This spring offered evidence of a dramatic transformation on the backfields of Fenway South.
The last time there was a full minor league spring training in 2019, the Red Sox farm system ranked among the worst in the game. The franchise’s top prospects, especially those in the upper levels, were corner bats with limited defensive value. Athleticism was in short supply, mostly confined to the lower levels, and rarely seen in players whose skills showed polish.
Most of the top pitching prospects in the system were coming off injuries, struggles in part or all of 2018, or both. Not only were pitchers who profiled as starters in short supply, but there were few hard throwers with clear paths to contributing out of the bullpen. There was, simply, a gaping hole in the upper levels. And so, to members of the organization and evaluators from other teams, this spring offered a dramatic contrast.
“I think our average player has a lot more talent than our average player maybe three or four years ago,” said farm director Brian Abraham. “It’s exciting to see where we are from Player 180 to 1.”
The Red Sox’ last three first-round picks (Triston Casas in 2018, Nick Yorke in 2020, Marcelo Mayer in 2021) are now elite prospects, with Casas on the cusp of the big leagues. Once-unheralded players such as outfielder Jarren Duran and pitcher Brayan Bello have emerged.
Trades have reinforced the depth of the system. The franchise’s domestic and international scouting efforts have yielded a head-turning ensemble of athletes who can play all over the field, including up the middle. And while the strength of the system lies in position players, the Sox have a handful of solid upper-level pitching prospects.
No longer are scouts looking at Red Sox affiliates and shaking their heads about the dearth of talent. At every level, the Sox feature players who capture the eyes and imaginations of scouts.
“It’s so different [from 2018-19], when there wasn’t impact. They’ve come a long way now. They’re all here. It’s fun to watch,” said one National League evaluator. “I think the Red Sox system is one of the sleeper systems in baseball … I wouldn’t say they’re [a top-10 farm system] yet, but they’re in that 10-20 range for sure, and maybe 10-15.”
“It’s on the up and up. I’m not ready to say they’re top 10, but they’re closer to the top 10 than the bottom 10,” agreed one American League evaluator. “They’ve got the capital to make trades, they’ve got high-end prospects to come in and help out the major league team. They’ve come a long way.”
With the minor league season under way, here’s a look at the four Red Sox affiliates whose seasons have started:
Triple A Worcester Red Sox
Top prospects: 1B Triston Casas (Baseball America’s No. 2 Red Sox prospect), OF Jarren Duran (No. 4), 2B/SS Jeter Downs (No. 6), RHP Josh Winckowski (No. 9).
In the spotlight: Casas, whose future in the middle of the Red Sox lineup could start to take shape as soon as this season.
Part of the reason why the Red Sox did not throw themselves into the deep end on the Freddie Freeman sweepstakes was the presence of Casas. While he’s primarily stood out for his ability to hit to all fields and get on base, the centaur-sized 22-year-old has hit three tape-measure homers (including a 477-foot shot at Polar Park) through seven games.
“We’ve talked to him about not chasing power. We all know it’s there and that it will come,” said Abraham. “He’s really exciting because he’s one of those guys who’s never happy with where he is. I think that’s why there are some good players that become great.”
Double A Portland Sea Dogs
Top prospects: RHP Brayan Bello (No. 5), LHP Jay Groome (No. 10), LHP Brandon Walter (No. 11), LHP Chris Murphy (No. 12).
In the spotlight: The most promising Red Sox minor league rotation in years.
Evaluators are divided on whether the top four starters project as starters, short relievers, or multi-inning relievers. But Bello (who touched 99 miles per hour while striking out 10 in five shutout innings in his first start this week, his 10th career double-digit strikeout game), Groome, Walter, and Murphy possess stuff that is expected to get them to the big leagues.
“Those are all big league pitchers right there,” said the AL evaluator. “They have a mix of deception, velocity, and stuff.”
