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The state of the Red Sox’ minor-league system entering 2023: Top prospects, story lines to watch, and more

Marcelo Mayer is the most highly regarded Red Sox prospect since Rafael Devers.Salem Red Sox

In a year when the Red Sox’ big league roster features increasingly prominent roles for homegrown players, the farm system must prove its talent base is renewable.

Righthander Brayan Bello, who graduated from prospect status last season by pitching 57 innings in the big leagues, will soon rejoin the pitching staff. First baseman Triston Casas is nearing 130 career big league plate appearances and should graduate from prospect status next week.

Those two represent anticipated mainstays, feathers in the cap of the scouting and player development departments. Similarly, Marcelo Mayer (No. 1-ranked Red Sox prospect entering the year, according to Baseball America, and No. 9 in the sport), Ceddanne Rafaela (No. 3/69), and Miguel Bleis (No. 5/84) give the team potential building blocks. But with Casas (No. 2/26) soon moving into post-prospect status, the Red Sox will be tested to prove they can keep developing players.

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The Sox are viewed as a largely top-heavy system, with a considerable gap between the potential impact of Bleis and the next wave of prospects. That view informs the consensus middle-of-the-pack assessment of the system.

The development of a few players could heavily influence whether the arrow is seen as moving up or down.

The season is under way for all four full-season Red Sox affiliates. Here is a look at the key prospects and story lines:

TRIPLE A: WORCESTER RED SOX

If Bryan Mata can improve his command, he has the raw stuff to join the Red Sox rotation. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Top prospects: RHP Bryan Mata (Baseball America’s No. 8 Red Sox prospect), LHP Brandon Walter (No. 10), LHP Chris Murphy (No. 13), 2B Enmanuel Valdez (No. 19)

In the spotlight: Based on the power and shape of his five-pitch mix — a high-90s sinker and four-seam fastball, slider, changeup, and curveball — some in the system view Mata as having a ceiling that can rival Bello. But Mata’s lack of control (11.3 percent career walk rate, 13.3 percent in 2022) has suggested a bullpen role.

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Mata’s career has been a stop-and-start exercise owing to the pandemic in 2020 and Tommy John surgery that wiped out all of 2021 and part of his 2022 season. But the Sox were encouraged by Mata’s healthy spring, as well as tweaks to smooth out his delivery and improve command.

“He’s got a goal. He’s on a mission. He’s pitching like that,” said WooSox pitching coach Paul Abbott. “He’s commanding all four of his elite pitches that are special. We’re seeing it before our eyes.”

Keep an eye on: 2B/SS David Hamilton. The Sox love his speed and believe he can handle both middle infield spots. There’s a chance he will get called up before Valdez if the Sox have a middle infield injury.

DOUBLE A: PORTLAND SEA DOGS

There's little question as to whether Ceddanne Rafaela can hold up defensively in center field. If he hits like he did last year, the Red Sox could have a star on their hands.Gwinn Davis/Greenville Drive/GWINN DAVIS

Top prospects: CF/SS Ceddanne Rafaela (No. 4), 2B Nick Yorke (No. 7), INF Matthew Lugo (No. 18).

In the spotlight: Rafaela’s elite defense has him on the radar of the big league team, and after his standout 2022 season split between High A Greenville and Portland (.299/.342/.539 with 21 homers and 28 steals), he seemed likely to open the year in Triple A.

But his aggressiveness on pitches outside of the strike zone in big league camp and early in minor league spring training proved concerning, and his efforts to address the issue sometimes veered into overcorrection.

“All the talk about controlling the strike zone, I think the strike zone controlled him for a little bit [in spring training],” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “We want him to be aggressive. Learn how to control being aggressive — go, go, go, take. He understands that.”

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Though he made better swing/take choices later in camp, the Sox assigned him to Double A to underscore the need for further development. Still, he remains a candidate to reach the big leagues this year.

“He’s going to contribute,” said Cora.

Yorke looked like one of the best pure hitting prospects in the minors in 2021, but he never found a rhythm while navigating injuries in 2022. If by the end of this year he and Rafaela project as average to above-average regulars with 2024 big league ETAs, the Sox could enter a different phase of roster-building.

Keep an eye on: Several unheralded members of the Sea Dogs pitching staff showed considerable promise this spring. Shane Drohan’s velocity jumped from 89-91 miles per hour last year to 92-94 this spring, creating intrigue about his development as a starter. Righthanders Luis Guerrero and C.J. Liu (who will open the year in the rotation) are seen as possible impact relievers.

HIGH A: GREENVILLE DRIVE

Blaze Jordan, the team's third-round pick in 2020, will start the season at High A Greenville.Jason Miller/Getty Images

Top prospects: SS Marcelo Mayer (No. 1), INF/CF Eddinson Paulino (No. 11), RHP Wikelman Gonzalez (No. 12), 1B/3B Blaze Jordan (No. 14), C Nathan Hickey (No. 15), 2B/SS Brainer Bonaci (No. 16), 2B Chase Meidroth (No. 27).

In the spotlight: The entire infield, with Mayer taking center stage.

Mayer is the most highly regarded Red Sox prospect since Rafael Devers, a potential All-Star shortstop who should make it to Double A Portland this season for his first taste of baseball in New England. This spring, he gained strength and a slight boost in bat speed while continuing to show remarkable polish at the plate and in the field at 20 years old.

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Paulino and Bonaci could emerge as everyday middle infielders, while Jordan and Hickey have above-average offensive potential albeit with positional questions. Meidroth had a fantastic pro debut (.316/.438/.539) after being taken in the fourth round last year.

Keep an eye on: Righthander Juan Daniel Encarnacion, 22, featured increased velocity this spring, sitting at 92-93 with the physical attributes to keep adding. He has a starter’s feel for changing speeds and working in the zone.

SINGLE A: SALEM RED SOX

Miguel Bleis has the ceiling to be an elite player, but he's still in Single A.Alex Speier/Globe staff

Top prospects: OF Miguel Bleis (No. 5), 2B/SS Mike Romero (No. 6), OF Roman Anthony (No. 9), RHP Luis Perales (No. 17), INF Cutter Coffey (No. 21).

In the spotlight: Bleis, a five-tool prospect who aspires to become a player in the mold of Ronald Acuña Jr., has an enormous ceiling. He has the bat speed to turn around nearly any fastball with plus power, but faces questions about how well he’ll handle breaking stuff. He’s shown discipline early in counts before expanding the zone with two strikes, suggesting the potential to force pitchers to work in the zone in a way that could cut down his strikeouts. There’s a good chance he struggles for part of the year against improved spin, but if he proves he can adjust, he possesses superstar potential.

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The outfield of Bleis, Anthony, and Allan Castro (more on him in a moment) rivals the Greenville infield as the most exciting grouping in the system. All three will get time in center.

The lightning-armed Perales has the high-90s fastball/breaking ball/changeup combination to emerge as a top prospect now that the reins are off of a pitcher who entered the year having thrown fewer than 40 professional innings.

Keep an eye on: Castro proved a head turner in spring training based on his size, speed, strength, and athleticism. The 19-year-old switch-hitter is a gap-to-gap hitter whose exit velocities are starting to jump.


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