Welcome to RLRS’ first ever Top 20 Prospects List. Based on the complete lack of tweets or emails asking for this, it became clear to us that it was something that the public desperately wanted but were afraid to admit to wanting (kind of like reality TV).
This was a group effort with each of us submitting our personal top 20 list and then reaching a consensus. The one rule we stuck to is that players who had surrendered MLB “rookie” status were not eligible. The notable players excluded on that basis are: Rubby De La Rosa, Brandon Workman (both consensus top 10 if eligible), Drake Britton (15-20), Alex Wilson and Ryan Lavarnway.
Since there is no particular drama for the top of this list we decided to start with 1-10 today and do 11-20 tomorrow. The Sox system is characterized by its depth and a fair clarity of ranking near the top. Prospects are always a bit of a question but the consistency of thought (not just by RLRS) about the top of the list suggests that the opinions have merit.
#1 – Xander Bogaerts – RHB – SS
2014 Opening Day Age – 21.6 (21.6=21 years, 6 months)
Bogaerts was named USA Today’s minor league player of the year and should expect to receive more honors as the off-season rolls on. Thusfar he’s displayed the same mix of poise and quiet confidence that Jason Heyward showed upon his promotion to the Show in 2011.
That should help Bogaerts avoid letting the heavy praise get to his head. This is a concern with young players. Felix Doubront is an example of a player who has received praise for his poise throughout his time in the organization but in both 2011 and 2013 he arrived at camp out of shape despite clear opportunities to make an impact in those years.
Who’s #2? Who do you think? Read on:
#2 – Jackie Bradley Jr. – LHB – CF
2014 Opening Day Age – 23.11
Defensively, Bradley is a treat to watch. While he lacks Jacoby Ellsbury’s closing speed he gets the sort of telepathic jumps you would expect from a cagey veteran, and that should serve him well. Bradley struggled during his brief early stint with the Red Sox (.155/.258/.310) but displayed a willingness to have good at bats even through adversity. His minor league performance was exactly what you would have hoped for from a player making the leap to AAA after just two months of AA ball in 2012, and he’s hit .242/.306/.485 in limited fits and starts of big league action since his initial demotion back in April.
Bradley’s future is heavily linked to that of Jacoby Ellsbury. If the Sox re-sign Ellsbury they may move Bradley in a blockbuster deal. Alternatively, with his strong arm Bradley could provide the Sox with a truly spectacular defensive outfield with he and Ellsbury joining Shane Victorino next year. Any defensive alignment would be a winner.
#3 – Henry Owens – LHP
2014 Opening Day Age – 21.8
Owens is a curious one. The live-armed southpaw had an eye-popping season between Salem and Portland. Of note is that he actually improved upon his promotion to AA Portland (albeit in just six starts) and has been getting rave reviews around the game. He still needs to round off some rough edges, and it will be interesting to see if his 2014 mirrors Matt Barnes’ up and down 2013.
Owens is a close second to Mookie Betts as the guy who increased his stock the most in 2013. Scouts still seem split on whether his stuff lives up to the stat line or if there’s a touch of the ol’ smoke and mirrors going on. The null hypothesis at RLRS is that a tall lefty who has consistently whiffed one out of every three batters he’s faced in his minor league career is not just scraping by on deception.
#4 – Mookie Betts – RHB – 2B
2014 Opening Day Age – 21.5
The big breakout star of the system in 2014 is reflexively compared to Dustin Pedroia. While Pedey was always scouted as a guy who would overcome his physical limitations through great instincts and work ethic, the reports on Betts speak of needing to polish his freakish natural athleticism and refine him into a ballplayer. The stat line is eye-catching regardless.
Betts is a great example of one of the interesting changes the last couple of years. The Sox have been showing a more aggressive approach to in-season promotions and this year seven of the top ten players on our list featured prominently at multiple levels.
Betts was easily the player with the most diverse opinion by your RLRS team. While his breakthrough is well regarded there is some concern over the fact that Betts is already a second baseman. MLB second basemen typically spend considerable time as shortstops in the minors, and a rightward shift on the defensive spectrum at such a low level is not an encouraging sign. An outfield shift might be warranted given the nine figure investment in the incumbent second sacker, but there is some bias against short outfielders.
#5 – Anthony Ranaudo – RHP
2014 Opening Day Age – 24.6
Ranaudo has had a winding road. He was a star at Louisiana State and in the Cape Cod League but arm injuries pushed this potential top 10 draft pick down to the Sox. His tenure in the Sox’ system has featured a mix of impressive performances and injury-riddled disaster. Ranaudo is a microcosm of the entire Red Sox organization, having put together an excellent bounce-back campaign after a disastrous 2012.
