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In Red Sox minor league system this year, lots of steady progress and a few breakouts

Ceddanne Rafaela (above) may not be another Mookie Betts, but he played flashy defense in center field and at shortstop.Gwinn Davis/Greenville Drive/GWINN DAVIS

For the Red Sox, the 2022 minor league season continued the rebuilding of a talent pipeline. Top prospects Marcelo Mayer, Triston Casas, Brayan Bello, and Miguel Bleis saw potential coalesce into performance that underscored the views of elite potential. Ceddanne Rafaela had a breakout year that also made him look like a big league regular in waiting.

For most players aside from Rafaela and perhaps Eddinson Paulino, it was a year of steady progress rather than breakouts. For others such as 2020 first-rounder Nick Yorke, it was a season of learning through struggles and adversity.

Perhaps most significantly, the big league arrivals of Bello and Casas represented the emergence of potential cornerstone players, with more to come from a farm system that no longer requires evaluators to squint to see future contributors.

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Up-the-middle athletes

Just a few years ago, the Red Sox had a cluster of prospects in the system at the corners but almost no players with clear paths to the majors at shortstop, second base, or center field. Now, they have up-the-middle head-turners throughout the system, including some who boosted their stock considerably in 2022.

“Anytime you can have impactful players up the middle of the field, it gives you the chance to have impact players all around the field,” said farm director Brian Abraham. “It’s exciting, for sure.”

Standouts: Marcelo Mayer, Ceddanne Rafaela, Miguel Bleis

Struggled: Nick Yorke, Jeter Downs

Notable: Matthew Lugo, Brainer Bonaci, David Hamilton

Mayer hit .280/.399/.489 with 13 homers and 45 extra-base hits in 91 games between two levels of A ball while playing standout defense at short. His strikeout rate (25.2 percent) was slightly higher than expected but still roughly league average at his two stops — impressive given that he was among the youngest players at his levels. His smooth swing with easy natural loft to all fields suggests a ton of doubles and perhaps 20-plus-homer totals. A potential All-Star.

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“Just to think about the fact that Marcelo is 19 years old and he’s as advanced as he is, it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch him,” said minor leaguer Niko Kavadas.

Marcelo Mayer showed why he was a first-round draft pick in 2021.Salem Red Sox

Rafaela jumped into top-100 conversations by playing spectacular defense in center and at short in High A Greenville and Double A Portland while having a breakout offensive year, hitting .299/.342/.539 with 21 homers and 63 extra-base hits in 116 games.

His 5.0 percent walk rate raises questions about whether his production is sustainable, and despite some visual similarities, it should all but eliminate comparisons to Mookie Betts on offense. But even a baseline projection of a Jose Siri/Harrison Bader type — with upside more in line with All-Star Chris Taylor if he becomes more disciplined — would be tremendously valuable.

Even further away, Bleis combines speed and strong defense in center with the ability to hit the ball outrageously hard — a combination that arguably gives the 18-year-old the highest ceiling in the system after he posted a .301/.353/.543 line in the Florida Complex League. There are questions about how much he’ll strike out, but there are few players with his true five-tool potential in baseball.

First-rounder Mikey Romero has a gorgeous lefthanded swing that suggests the ability to hit for a high average, and he displayed emerging power as an 18-year-old while looking capable of playing strong defense at both middle-infield spots. He hit .304/.368/.506 in his pro debut.

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Yorke, the 2020 first-rounder, had a disappointing age-20 season in Greenville (.232/.303/.365) that lowered his prospect stock. But evaluators aren’t going to dismiss what he showed in 2021 as a standout hitter with above-average power.

Four years ago, Paulino would have been in the mix for recognition as the top Red Sox prospect after posting a .266/.359/.469 line with 58 extra-base hits in 114 games and playing four positions for Single A Salem. Now, the 20-year-old embodies the team’s wealth of athletes.

Sluggers

While the Sox have emphasized middle-of-the-field athleticism in their amateur scouting, the system also featured a few strong performances from players whose bats will determine their futures.

