Blake Swihart. Photo by Kelly O'Connor,

Blake Swihart. Photo by Kelly O’Connor,

With Will Middlebrooks establishing himself in the major league lineup, Ryan Kalish, Ryan Lavarnway and Jose Iglesias on the cusp of the majors, and top prospects Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley already in the upper minors, I will highlight 5 Sox hitting prospects in the lower minors poised to climb the prospect rankings this season. These 5 prospects all had solid seasons in 2012, but have the tools and upside for improved performance this year.

Garin Cecchini, 3B: Cecchini – who before 2012 was probably most known for having the hardest name to spell in the Sox minor league system outside of Xander Bogaerts – made strides in two important areas last season. First, he managed to stay healthy for a full season, something he hadn’t done in either of the last two years. His senior season in high school he tore his ACL, missing the entire spring baseball season. This led to him dropping to the third round in the amateur draft, but the Red Sox still gave him a signing bonus of $1.3 million, equivalent to a first round draft pick. Then in 2011, he was starting to take off with the Lowell Spinners, only to have his season end with a broken wrist after he was hit by a pitch. His second improvement in 2012 was on defense, where he improved enough to play at least an average third base.

A shortstop in high school, Cecchini converted to third when he joined the Sox system, and results had been mixed until last season. Scouting reports now have him showing the range and arm necessary for third. His hitting line at Greenville was a solid .305/.394/.433, with four home runs and 51 stolen bases. With a respectable full season behind him, Cecchini needs to improve his power production to be considered an elite third base prospect. Hopefully he will follow the same development path as Will Middlebrooks – another converted high school shortstop – who showed more power at each minor league level. I like Cecchini’s hitting potential, and think he could be a valuable trade chip at the deadline with the Sox seemingly set at third base at the major league level.

Blake Swihart, C: Swihart was one of the top high school prospects in the 2011 amateur draft, but he fell to the Sox at pick #26 due to high bonus demands and a strong commitment to the University of Texas. The Sox paid out a large $2.5 million bonus to Swihart, and expectations were high as he went into the 2012 season. The Sox developmental staff challenged him out of spring training, assigning him to the full season Greenville Drive. Most high school draftees stay behind at Fort Myers extended spring training, so this placement showed the Sox brass felt Swihart had the tools and maturity to succeed right away. One of the younger players in the league at age 20, Swihart held his own in his first pro season, hitting .262/.307/.395 with 7 home runs. Swihart has the tools to be an above average offensive and defensive catcher, but 2013 will be a chance to see if he can convert his tools into skills after a solid full season in professional baseball. Signs of this offensively would be increases in batting average and slugging numbers. Swihart offers some of the highest upside in the Sox minor league system if he can realize his potential.

Brandon Jacobs, LF: A football and baseball star in high school, Jacobs decided to sign with the Red Sox rather than play halfback for Auburn University. He already had a breakout season in 2011, hitting .303/.376/.505 with 17 home runs for Low A Greenville. Unfortunately, he followed his breakout season with a disappointing 2012 at High A Salem, hitting .252/.322/.410 with 13 home runs. Much of this poor performance, however, can be attributed to a hamate bone injury that Jacobs suffered in May. Rather than have surgery on his hand and miss the season, Jacobs decided to play through the pain and get in more developmental time. The effects of the injury are shown in his advanced numbers, where his line drive percentage on balls in play went from 19.1% in Greenville to 9.8% in Salem. The weakest part of Jacob’s game is his defense. Despite good speed, he gets poor jumps in left field, and currently has low defensive value. This means his bat will have to carry him to the big leagues. If he’s fully healthy in 2013, look for Jacobs to again show the raw power at the plate that he displayed in 2011. That power alone makes him an exciting prospect to watch.

Deven Marrero bats for the Lowell Spinners. Photo by Kelly O'Connor,

Deven Marrero bats for the Lowell Spinners. Photo by Kelly O’Connor,

Deven Marrero, SS: In recent amateur drafts, the Red Sox have taken chances on college players who start the season projected as high draft picks, but slip in the draft due to poor performance or injury. In 2010 it was Bryce Brentz and Anthony Ranaudo, in 2011 it was Jackie Bradley. They followed this pattern again with Deven Marrero in 2012. Marrero entered the college season a consensus top 10 pick in the draft, but after injuring his ankle early in his season, he struggled at the plate. Due to those struggles, he dropped to the Sox as the 24th pick in the draft.

On defense, scouts see him as an above average defensive shortstop, capable of playing the position at the major league level. After signing quickly, Marrero started his professional career with the Lowell Spinners, and hit .270/.362/.377 with two home runs. With the state of offense at the shortstop position right now, if Marrero can hit at all he projects to at least make the major leagues. His response to the challenge of his first full season will give an idea of how high he can reach in the Sox system.

Jose Vinicio, SS: Vinicio signed out of the Dominican Republic at the age of 16 for a $2 million signing bonus. Scouts love Vinicio’s defense, speed, and baseball instincts. The glaring flaw in his game right now is at the plate. At 5’11” and only 160 pounds, his small frame means few extra base hits and limited power. He has strong contact ability, but if he can’t add muscle and strength he won’t be able to maximize his potential. Even with his small frame, he managed to hit .277/.320/.371 with three home runs in 256 at bats with Greenville. Vinicio is only 19 to Deven Marrero’s 22, so the Red Sox may skip Marrero up a level to High A Salem and let Vinicio spend a full season of development with the Low A Greenville Drive in 2013.