Catching up with the Red Sox’ 2013 draftees
The Red Sox are enduring a bit of a slog lately, dropping ten games in a row before righting the ship (sort of) in Atlanta. Time to distract ourselves with something shiny! Depending on your personal preferences that something could be the MLB amateur draft, which is now just a week away. Hooray!
Before we get too caught up in the 2014 draft hoopla, though, let’s quickly reconnect with the 2013 draftees and review the early returns on the crop of talent the club picked last year. SPOILER ALERT: Not so hooray. Yet.
The Meal Ticket
The Red Sox have been an extremely successful ballclub over the last decade and change, and as a result they’ve rarely found themselves in a position to accent their minor league system with one of the very top amateur talents in the land. Last year’s draft was only the second time the Sox have picked in the top ten since the mid-1960s. So fairly or unfairly, it’s very likely that the ultimate judgement of Boston’s success or failure in the 2013 draft rests on the shoulders of a, dare we say, lanky kid from Indiana.
It’s equally likely to be quite a while before we can be confident we have an answer one way or the other. Trey Ball was still a few weeks shy of his 19th birthday when the Red Sox made him the #7 overall pick a year ago, and he didn’t have the profile of a player who was expected to climb the professional ladder in a hurry. He’s a difficult player to peg. You’ll often see him described as a raw talent, but his delivery is exceptionally clean and consistent for a gangly 6’6″ high school kid. And that’s a testament to Ball’s athleticism, not a backhanded compliment in the “runs well for a catcher” sense. Stuff is more of a challenge to assess from scouting videos, but it’s easy for us to see what the Sox saw in him: a tall, skinny left-hander who already throws easy low-mid 90s gas and has plenty of room to add a few ticks more as he matures and packs some muscle onto that proverbial “projectable body”.
Ball’s introduction to pro ball has not been what you’d call smooth, not the on-field portion anyway. He got cuffed around to the tune of a 6.43 ERA with more walks than strikeouts in a handful of rookie league appearances last summer and has fared little better in the early going for Greenville (A-ball) thusfar. That said, the entirety of Ball’s pro career is a whopping 26 innings and he’s almost exclusively facing hitters who are a couple years older than he is; college draftees and guys who’ve already got a full season or two of professional baseball under their belts. Oftentimes the initial off-field adjustments to the grind of playing baseball professionally are as important as the on-field adjustments, if not more so. There’s no need to panic. The Red Sox drafted themselves a project, and sometimes this is what projects look like when they first get started.
The Snack Tickets
Jon Denney (.203/.379/.243, Rk), Nick Longhi (.178/.245/.356, Rk), and Jordon Austin (.198/.324/.276, Rk) – These were the three biggest upside gambles the Sox made on the offensive side of the ball last year. All three have the potential to develop plus power or have it already. All three struck out way too much in rookie ball last year. Sound familiar? It’s possible we’re looking at the next in a discouragingly long line of Red Sox prospects who failed to tap into their natural power because of grievous contact issues, but it’s also worth remembering that these three guys are still young. Very young in Longhi’s case; he was still 17 years old when he was drafted. We’ll have a little more information by which to judge them once they actually play some competitive ball this year, most likely with short-season Lowell when the New York-Penn League opens its season in a couple weeks.
Jalen Williams, although not a hitter, is another name to watch out for when the Spinners’ roster takes shape. Along with Austin, he was primarily considered a football talent and was slated for the pigskin rather than the rawhide if he’d turned down Boston’s offer and gone to college. Williams is the rare pitching “tools goof” pick; a big, strong kid with a live arm and a lot of work to do to develop beyond that. If the whole baseball thing doesn’t work out, between Williams (wide receiver), Austin (defensive back), and Jeff Driskel (quarterback for Florida, but the Sox own his rights if ever goes pro in baseball), the club has the makings of a very competitive intramural flag football team.
Teddy Stankiewicz (3.62 ERA, 6.3 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, A-/A) and Corey Littrell (3.09 ERA, 9.2 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, A-/A+) – Rotation-mates at Lowell last year, Stankiewicz and Littrell landed with different teams to begin the 2014 season despite both of them sailing through their time in the NYPL with relative ease. Stankiewicz, the Sox’ formidably named and formidably maned 2nd round pick, landed in Greenville where he’s held his own, mainly by generating a decent number of ground balls and keeping the ball in the park (zero home runs allowed since his first start of the year when he gave up two longballs). Whether or not we should expect a little more pizzazz from the #45 overall pick, it seems fair to say that Stankiewicz’s performance thusfar has neither underwhelmed nor overwhelmed, but simply whelmed.