Standouts: Triston Casas, Niko Kavadas, Enmanuel Valdez, Blaze Jordan

Struggled: Alex Binelas

Notable: Roman Anthony

Casas solidified his place as the first baseman of the future by combining his disciplined offensive approach with an increased willingness to take chances and crush pitches. His power and patience give him a chance to be a middle-of-the-order force who plays strong defense.

Kavadas showed top-of-the-scale power in college at Notre Dame but slid to the 11th round of the 2021 draft because of questions about his position and his home run potential. But he destroyed two levels of A ball (.295/.460/.603 with 24 homers in 96 games) before struggling in Double A (.222/.370/.333).

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“The coolest part is that even though I was an 11th-rounder, [the Red Sox] didn’t hesitate to push me,” said Kavadas. “I’m really excited that they’ve shown as much faith in me as they have.”

Niko Kavadas was a force at Single A.Salem Red Sox

Valdez, acquired from the Astros in the Christian Vázquez trade, drove the ball to all fields while hitting .296/.376/.542 with 28 homers and 107 RBIs (tied for sixth in the minors) between two levels (Double A and Triple A) and two organizations.

Jordan, 19, put up impressive numbers (.289/.363/.445) at two levels of A ball, with his amateur history suggesting power beyond the 12 homers he hit this year. However, there are questions about whether he’ll be able to handle big velocity as he moves up the ladder.

Binelas, who came to the Sox in the Hunter Renfroe deal, held his own in Greenville (.245/.355/.495) but struggled to a .166/.254/.379 line in Double A with a 32.4 percent strikeout rate.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” he said of his first full pro season.

An adjustment to bring his hands away from his body to create more looseness in his swing showed promise down the stretch.

Catchers

Standout: Nathan Hickey

Others of note: Brooks Brannon, Connor Wong, Ronaldo Hernández

Hickey, a 2021 fifth-rounder, showed an advanced approach while hitting .263/.415/.522 with 16 homers in 75 games, one of the best offensive performances of any young catcher in the minors. He has work to do to stay behind the plate, but the 22-year-old has rare upside at his position.

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Brannon, a 2022 ninth-rounder out of high school, has shoot-the-moon potential. No draft profile is riskier than high school catchers, but Brannon’s huge power and presence behind the plate convinced the Sox to sign him for $712,500.

Pitchers

Brayan Bello has emerged as a pitcher with an electrifying arsenal while Kutter Crawford looks like a solid big league contributor, making this a noteworthy year for pitcher development.

Beyond Bello, this was not a year of overpowering performances for starters in full-season ball. Rather, it was a year of steps in developing mixes that will play in the big leagues.

“We feel like we have guys who can impact the major league team down the road,” said Abraham. “[Bello] is a good example of that. I feel like we have some others not far behind.”

Standouts: Bryan Mata, Brandon Walter

Struggled: While breakouts were few, none of the pitching prospects meaningfully hurt their status in 2022.

Others of note: Wikelman Gonzalez, Chris Murphy, Thaddeus Ward, Elmer Cruz-Rodriguez, Luis Perales

Mata, 23, returned to the mound following Tommy John surgery in early 2021, going 7-3 with a 2.49 ERA and 30.6 percent strikeout rate. The righty has the pure stuff to be a No. 3 or 4 starter (a high-90s sinker, a four-seamer that reaches triple digits, a slider that made gains this year, a changeup with a chance to miss bats), but will need to throw more strikes to get there. Next year will be huge in showing whether he can make that leap or if his more likely future is as a power multi-innings option.

Bryan Mata bounced back from Tommy John surgery this season.John Bazemore/Associated Press

Walter got off to a dazzling start, with a 68-3 strikeout-to-walk rate in 50 innings in Portland, but the lefty struggled in two outings in Triple A before getting sidelined for the rest of the year by a neck injury (bulging disk). At 26, he is old for a prospect, but his slider is among the best pitches in the system, and his sinker and changeup are likewise weapons. Health will determine whether he can emerge as a big league starter.

Gonzalez, 20, got off to a rough start in Salem (5.28 ERA through 17 starts) and didn’t initially handle frustration well. But he finished in impressive fashion, forging a 2.43 ERA with 46 strikeouts and 13 walks in 37 innings over his last eight starts in Salem and Greenville.

He has the arsenal and physical traits for mid-rotation upside.


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him @alexspeier.