In a year without minor league games, the Red Sox' farm system nonetheless emerged with more promise for the short- and long-term future than it has in years. The dazzling big league debuts of corner infielder Bobby Dalbec and righthander Tanner Houck offered a glimpse of that.
Baseball America’s list of the top 10 Red Sox prospects (which I’ve been in charge of assembling for the last eight years) features few new names from a year ago. Nonetheless, the advances made by numerous players at the team’s alternate training site point to a system with a broader and more advanced array of near-big-league-ready talent than has been the case for some time.
Here is a look at the top 10 prospects.
1. Triston Casas, 1B
Age: 21 (6 feet 5 inches, 245 pounds)
Key question: Is Freddie Freeman a unicorn?
It’s really hard for a first baseman to represent an elite prospect. At a position where teams often feel comfortable trading defense for offense, production is abundant. In the last 20 years, first basemen have had the highest OPS of any position 8 times; the other two times, first basemen ranked a close second.
As such, a first baseman must have exceptional offensive potential to rank as a top prospect. Evaluators believe that Casas may be capable of just that, with a versatile approach that limits strikeouts and leads to solid-to-high averages and OBPs along with middle-of-the-order power. His size, strength, and approach draw comparisons to Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman.
Casas has a chance to be in the heart of the Red Sox batting order for years to come. If he falls even slightly short of that as a first baseman, he is a nice but replaceable contributor rather than a centerpiece.
2. Jeter Downs, 2B/SS
Age: 22 (5-11, 180)
Key question: Where have all the second basemen gone?
In contrast to Casas, Downs — whose future is almost certainly at second base, perhaps occasionally filling in at short — plays a position that typically features woeful production. MLB second basemen had a .692 OPS in 2020, worst of any position.
Downs projects to combine above-average pure hitting ability with the potential for a significant number of extra-base hits and solid speed and defense — a well-rounded player whose overall game may make it easier to stand out at his position than it would be for Casas. For that reason, several evaluators see Downs as the top Red Sox prospect. Others see a solid contributor who is less likely than Casas to be a star.
3. Bobby Dalbec, 1B/3B
Age: 25 (6-4, 225)
Key question: What about those strikeouts?
In his big league debut, Dalbec had prodigious power and a prodigious strikeout rate. Can those coexist to yield a good player?
Dalbec hit .263/.359/.600 with eight homers in 23 games despite a jarring 42.4 percent strikeout rate. Is that sustainable? Almost certainly not. But what if he significantly reduces his strikeout rate, as he did in the minors?
In 2020, there were 24 players who struck out in at least 30 percent of their plate appearances (minimum 150 PAs). Just three posted an OPS over .800. From 2010-19, of the 79 players with a strikeout rate of at least 30 percent, 22 posted an OPS of at least .800.
So it’s possible to be an impact hitter even when striking out a ton, but Dalbec would have to be an outlier to do so. Of course, he has a leg up given that his raw power is matched by few in the big leagues.
4. Bryan Mata, RHP
Age: 21 (6-3, 225)
Key question: Can he limit the walks?
Mata has a mid- to high-90s two-seam fastball and slider anchoring a repertoire that also includes a four-seamer, curveball, and changeup. But his ability to throw strikes remains unsteady, partly because he’s still maturing physically and partly because of delivery inconsistencies.
In all likelihood, Mata needs to improve his strike throwing to become a mid-rotation starter. In recognition of that, he stopped raising his hands over his head from the windup in favor of a more compact delivery. His progress in 2021 will determine whether he looks more like a standout starter or a late-innings reliever.
5. Jarren Duran, CF
Age: 24 (6-2, 200)
Key question: How real was the alternate site?
Duran was the star of the Red Sox alternate site, with an offseason swing change — he went from setting up his bat on his shoulder and swinging directly to the ball to lowering his hands in a fashion reminiscent of Alex Verdugo — helping him drive the ball with startling power.
But were the eight homers he hit a mirage resulting from facing a bunch of teammates time after time after time? And in hitting for power, how much will he sacrifice of his ability to spray liners to all fields and create havoc on the bases using his speed?