Littrell, the older of the two by about 20 months, skipped past Greenville and went straight to High-A Salem. His stat line there looked a whole lot better prior to his most recent outing when he coughed up eight runs to the Rangers’ affiliate and runaway division-leading Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Regardless, the numbers Littrell has put up this year are still solid, and he’s been unexpectedly adept at missing bats (9.5 K/9 and a hefty 17% swinging strike percentage) for a guy who was drafted primarily on the strength of an advanced pitch mix and ability to change speeds rather than pure stuff. There’s an outside chance the Sox could luck into something more than a “pitchability” guy with Littrell if he keeps this up and eventually rediscovers the few mph of velocity that went missing between his sophomore and junior year at Kentucky.
Fourth-rounder Myles Smith, a smallish college right-hander with a big fastball, is on the bubble with this group. Unlike his Greenville rotation-mate Ball, he completely dominated in the rookie league and held his own in one appearance for Lowell at the end of the season. The Sox rewarded him with a promotion to Greenville, and his lack of command of that big fastball has been exposed as he’s worked his way into the rotation there. Smith didn’t walk a single batter in 2013, but he’s already issued 30 free passes in just 35 innings this year. As a 22-year-old facing mostly age-appropriate competition, that’s a red flag to say the least.
Forrestt Allday (.262/.402/.323, A-/A), Reed Gragnani (.303/.385/.391, A-/A/A+), Jake Romanski (.282/.319/.398, A-/A), and Jantzen Witte (.275/.370/.428, Rk/A-/A) – The Red Sox targeted a number of players in the middle rounds, mostly college seniors, who weren’t going to appear in the daydreams of those crusty old scouts in “Moneyball”. These guys didn’t necessarily have The Good Face, but the one thing they all did have was The Good Approach. Plate discipline, pitch recognition, control of the strike zone. All day. It wasn’t a radical realignment of organizational strategy, but maybe a slight nudge away from drafting raw power bats in hopes that they’d learn how to make contact and a slight nudge towards drafting patient contact hitters in hopes that they’d develop some power.
One year later, it looks like the club’s evaluations were essentially spot on; they’ve added some genuine on-base machines to the lower levels of the system. Romanski, a catcher, is the only mild disappointment in that regard, though he’s improved this year after moving up from Lowell to Greenville. Witte is the only one of the group to show any semblance of power so far. If nothing else, perhaps their selective approach will rub off on some of the young players in the system with more raw talent but a less advanced understanding of the strike zone. And if they all wash out in a couple years then Forrestt, Reed, Jake, and Jantzen will all still be young enough to form a boyband. The Good Approach? Somebody get Simon Cowell on the phone.
Mike Adams (3.93 ERA, 8.4 K/9, 2.6 BB/9 A-/A), Kyle Martin‘s Godawful Mustache (2.58 ERA, 9.5 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, A-/A/A+), Taylor Grover (2.27 ERA, 7.3 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, A-/A), and Joe Gunkel (1.29 ERA, 13.2 K/9, 1,7 BB/9, Rk/A-/A) – Gosh, do you think the Red Sox have a type? In the 7th, 9th, and 10th rounds they picked huge college pitchers who, given their iffy secondary stuff, were thought to profile best as relievers. Then they added another one in the 18th round, and he might turn out to be the best of the bunch. That would be Gunkel, and he’s been so dominant that the Sox recently decided to try letting him go back to starting, as he’d done in college. Gunkel didn’t disappoint, tossing four no-hit innings with six strikeouts and one walk in his first professional start.
All four guys have been quite successful over the past year, but they probably have yet to reach the level where they’re truly being challenged. The most encouraging thing from a player development perspective is that their numbers have gotten better as they’ve moved up through the system.
Carlos Asuaje, the Sox’ 11th round pick out of Nova Southeastern, was supposed to be one of those nondescript “good approach” guys who didn’t really bring much else to the table, and that’s exactly what he was in his first exposure to pro ball in Lowell last year. This year, it’s been a different story. As fearlessly and flawlessly predicted by Jose on multiple occasions, Asuaje is enjoying the beginnings of what could very well be a genuine breakout season, raking all year in Greenville right from the word go. Frankly, as an avowed Mookie Betts disciple, why wouldn’t he be?
The 22-year-old Venezuelan-born infielder is currently sporting a tidy .319/.458/.560 line with a Mookie Lite ratio of 30 walks, 21 extra-base hits, and 22 strikeouts. Asuaje has logged almost as many PAs in 2014 thusfar as he did in the NYPL in 2013, and the improvements are significant across the board: his walk rate is up (13.2% to 16.6%), his strikeout rate is down (16.2% to 12.2%), and his ISO is way up (.099 to .241). Even after regressing his impressive numbers somewhat to account for a BABIP that, at .359, isn’t some outrageous fluke, Asuaje is starting to look like a player who might bring more to the table than just a good approach.