnway (2008, 6th round) appear poised to join the list either before the end of this season or 2013. Cause for even greater excitement is the talent developing in the farm system.
On Monday, Mark Hulet of Fangraphs released his mid-season top 50 list of prospects. Prior to the season, there was nary a list that included any Red Sox prospects among the top 50 prospects in the game. (Middlebrooks was usually the closest.) At mid-season though, Hulet named three players on his list: Xander Bogaerts (17), Matt Barnes (34), and Jackie Bradley (44). While it’s important to note this is only one person’s opinion, it’s hard to imagine most prospect mavens not including each player on their list at this point.
Bogaerts (IFA, 2009) easily has the highest ceiling of any prospect in the system. As it stands right now, he’s tearing up high-A Salem with a .287/.365/.475 line with good power and improving (if spotty at times) plate discipline. Making his performance even more impressive is that he’s a 19 year old performing this well in a league where the average player age is 22. We’re only starting to see the type of player he could become. He still has plenty of development remaining, but he’s the one player in the system with the potential of being a franchise player. As he grows into his body, he’ll almost certainly have to move off of shortstop. Many have mentioned third base as a possibility, but that seems unlikely with Middlebrooks ensconced at the position, that seems unlikely. Right field seems like a pretty real possibility though. If he continues to produce, he could be given a taste of AA at the very end of the season.
Barnes (2011, 1st round) has come on very strong in his first professional season. He started in A-ball Greenville and dominated to the tune of a 0.34 ERA and a disgusting 42/4 K/BB ratio in 26-2/3 innings. Since his promotion to high-A Salem, he’s remained the same dominant pitcher, but has hit a couple of bumps in the road. His ERA is three full runs higher (3.34), but his impressive 2.42 FIP indicates he may be suffering from some poor luck. His 63/15 K/BB ratio in 59-1/3 innings is still very impressive, and shows there’s plenty of reason for optimism. Barnes has a plus-fastball with excellent velocity, but his secondary pitches need some work. How he develops those pitches will determine if he can be a top (or near top) of the rotation starter or not. If he continues to produce, he could be given a taste of AA at the very end of the season.
Out of the three, Bradley (2011, 1st round) has probably come on the strongest. He showed some flashes of potential during limited playing time last season, but he’s absolutely exploded in 2012. He started out the season with high-A Salem, and mashed to the tune of .357/.479/.523. Upon being promoted to AA Portland, his performance has fallen back to earth a little but remains impressive (.337/.414/.465). To date, he’s only hit three home runs, but he’s made up for it by slugging 35 doubles in 421 plate appearances. This is a pretty good sign as many minor league doubles hitters will transition that skill into home run power as they develop. Bradley has great speed on the basepaths (18 steals), but he’s still learning how to be an effective base stealer (69% success rate). His defense in CF is getting pretty good reviews, and he’s projected to stay at the position. Bradley will probably remain in AA for the remainder of the season, but AAA seems like a foregone conclusion for 2013. If all continues as planned, he appears as the likely heir apparent to Jacoby Ellsbury.
As exciting as those three players are, the Red Sox have several other interesting prospects with a lot of potential. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
Jose Iglesias (2009, IFA) – We all know about Iglesias’s vaunted defense. In all fairness, it’s likely good enough to earn him a spot on the 25-man roster of most teams. All that said, he’s nothing short of a trainwreck at the plate. Scary thing is that his .254/.296/.294 line for AAA Pawtucket actually represents an improvement over his 2011 production. I greatly question his ability to produce enough at the plate to justify playing him everyday, but he certainly has the raw skills to do so. The only question is whether or not he’ll exhibit enough improvement before his contract runs out at the end the of the 2013 season. If not, the Red Sox may choose to move on. If he can, though, the Red Sox will have one hell of a defensive shortstop for years to come.
Ryan Lavarnway – If we were to look solely at Lavarnway’s bat, he’d be a top 50 prospect without a doubt. After all, this is the same player who has put up an impressive .297/.389/.521 line over 133 games in AAA. Unfortunately, we have to look at the whole player when evaluating players and prospects. To his credit, Lavarnway has made some major strides defensively at catcher. Even with those improvements, many have wondered if he’s improved enough to be an everyday major league catcher. A position move doesn’t appear to be in the cards as he’s too slow afoot to play first (which is blocked) or the outfield. Ideally, he’d be best used splitting time at catcher and designated hitter. He certainly has a good enough bat to play in the majors. Sometimes, though, that’s not enough. Hopefully, that’s not the case with Lava.
