How did the Red Sox farm system change under Chaim Bloom? And how much did it improve?
There are different ways of approaching the question. The most obvious is to look both at the farm system rankings and at the team’s top prospects when Bloom arrived and now, following his dismissal almost four years after he came to Boston.
The Sox farm system, was viewed almost universally as no better than a bottom-five crop, and, in the eyes of some, the worst in baseball when Bloom arrived in 2019. Under Dave Dombrowski, the team had traded bunches of young players (though few who developed into impactful big leaguers), the team was unable to sign any top international amateurs for two years (2016-17 and 2017-18) as a result of MLB-imposed sanctions, and the team had lost its first-round pick in the 2019 draft because of its spending to build a champion in 2018.
When Bloom arrived, this was the Red Sox top 10 (with the level at which the player finished 2019 in parentheses):
1. Triston Casas (High A); 2. Bobby Dalbec (Triple A); 3. Bryan Mata (Double A); 4. Jarren Duran (Double A); 5. Darwinzon Hernandez (MLB); 6. Thad Ward (High A); 7. Jay Groome (short-season); 8. Gilberto Jimenez (short-season); 9. Noah Song (short-season); 10. Tanner Houck (Triple A).
There are glaring weaknesses with such a group. While Casas — arguably the only player at the time with an above-average ceiling and solid floor — has emerged as a big league standout, he was years from doing so. Ditto Duran, who’d just struggled in Double A. Houck, a two-pitch pitcher who finished the year in Pawtucket’s bullpen, was widely seen as a future reliever. It was a top 10 of corner position players and pitchers who seemed, in most cases, likely relievers.
While his power made him a top-100 prospect, Dalbec’s strikeout issues created questions about the infielder’s big league floor that have come to fruition. Same goes for the strike-throwing concerns for Mata and Hernandez. Ward had shown enough in one pro season to look like a big leaguer but without the stuff to suggest significant impact.
Groome was never the same prospect after Tommy John that he was before it; he still has yet to reach the majors and is currently leading professional baseball with 104 walks issued for San Diego’s Triple A affiliate. Jimenez was a lottery ticket: A deep-projection, great athlete who was learning to play baseball. It was unknown if Song would ever pitch again in pro ball after a tantalizing glimpse in Lowell.
Other talented players were in the system, but Kutter Crawford had blown out in 2019, Brayan Bello had just finished his first full season and had yet to overhaul his arsenal in a way that vaulted him up prospect rankings, and Ceddanne Rafaela had only played in rookie ball. The farm system had talented players — some who had yet to develop in a way that made their future ceilings — but was years, at best, from offering steady major league depth or potential trade chips.
How about now?
According to Baseball America’s August update, when the publication pegged the Sox as a top-five system:
1. Marcelo Mayer (Double A); 2. Roman Anthony (Double A); 3. Miguel Bleis (Single A); 4. Kyle Teel (Double A); 5. Nick Yorke (Double A); 6. Ceddanne Rafaela (MLB); 7. Luis Perales (High A); 8. Wikelman Gonzalez (Double A); 9. Shane Drohan (Triple A); 10. Nathan Hickey (Double A).
Nearly everyone in the top 10 is in Double A or higher. Mayer, Anthony, and Teel have All-Star ceilings as up-the-middle players and solid floors as big league regulars. Rafaela could be an above-average everyday player who is ready to help at some point in 2024, perhaps immediately. Bleis is a shoot-the-moon, five-tool player. Yorke and Hickey should both hit for a long time in the big leagues.
In many instances, those are players with a chance not merely to offer depth to keep the Sox from derailments with injuries (at least to position players) but with a chance to raise the ceiling of what the team can be. Moreover, the talent runs well beyond that top 10, with high-ceiling position players such as shortstop Yoeilin Cespedes and shortstop/center fielder Nazzan Zanetello and big league-ready options such as Wilyer Abreu, who, like Rafaela, is finishing this season in the majors, in the mix.
Obviously, the strength of the system skews heavily toward position players. Yet one of the most notable successes of Bloom’s tenure was the Red Sox finally getting past their jarring inability to develop pitching.
Bello and Houck both needed to adjust their pitch mixes to become big leaguers; both made huge improvements at the upper levels (Bello in Double A and Triple A in 2022, Houck at the alternate site in 2020) to become important contributors to the Sox staff. So did Crawford, who also required some important mechanical adjustments as he returned from Tommy John surgery in 2021. While not “prospects” in the conventional sense, the Sox also helped develop castoffs John Schreiber and Brennan Bernardino into effective big leaguers.
To be sure, after years of focusing on position players in both the draft and international markets, the Sox remain light on starting pitching prospects — something that likely will force a pricey plunge into rotation upgrades in the year to come. Even so, the team can no longer be accurately accused of a blanket inability to develop pitching.
That’s not a coincidence. The Sox have made immense investments in an effort to catch up to industry-wide trends (and particular standard-setters such as the Dodgers, Astros, and Rays) in technology- and data-driven player development since Bloom arrived. The last four years represented the biggest reshaping of player development since the start of Theo Epstein’s administration, and perhaps ever.
That process hasn’t been a seamless one. The Sox made an enormous number of new hires drawn from both other organizations and outside of affiliated baseball and let go a number of valued, longtime members of their player development department. Others simply chose to leave because they didn’t like the more analytically driven direction of the organization, with concerns that lab-like development of tools had displaced game feel as an organizational priority.
The team tried to take steps to blend the two approaches, most notably in January, with the first all-staff meeting of the baseball operations department since 2016. And certainly, there are instances of success in balancing old and new.
The work done by staff in Triple A Worcester — where pitchers like Bello, Houck, Crawford, and Schreiber adjusted mixes and routines to lay a foundation for big league success, and where Casas started tweaking his approach to tap into more power — has been particularly noteworthy for the development of big league contributors.
Ultimately, the success of the farm system will and should be judged on the amount and frequency of talent that it feeds to the big league team both the fuel a playoff-caliber roster and the sort of trades that can supplement a core. Bloom’s departure comes at a time when such possibilities seem within reach, with the combination of impressive young big leaguers and significant contributors for years to come now evident.