That uncertainty helps explain why Duran is slated to start 2021 in Triple A. If his standout performance carries forward, he may force his way into the Red Sox outfield by the middle of next season.
6. Jay Groome, LHP
Age: 22 (6-6, 250)
Key question: Is the clock ticking?
In his fifth professional season since being taken by the Red Sox in the first round of the 2016 draft, Groome finally made it through a season healthy (even if it was the pseudo-season of the alternate site and instructional league). Yet he has thrown fewer than 100 official innings in pro ball.
The Red Sox will have to add Groome to their 40-man roster this winter. He’ll open next year in high Single A, with very little likelihood of reaching the big leagues.
His curveball — a dominant pitch in high school and at the start of his pro career — has yet to return in full since his 2018 Tommy John surgery.
Groome showed impressive potential this year, with an easy, repeatable delivery that suggests the potential for good command and deception to get swings-and-misses on a fastball that mostly sits at 92-94 miles per hour He has the makings of at least two solid secondary pitches, a changeup and curve, and he’s also working on a slider.
But with 40-man status comes the start of a three-year clock to establish himself as a big leaguer. Given that he’ll be in the lower minors, Groome may need to dominate in 2021 or else his stock could plummet.
7. Gilberto Jimenez, OF
Age: 20 (5-11, 220)
Key question: How much can you bank on possibility?
There aren’t many 220-pound players who can go from home to first in less than four seconds. Jimenez is one of them. His ability to put the ball in play and fly represents a fascinating starting point, particularly given that his speed also gives him excellent defensive potential.
Still, Jimenez is very much a work in progress as a hitter, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to apply his considerable physical strength to drive the ball. His athleticism and body control give him a lot of room to grow, but his offensive game remains at a relatively early stage of development.
8. Tanner Houck, RHP
Age: 24 (6-4, 220)
Key question: So now he’s a starter?
Houck got to Triple A in July 2019 and over the next 14 months offered little evidence to suggest he had a future as a starter. While his two-seam fastball and slider proved devastating against righties, Houck’s struggles against lefties were sufficiently severe that it seemed hard to imagine him navigating an opposing lineup multiple times.
Then he got called up and delivered three overpowering starts, forging a 0.53 ERA while shifting among his two-seamer, four-seamer, and slider. It’s still an incomplete pitch mix for a likely starter (he needs his splitter to emerge as a reliable pitch) but his performance also proved eye-opening in a way that likely will earn him starting opportunities.
With that, a player who seemed likely to drop out of the top 10 instead solidified his place inside it. He might never have a stretch as good as the three starts that opened his big league career, but he did give himself a chance to emerge as a No. 4 or No. 5 starter.
9. Nick Yorke, 2B
Age: 19 (6-0, 200)
Key question: Who was right, the Red Sox or the industry?
The Red Sox took a considerable risk in taking Yorke in the first round of the 2020 draft because few had him pegged as a first-rounder. But they believed he had immense offensive talent that was overlooked as a result of shoulder surgery that had largely held him out of the high school showcase circuit after his junior year.
It was a gutsy first pick for amateur scouting director Paul Toboni and chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, both in their first year in their positions, and speaks to the trust the Sox had in their scouts in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
It’s the sort of pick that in five years will appear either inspired or misguided — a fascinating risk for the Sox to take.
10. Thad Ward, RHP
Age: 23 (6-3, 192)
Key question: What happens to player development without games?
Ward had an excellent first full pro season in 2019, logging 126 innings with a 2.14 ERA and 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings for Single A Greenville and High A Salem. He seemed likely to open 2020 in Double A Portland.
Instead, when minor leaguers were sent home from spring training, Ward made the short drive home (he’s a native of Fort Myers, Fla.) and committed himself to improving on his own. He added about 15 pounds of muscle and threw regularly (to catcher Austin Rei, a fellow Red Sox minor leaguer) while trying to improve command of his two-seam/slider/cutter repertoire and also develop his changeup.
He could emerge as a big league starting depth option by the end of next season. But it’s almost impossible for the Red Sox to anticipate such an outcome given the derailment caused by the canceled minor league season.