Bryce Brentz (2010, 1st round) – After a rough 2010 season for low-A Lowell, Brentz broke out in a big way in 2011 for Greenville and Salem displaying prodigious power and producing 30 home runs. Those home runs certainly came with a price: high strikeout totals and poor plate discipline. This season, he’s produced a .287/.347/.457 line with 12 home runs. He started out pretty slowly, but he’s come on strong as of late. Regrettably, his plate discipline hasn’t improved. His walk rate is slightly higher this season (8.7% vs 8.1%), but his strikeout rate has increased considerably from 22.7% to 27.3%. Yes, the promotion likely played a role in his elevated strikeout rate, but you’d still hope to see some improvement. That hasn’t happened. His power will continue to keep him in the discussion as the “right fielder of the future,” but his plate discipline and defensive shortcomings could keep him from achieving it. A promotion to AAA is in the cards for 2013.
Garin Cecchini (2010, 4th round) – So far, so good for Cecchini who is the midst of his second professional season. Playing for Greenville, he’s impressed hitting .309/.388/.441, while exhibiting outstanding base running skills (32 stolen bases in 35 chances) and solid defensive play at third. His power hasn’t translated to power yet, but there are signs it could happen before too long. To date this season, he’s hit 25 doubles to go along with four home runs in 369 plate appearances. The only problem Cecchini faces is that he’s blocked at his position. He still has plenty of development ahead of him, but Will Middlebrooks should own the position through the 2018 season. Even if Middlebrooks falters, Bogaerts will likely be the next in line. As it stands, I don’t really see a place for him at the moment, but things change day-to-day. At the very least, he could be an important piece to a trade puzzle down the line.
Blake Swihart (2011, 1st round) – Unlike Lavarnway, it appears that Swihart might have both the bat and the glove to be an everyday catcher. That said, it’s a little too early to be proclaiming him the “catcher of the future.” In what has essentially been his first professional season (he had 6 PAs in the GCL in 2011), he’s stumbled a bit, but has shown some promising improvements. His .265/.310/.382 line doesn’t seem like much, but consider this for a moment. He’s a switch hitting catcher who not only needs to learn to hit from both sides of the plate professionally, but also balance that with learning to play the most difficult position on the diamond. Oh, yeah. Did I mention he’s only 20 years old? Swihart has an immense amount of talent and potential, and the Red Sox will give him plenty of time to develop.
Brandon Jacobs (2009, 10th round) – Last season for Greenville, Jacobs broke out in a huge way hitting .303/.376/.505 with 17 home runs and 30 stolen bases. He’s failed to repeat the same level of success for Salem in 2012, but his .281/.338/.427 shows some promise. The biggest problem he faces is plate discipline. His walk rate has dropped by 2% and his strikeout rate has raised slightly this season. Neither are good marks. Furthermore, Jacobs isn’t considered to be a talented outfielder defensively, which further hurts his value potential. He’s a solid prospect who has the tools to turn it around, but needs to do it soon. The Red Sox have several interesting outfield prospects three of whom happen to be ahead of him on this list. (Four, if you include Bogaerts.)
Henry Owens (2011, 1st round) – When I started writing this piece, I decided I was going to write about ten prospects. The first nine were easy, but I had several options for the final spot. I strongly considered Anthony Ranaudo, but his poor, injury riddled season made me reconsider. Instead, I decided to go with a high upside arm who I feel might be one of the most intriguing arms in the system. Owens has started his professional career for Greenville. It started out a little rocky as he struggled with his control early on. Overall, his 4.72 ERA doesn’t look that impressive, but his greatest strides have come in his last 10 starts. Yes, his ERA is still 4.01 during that stretch, but his 64/11 K/BB ratio in his last 49-1/3 innings has been impressive. (In comparison, he had a 33/18 ratio in his previous 19-1/3 innings.) He still has a lot of development remaining with his secondary pitches, and still allows too many fly balls for my liking. All that said, he has a good fastball, an interesting repertoire, and pretty projectable. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Red Sox gave him a taste of high-A ball before the end of the season, if he continues to perform.