In recent years, scouts sometimes lamented their assignments to cover Red Sox affiliates. From 2017-19, a few days in Greenville or Salem or Portland or Pawtucket might conclude with a shake of a head, scouts bemoaning time spent in search of future possibility that wasn’t always obvious.
With the return of Minor League Baseball in 2021 following a season lost to the pandemic in 2020, that time is past. The reboot of the Red Sox farm system has revealed an organization that features, in the parlance of the industry, “dudes” at every level.
The extent of the “dude-ishness” remains a bit difficult to discern. The minors were something of a mess this year, with the lost 2020 campaign and the elimination of 42 minor league affiliates combining to create unusually gaping talent disparities within levels — a development that will make it difficult to get a handle on what this past season meant.
“A lot of teams will make trades based on 2021 and regret them,” predicted one National League scout.
A lot of teams also will likely regret trades they don’t make after 2021, when their internal assessments of a player’s future big league contributions are easier to exaggerate based on the distortions of the last couple of years.
In other words, the state of the Red Sox farm system — and that of the other 29 clubs — is more difficult to assess than in past years. Still, the Red Sox system is in far better shape than it has been in years.
Baseball America released its Top 10 Red Sox prospects list on Wednesday (a list that I’ve assembled for the last nine years). As a companion to that list, here’s a look at key questions hovering over those prospects:
1. Marcelo Mayer, SS
Height, weight: 6 feet 3 inches, 188 pounds
Key question: How was he on the board for the Red Sox?
At the GM Meetings last week, an evaluator from a team that scouted Mayer extensively remained floored that the shortstop remained available to the Red Sox with the No. 4 pick in the draft. The evaluator spoke with reverence about Mayer, describing him as a franchise cornerstone capable of two-way impact in the mold of Carlos Correa and Manny Machado. Other names brought up in assessing Mayer’s ability include Brandon Crawford (for elite defense based not on speed but fluidity and timing), Corey Seager, and a young Christian Yelich (at least in terms of offensive profile). That is good.
But an executive from one organization suggested it hadn’t been sold on Mayer as a hitter at Eastlake High in Chula Vista, Calif., and his otherwise solid pro debut (.275/.377/.440) in the Florida Complex League came with a strikeout rate just north of 25 percent — around the league average, slightly concerning but not significantly given the transition from high school to pro baseball.
Ultimately, Mayer’s potential as a perennial All-Star at a key defensive position distinguished him as the top Red Sox prospect. Now he just has to prove he deserves that standing.
2. Triston Casas, 1B
Height, weight: 6-5, 252
Key question: When will the power show up?
Casas is a remarkably mature hitter, with a clearly defined, versatile approach that highlights his refreshing opposition to striking out. He chokes up on the bat and widens his stance with two strikes, hunting contact and delighting in spoiling pitches.
Because Casas is so attuned to the details of his swing and offensive approach, most evaluators believe that he’ll tap into his enormous strength to become a middle-of-the-order power hitter.
Still, before a one-weekend power surge in September, Casas had just seven homers and 16 extra-base hits in 66 Double A games — albeit in a disjointed season in which he was bouncing around the world while contributing to Team USA in an Olympic qualifier tournament and then in the Tokyo Games. Though extremely young for every level at which he’s played, he hasn’t truly dominated over a sustained stretch.
Nonetheless, his feel for the game distinguishes him, and gives most evaluators optimism that he has the ability to grow into an offensive force with solid (or better) defense. Meanwhile, his ability to limit strikeouts suggests he might be able to smooth out his transition to the big leagues perhaps as soon as 2022.
3. Nick Yorke, 2B
Height, weight: 6-0, 205
Key question: Should Yorke’s season be considered historically rare?
As a 19-year-old in his pro debut at Low A Salem and High A Greenville, Yorke posted a remarkable .325/.412/.526 line that put him in incredibly rare company (think Mike Trout and Vlad Guerrero Jr.) as a teenager in full-season ball.
But one evaluator noted that Low A at times featured a talent pool that would have more typically been found in the short-season New York-Penn League — which was eliminated by contraction. So it’s still to be determined whether Yorke’s season represented a transcendent baseline or merely an excellent one.
Regardless, the Red Sox’ conviction that he had elite offensive potential — a view that wasn’t widely shared in the 2020 draft — is now widely understood. Some view him as the top Red Sox prospect.
4. Jarren Duran, CF
Height, weight: 6-2, 212
Key question: What’s his next offensive adjustment?
Duran concluded 2019 as a player with incredible speed and a line-drive stroke that suggested potential to emerge as an everyday player but with a profile that seemed out of place in the current game, where power is expected everywhere. He worked diligently to adjust his swing, lowering his hands and incorporating a sizable leg lift to generate power.
At the Red Sox’ alternate site in 2020 and again in Triple A in 2021, the results were dazzling. But the adjustment made him vulnerable to elevated fastballs, a weakness pitchers attacked mercilessly in the big leagues.
