Brayan Bello and Bryan Mata aren’t quite knocking on the door, but both are approaching it.
The hard-throwing righthanders are emerging as exciting prospects whose big league futures are drawing closer. Bello has struck out 10 in each of his two starts since his promotion to the WooSox, becoming the only pitcher in the Triple A International League with multiple double-digit strikeout games this year.
Mata, nearly 14 months removed from Tommy John surgery, is showing triple-digit velocity with nasty secondary offerings in preseason games in Fort Myers, Fla., and should start a rehab assignment soon. It’s not out of the question that Mata (who signed out of Venezuela in 2016) and Bello (signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2018) could see time in the big leagues this year.
“It’s about time,” chuckled Red Sox assistant general manager Eddie Romero.
Romero was referring not to the development paths of those pitchers but to the idea of the Red Sox seeing a pipeline of players who were signed internationally reaching the big leagues. Since Rafael Devers debuted in July 2017, Darwinzon Hernandez (April 2019) is the only international amateur signee to reach the big leagues.
The gap following Devers was the product of trades, international signing penalties (the Sox were prohibited from signing any international amateurs in 2016-17 because of a violation of MLB rules prohibiting “package” signing deals), and tragedy (the death from cancer of catcher Daniel Flores), as well as signings who didn’t pan out.
But this spring, evaluators were struck in minor league camp by the wealth of international up-the-middle talent signed by the Red Sox in recent years. Already, players such as super-utility standout Ceddanne Rafaela in High-A Greenville and middle infielders Eddinson Paulino and Brainer Bonaci in Single A Salem are contributing to a deepening system.
“[The Sox] have done a fantastic job on the international side,” said one National League evaluator.
Evaluators credit Romero and the international scouting staff for the ability to identify tools, makeup, and feel for the game that can transform players who sign for low bonuses such as Bello and Mata (less than $30,000) as well as Rafaela ($10,000) into top prospects. It’s a testament to hard work and a willingness to hunt well beyond the most famous names in signing classes.
“If you bust your tail and get on the ground and follow a good process, you might be at the right place where you see an athletic, projectable, middle-of-the-field player,” Romero said.
An overhaul of the team’s pitcher development at its Dominican Academy has further contributed to an impressive group of arms.
“The last seven or eight years, we’ve been working a little bit differently than in the past. Now, there are some different drills. We’re bringing in guys throwing 92, 93, and in two years they’re throwing 96, 97,” said Latin America field coordinator Jose Zapata. “Credit to the pitching coaches. The last eight years, they’ve been doing a good job with the pitching. Now it’s so much better.”
The Sox’ international prospects will soon gain more prominence with the start of the short-season Florida Complex League and Dominican Summer League on June 6, with a mix of athletes who can stay in the middle of the field (“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a group of players that we project to stay in the middle of the field like this,” Romero said) as well as high-octane arms.
Here’s a look at some of the players who could emerge in the coming years (and in some cases, months):
Florida Complex League
Miguel Bleis, center field — Bleis is a showstopper, a five-tool, 18-year-old for whom the sky is the limit.
“Wow,” Zapata said. “Bleis is special for me.”
He’s the most exciting Red Sox position prospect to come out of the team’s Dominican Academy since Devers.
Luis Ravelo, shortstop — An 18-year-old switch-hitter with dazzling defensive skills, Ravelo has quieted a leg kick from both sides of the plate to generate consistent line drives with backspin. “He has been a standout,” Romero said of Ravelo’s time in extended spring training.
Ravelo suffered a broken finger on his right hand when hit in a live batting practice session this month, so the start of his season will be delayed, but the Sox are excited about his elite defense coupled with a solid hit tool and speed.
Juan Chacon, center fielder, right fielder — The 19-year-old hit .311/.426/.384 in the DSL in his pro debut last year. He and Bleis have what Romero called a “healthy competition.” While Chacon was slowed this spring after fouling a ball off his knee, he could be a candidate to get to full-season Salem by the end of the year.
