Given the pedigrees and reputations of the players, the performance of the Red Sox’ highest minor league affiliate borders on shocking.
At the start of 2015, Triple A Pawtucket seemed loaded. The organization’s top five prospects (Blake Swihart, Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriguez, Rusney Castillo, and Brian Johnson) opened the year there, with three additional members of the team’s top-10 prospect pool (Matt Barnes, Deven Marrero, Garin Cecchini) also on the roster.
Others such as Steven Wright, Travis Shaw, Sean Coyle, and Bryce Brentz likewise were considered prospects who made up what was considered one of the most talented minor league affiliates in organized baseball. The midseason addition of veterans such as Allen Craig and Joe Kelly only added to players who had made a big league impact or were projected to do so.
“We look good on paper,” said Cecchini. “But it’s about getting it done. Who cares how good you look on paper?”
With a loss on Thursday, the team’s fifth straight, the PawSox have fallen to 41-58, a .414 winning percentage that would be the franchise’s worst since 1985. They are 3-16 this month and 9-27 since mid-June.
The emphasis in the minors is on player development as opposed to winning — for instance, a pitcher may work on a curveball that represents his third- or fourth-best pitch with two strikes rather than employing his best pitch for the kill.
“When you start playing this game as a young player, you do it because you love the game first of all, and secondly, you do it because you want to win. I don’t think that’s changed for any of us,” said Cecchini. “I don’t think that changes just because you get to the minor leagues with development. It’s tough when you lose.”
As the losses mount, they raise a couple of questions: Do they suggest, perhaps, an overhyped Red Sox prospect pool — named this week by Keith Law of ESPN as the best farm system in baseball this year — that hasn’t demonstrated the ability to win? And, more broadly, do the defeats really matter?
For most in the industry, the answers are no and no. On the subject of prospect hype — records have no bearing on the quality of prospects. For instance, the worst record by a Red Sox full-season minor league affiliate under the current ownership/front office group belonged to the 2003 Augusta GreenJackets, who went 49-87 (.360). Yet that team was impressive in prospect terms, since it featured two 19-year-old future stars in Jon Lester and Hanley Ramirez.
When evaluators assess minor league affiliates, they don’t concern themselves with wins and losses as opposed to whether there are players who, individually, can contribute to a winning big league team.
“I’ve been doing this 20 years. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at a record and said, ‘Wow, these guys are 66-14,’ ” said one pro scout who covers the Red Sox system. “I have no idea how Pawtucket is doing or the rest of their system. Same thing with [the farm system of the scout’s team]. I’m sure there’s someone in the front office who knows our winning percentage in the minor leagues. Who cares?
“There’s only one level that counts. I have no idea how the Giants system is doing, but they’ve won three of five [World Series].”
(For the record, the Giants’ Triple A affiliate has posted losing records in five of the last seven years.)
As for the hype question: Again, that would appear to be separate from the question of winning. The PawSox reached the International League Governor’s Cup championship series in two of the last three years, winning in 2012 and 2014. Yet those Triple A championships occurred in seasons where the Sox finished in last place in the big leagues.
“I don’t think those things are tied together, Triple A performance and major league performance. I look back at last year as a pretty prime example of that,” said Sox farm director Ben Crockett. “I think generally our focus is trying to get players better and trying to improve players and get them in a position to help the big league club.”
The high regard for the Sox system relates chiefly to the potential for impact players — future All-Stars — from the lower levels of the system, starting with Manuel Margot in Portland and particularly with players such as Rafael Devers, Yoan Moncada, and Javier Guerra in Greenville. As for the Pawtucket talent pool, it’s viewed as one that offers big league-caliber depth — with Johnson and Owens viewed as at least future back-end starters, and the position players offering something between potential big league starters and role players.
Injuries have contributed to the team’s struggles, as have call-ups. It’s worth noting that the PawSox might have a better record if players such as Rodriguez or Swihart hadn’t been promoted early to the big leagues.
Still, given that the PawSox were expected to feature essentially a full lineup of big league prospects, the poor record comes as a surprise — as do several individual performances that have fallen short of expectations, whether Castillo (hitting .281 with a .333 OBP and .390 slugging mark while missing considerable time because of injuries), Brentz (.233/.302/.338 before thumb surgery that may sideline him for the rest of the year), Coyle (.159/.274/.302 amidst injuries), and Cecchini (.216/.292/.310).
Evaluators believe it’s not uncommon for players who have been in the big leagues to languish a bit when moving back down, particularly when a team acquires players who block a clear path to the big leagues.
“You look and say, ‘Where do I fit in the organization?’ You’re blocked,’ ” said the pro scout. “At some point, your psyche takes a hit. It has to.”
Still, a player like Jackie Bradley Jr. — hitting .315 with a .390 OBP and .491 slugging mark along with nine homers — has pushed through those questions to perform. Not all of his teammates have been able to follow suit. But if they’re stagnating or stewing while awaiting a big league opportunity, their focus is in the wrong place. Moving beyond that may yield more wins for the PawSox, but more importantly, it might position some of Pawtucket’s players to eventually help in the big leagues.
“It comes down to getting the job done. We haven’t been good at doing that,” said Cecchini. “I think that’s part of our development, too — learning how to get the job done. We want to win. It hasn’t been the case.”