Duran spent the latter part of the 2021 campaign tinkering with his stance and swing. The potential for a balanced game — a solid hitter with decent power and electric speed — is apparent. But the path to that point isn’t entirely direct or obvious.
5. Brayan Bello, RHP
Height, weight: 6-1, 170
Key question: Why did he fade?
Bello enjoyed a sizable velocity bump this year, going from the low and mid 90s before the pandemic to topping out at 97-98. While his fastball lacks deception, the increased velocity helped set up his excellent changeup and solid slider, leading to a lot of defensive swings.
He has three solid or better big league pitches and a delivery that allows him to throw strikes with all of them. He earned raves as a potential mid-rotation starter, earning a quick promotion from High A Greenville to Double A Portland and forging a 2.55 ERA and 37.2 percent strikeout rate through 11 starts.
But down the stretch, he had a 5.28 ERA over his last 10 starts in Double A with a 31.6 percent strikeout rate. Was the decline a function of rebuilding stamina after a lost minor league season? Or a league that became too familiar with a fastball that lacked movement? Or durability issues for a slight righthander?
That remains to be seen as the Sox try to build his innings load — while also having him further incorporate a two-seam fastball — in 2022. But his upside is considerable, with a chance to emerge as a big league contributor in late 2022 or early 2023.
6. Jeter Downs, SS/2B
Height, weight: 5-11, 195
Key question: What happened?
Downs hit .190/.272/.333 in Worcester this year, prompting questions about whether the Red Sox erred in assigning him to Triple A rather than Double A, where he’d played a dozen games in 2019 after tearing up High A in the Dodgers system. His pitch recognition and selection — typically a strength — seemed to fall apart as the season progressed, a sense of near desperation to avoid strikeouts replacing a real offensive approach.
Still, Downs has a controlled swing and eye that should allow him to be a far better hitter — at least that’s the view of several evaluators who are familiar with him dating to his amateur days. He has the potential to re-establish himself as an above-average middle infielder, but there are more questions now than there were pre-pandemic.
7. Blaze Jordan, 3B/1B
Height, weight: 6-2, 220
Key question: Can he continue to limit the strikeouts?
Jordan possesses absurd raw power. He became famous in junior high for hitting 500-foot shots (with an aluminum bat) in home run contests. But in his pro debut, despite a crude approach at the plate, he struck out just 18.4 percent of the time — a low number for any high school product making his pro debut, but even more so given that he’s a week younger than Mayer.
His future is most likely at first base, but the Red Sox will continue to develop him at both corners.
8. Bryan Mata, RHP
Height, weight: 6-3, 238
Key question: So, are we just taking Tommy John surgery for granted?
Mata looked like the best Red Sox pitching prospect entering the season with a high-90s two-seam fastball that runs to his arm side and a wipeout slider that breaks in the opposite direction, complemented by a four-seam fastball, curveball, and changeup.
It wasn’t outlandish to think he could contribute in the big leagues in 2021. His control raised questions about whether his ultimate role would be as a starter or reliever, but either way, his stuff was that of a very good pitcher.
But he suffered elbow discomfort in spring training and required Tommy John surgery in April. The success rate of pitchers returning from the procedure is impressive, but not perfect. For some, such as former Red Sox prospect Anderson Espinoza, the surgery doesn’t take and another one is required. For others, their stuff doesn’t come all the way back (Sox prospect Jay Groome, for instance, hasn’t recovered the devastating curveball that he had prior to his 2018 surgery).
So there’s an element of the unknown to Mata, but if he does make a full recovery, he’s alongside Bello as the best Red Sox pitching prospect.
9. Josh Winckowski, RHP
Height, weight: 6-4, 220
Key question: How hard did he throw in the Arizona Fall League?
Winckowski, acquired from the Mets in the Andrew Benintendi deal, has been working out of the bullpen. He’s topped out at 99 m.p.h., bringing more attention to a power fastball that serves as the anchor of a four-pitch mix that gives him a chance to be a back-of-the-rotation starter or late-innings reliever.
10. Jay Groome, LHP
Height, weight: 6-6, 262
Key question: Was his late-season promotion fool’s gold?
Groome, the 2016 first-rounder who had Tommy John surgery in early 2018, finally had a full, healthy minor league season. He proved wildly inconsistent, going 5-8 with a 4.81 ERA for High A Greenville and in a season-ending cameo in Double A Portland.
At times, he would overpower opponents for two or three innings before completely losing the strike zone. His once-elite curveball did not return, so he more often complements his low-90s fastball with a slider.
Still, Groome got a lot of swings and misses with his fastball — and performed brilliantly in three starts with Portland, striking out 26 in 15⅔ innings while showing a velocity bump (a lot of 94-95) and improved sharpness.
He still has a lot of attributes of a good big league starter — size, pitch mix, deception — that intrigue evaluators across the game, with many scouts getting their first in-person look at him in years in 2021. Even with modest velocity, he has a power lefthanded arm and size that should land him some kind of big league role if he stays healthy.