Luis Perales, righthanded pitcher — Perales has pitched just two minor league innings since signing with the Sox in 2019 because of an array of injuries, but the 19-year-old Venezuelan possesses the quick, loose arm to suggest impact potential. He’s reached 98 miles per hour in extended spring training.
Others: Enderso Lira, catcher; Ahbram Liendo, second baseman, shortstop; Jedixson Paez, righthanded pitcher.
Dominican Summer League (Sox will have two affiliates)
Freili Encarnacion, shortstop — At 17, Encarnacion’s size (6 feet 2 inches, 205 pounds) and strength stand out, especially at shortstop. He’s worked on his footwork in an effort to stay at the position. “From a physical standpoint, from an ability standpoint, he’s separated himself,” Romero said. “Now let’s hope that translates [to games].”
Fraymi de Leon, shortstop — While Encarnacion is a bat-first prospect, de Leon stands out for his glove and feel for the game, with the offensive potential to develop into a line drive/gap hitter.
Johanfran Garcia, catcher — The 17-year-old already possesses uncommon strength and maturity that yields plus power that would stand out if he sticks behind the dish.
Willian Colmenares, righthanded pitcher — His fastball is up to 93 m.p.h. and he shows advanced feel for a three-pitch mix. “He’s like a veteran already,” Romero said.
Yizreel Burnet, righthanded pitcher — The 2021 signee out of Curaçao has been up to 96 m.p.h. in the buildup to the season.
▪ For the first time in his career, 23-year-old lefthander Jay Groome (No. 10 Red Sox prospect in Baseball America’s May rankings) has pitched at least six innings in three straight starts, posting a 0.96 ERA with 17 strikeouts and five walks in 18⅔ innings for Double A Portland. He doesn’t show the elite stuff he had as a first-rounder in 2016 but now has good feel for a balanced four-pitch mix (90-94-m.p.h. fastball, curve, slider, changeup) and some deception that suggests back-of-the-rotation potential.
▪ High-A Greenville shortstop Matthew Lugo (No. 14) is quietly putting together an outstanding year, with a .286/.378/.586 line that includes four homers and 10 extra-base hits in 18 games in May to push his season line to .313/.371/.563. Most of the 21-year-old’s damage has been done at home (.403/.443/.792 compared with .222/.300/.333 on the road), but he’s crushing lefthanders (.412/.524/.647) and playing strong up-the-middle defense.
▪ Single A Salem catcher Nathan Hickey (No. 23) is hitting .269/.437/.487 with four homers and more walks (23) than strikeouts (20), the kind of offensive profile that is rarely found in catchers. Away from Salem, considered a hitting graveyard, Hickey is posting a .343/.529/.686 line.
▪ Triple A middle infielder Jeter Downs (No. 7) has not played since last Saturday after getting banged up making a defensive play. Even before that injury, however, he’d been struggling, hitting .149/.259/.234 with 16 strikeouts and just two extra-base hits in 54 plate appearances since May 5.
▪ Triple A righthander Connor Seabold’s pectoral injury not only proved ill-timed — with the Red Sox in need of a starter for Saturday’s doubleheader against the Orioles — it added to concerns about the 26-year-old’s ability to stay healthy. Seabold (No. 21) missed significant time in 2019 with an oblique injury, in 2021 with an elbow injury that sapped his velocity, and now is sidelined again. He’s thrown a little more than 150 innings since the start of the 2019 season.
▪ The mere fact that Nick Yorke (No. 3) is in High-A Greenville in his age-20 season — one of eight position players in the South Atlantic League who is that young — speaks to his talent, but his performance with Greenville has been modest. In a great hitter’s league, he’s hitting .254/.329/.373 (down from .333/.406/.571 in 21 season-ending games in Greenville last year) with a significant spike in his groundball rate as pull-heavy contact has replaced his all-fields approach.