Though Bello doesn’t miss bats with his high-90s fastball, he can limit damage by elevating the pitch and then throwing a swing-and-miss changeup and a good slider down in the zone. He has the highest ceiling of the group if he can tighten his command.
Some believe that Walter, a lefthander with a low arm slot who combines strike-throwing with wicked movement on a three-pitch mix and deception, may have the best chance to stick as a starter. Groome and Murphy show bullpen or back-of-the-rotation potential.
High A Greenville Drive
Top prospects: 2B Nick Yorke (No. 3), SS Matthew Lugo (No. 14), utility player Tyler McDonough (No. 16), 1B/3B Alex Binelas (No. 18), infielder Brainer Bonaci (No. 20).
In the spotlight: Yorke, who is one of the best hitting prospects in professional baseball.
Yorke had his first career five-hit game on Wednesday. He is coming off a 2021 campaign in which he hit .325/.412/.516, overcoming a slow first month in Low-A Salem with a dazzling surge over the final four months.
Teenagers almost never achieve the .300/.400/.500 plateau in full-season ball. If Yorke continues to build on his 2021 performance while reaching Double A as a 20-year-old this season, then the vision of him as an elite hitter with solid power will solidify.
“He’s really going to hit,” said the NL evaluator.
The infield of Yorke, Lugo, Binelas, and Bonaci features four players with the ceiling of everyday big leaguers, while McDonough and Ceddanne Rafaela show significant potential as players who feel comfortable all over the field.
Low A Salem Red Sox
Top prospects: SS Marcelo Mayer (No. 1), 1B Blaze Jordan (No. 7), RHP Wilkelman Gonzalez (No. 13), infielder Eddinson Paulino (No. 28).
In the spotlight: Mayer, a glimmering talent who looks advanced well beyond his 19 years.
Players who enter full-season ball out of high school are supposed to flail when confronted with the adjustment to the caliber of arms featured. Mayer, however, has opened his season by going 10 for 22 with three doubles, two walks, and three strikeouts (a .455/.500/.591 line) while playing smooth defense.
“My brother who works with high school kids asked, ‘What’s he like?’ I said, ‘He looks like he should have been a top pick. This is what they’re supposed to look like,’ ” said Abraham. “He says the right things. He works hard. He plays hard. He’s really good. He performs like he does all those things really well. And he does it with an easiness that is really remarkable to see.”
Gonzalez also merits mention. The 20-year-old righthander topped out at 98 mp.h. this spring and has a starter’s build and mix.
▪ Righthander Bryan Mata (Baseball America’s No. 8 Red Sox prospect), who underwent Tommy John surgery last April, will soon start throwing live batting practice as he gets closer to a return. Mata is expected to join the Worcester rotation this season, though if he recaptures his nasty mix (high-90s sinker, slider, changeup), he could emerge as a mid- to late-year bullpen option, as well.
▪ Second baseman David Hamilton (No. 25) is off to a memorable start. The 24-year-old, acquired from the Brewers in a December trade, went 4 for 5 with two homers and a triple while matching a Portland record by driving in seven. Through four games, he was 7 for 14 with four walks, two strikeouts, and seven steals.
▪ Utility player Ceddanne Rafaela (No. 22), who provides excellent defense at six positions (second, third, short, all three outfield spots), went 4 for 6 with two doubles Wednesday. He’s hitting .435/.480/.826 with five extra-base hits in five games.
▪ Middle infielder Jeter Downs (No. 6) struck out in 15 of his first 30 plate appearances while posting a .185/.267/.370 line for Worcester.
▪ Outfielder Nick Decker (No. 39) made contact in just three of his first 18 plate appearances, going 0 for 13 with eight strikeouts and six walks. while getting hit by a pitch.
▪ Lefthander Jeremy Wu-Yelland (No. 31) opened the year on the injured list with elbow stiffness and back tightness. He’s started a throwing program and is expected to join High-A Greenville when healthy.