Ranaudo’s overall line is encouraging, but there is worry that he might be a bit of a flat-track bully, i.e. his stuff is good enough to dominate minor league hitters but not good enough to beat good Major League hitters. Injury concerns are also a problem.
The Sox will surely stick with him as a starter as long as possible, as his upside may be as substantial as anyone this side of Bogaerts. It was not that long ago that he was rated alongside Matt Harvey in the 2010 draft which is probably a good example of the upside and downside possibilities at work.
Ranaudo was the first in a series of picks the Sox made (followed by Jackie Bradley and Deven Marrero) where they nabbed players who had been highly rated at the start of the year but dropped on draft boards. This year there was no such obvious draftee, though that may reflect the Sox more advantageous draft position rather than a philosophical change.
#6 – Garin Cecchini – LHB – 3B
2014 Opening Day Age – 22.11
Cecchini is a funny one. I remember seeing him in Spring Training a couple of years ago and he struck me as a bit awkwardly built but with an excellent swing. Despite being viewed with ordinary speed he has proven to be a prolific and effective base stealer. While his base-stealing exploits have already tapered off somewhat as he ascends—23 in 32 tries between Hi-A and AA this year after going 51-for-57 in Low-A last year—a young guy getting the most out of his tools still speaks to a good baseball IQ.
Cecchini’s future is murky. There is no reason to think he cannot handle third base but with Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks and even Michael Almanzar hanging around he might need to move. An Alex Gordon-style positional shift might work for him but he needs to continue the incremental improvements in power if he’s going to make a real impact at third base or left field in the big leagues.
#7 – Allen Webster – RHP
2014 Opening Day Age – 24.1
It was an odd year for Webster. He was electric in Spring Training and was rewarded with being the first player page ever sponsored by RLRS (reports are that he wept with joy upon learning this). The Sox also rewarded him by calling him up early in the season to make a few spot starts but he generally looked not ready.
His time at Pawtucket was similarly uneven, but after a battering by Durham in late July something seemed to click. Over his final eight starts he posted a 2.51 ERA and made considerable strides in his BB rate. Slight improvements to both BB and K rate this year seem to have been a bit undersold, but he looks more ready today than he did last year at this time.
Of particular concern with Webster is that, for a ground ball pitcher with a live arm, he gets hit hard a lot. All in all, Webster is tough one to peg. The raw stuff is there for him to attack hitters like a young Tim Hudson, but the command and control just haven’t been consistent enough. At the moment, it seems like even money whether his future lies in the rotation or the bullpen.
#8 – Matt Barnes – RHP
2014 Opening Day Age 23.9
On its face Barnes’ year is a bit of a disappointment; the 4.33 ERA and high WHIP are uninspiring for a guy who sparkled at Low-A last year but has been somewhat ordinary since. The 2013 season has been one big learning process for Barnes. He’s worked hard to improve his secondary stuff, often at the expense of results. His fastball is good enough to blow away most AA hitters, but he’s tried not to use that as a crutch.
The Red Sox have done some work with their young pitchers in terms of trying to refine their repertoires. The most notable example of this is Brandon Workman who was not permitted to throw his cutter his first year in the system forcing his other pitches to improve. The Sox will hope that working with Barnes on his pitch assortment will have similar benefits.
#9 – Blake Swihart - RHB – C
2014 Opening Day Age – 22.0
The most important aspect of Blake Swihart’s season is that he seemed to firmly establish that he is a catcher. When drafted, the belief was that he might have to move from behind the plate. Swihart’s mature plate approach and power potential were viewed as enough of an asset to play anywhere, leading him to be a first round pick in the 2011 draft.
His work in 2013 solidified his catching credentials. Swihart played 101 games behind the plate and threw out 42% of would be base-stealers in a league where the average was 30%. The Sox as an organization are fairly deep behind the plate with potential starters down the road in Swihart and 2013 draftee Jon Denney, while Ryan Lavarnway, Dan Butler and Christian Vazquez all profile as at least MLB backups.
#10 - Christian Vazquez – RHB – C
2014 Opening Day Age – 23.7
Vazquez’ stock in trade is leather rather than wood, but he has shown some hitting chops. His .375 OBP this year was 4th among organizational players at AA or higher. Vazquez was a bit young for AA but his skillset shows positives in areas where you might expect a player to benefit from experience (defense, plate discipline).
Vazquez is yet another player in the system with impressive K/BB rates. This is a recent phenomenon with Vazquez (0.9 K/BB), Cecchini (0.9), Betts (0.7!) and to a lesser extent Bogaerts (1.5) doing a solid job. For the last few years the Sox’ top prospects have featured a high number of strikeouts with 2010’s top prospects Lars Andersen (2.5), Josh Reddick (3.0) and Will Middlebrooks (3.5) fanning far more than they walked.