Every year, Baseball America compiles a list of the top 10 prospects in each minor league system. For the third straight year, I was in charge of going through that exercise with the Red Sox farm system.
This year's Red Sox top 10 is characterized by high-ceiling players who remain far closer to the start of their journey through the minors than they are to the big leagues. Whereas a year ago, the Sox' top prospects were drawn from the upper levels of their farm system (the top-five of Blake Swihart, Henry Owens, Rusney Castillo, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Brian Johnson had all finished the year in Triple A or the big leagues), this year's top-prospect pool draws primarily from a group of teenagers who have a greater gap between their ceilings and floors but with more upside than last year's group.
While Yoan Moncada may seem like something of a no-brainer at the top of the list after the Red Sox gave him a record-setting bonus, evaluators were far from universal in conferring that place upon the Cuban-born second baseman. Cases can be made for any of the Sox' top four prospects as the best in the system.
Meanwhile, the fickle nature of prospect rankings suggests that it is wise to view these evaluations as a snapshot in time, and to anticipate that a number of the players will fall well short of projections and others will exceed them considerably.
No. 1: Yoan Moncada, 2B
2015 Level: Single A Greenville
2015 Line: 81 games, .278/.380/.438, 8 homers, 49 steals (52 attempts)
Why he's ranked here: Moncada represents a combination of strength, athleticism, and baseball skill that, in the eyes of some evaluators after his first professional season, offers the type of enormous ceiling that characterizes potential stars. After a slow start, the 20-year-old's .310/.415/.500 line with 45 steals in 48 attempts in 56 second-half games showed a player not only with explosive physical ability but also the aptitude to make the adjustments both offensively and defensively in relatively short order, with one evaluator saying that he'd never seen such an extreme progression in the span of months.
Projection: The Red Sox bet $63 million that Moncada represents something between a future above-average every-day player to a perennial All-Star. While he's at second base now, and likely has the physical talent to play any position except shortstop in the big leagues, some evaluators noted that his ability to close on pop-ups and his first-step burst made a future in the outfield a tantalizing proposition. Though Moncada hits the ball hard, for now, he does so with a swing more geared for line drives than home run power, something that suggests a hitter more aptly suited for the one-, two- or six-hole rather than the middle of the order.
Questions: For what position will he be best suited? How much power will he develop? How will his understanding of the necessary work to perform every day develop as he continues his adjustment to a still-new, seven-day-a-week baseball culture?
Player comparisons: Switch-hitting version of Robinson Cano
No. 2: Rafael Devers, 3B
2015 Level: Single A Greenville
2015 Line: 115 games, .288/.329/.443, 11 HR
Why he's ranked here: At 18, the lefthanded hitter can backspin the ball to center and the opposite field in a way that screams of middle-of-the-order potential, particularly once he becomes a bit more advanced and starts recognizing situations where he can develop his pull power on fastballs in hitters' counts. His 16.5 percent strikeout rate is unusually low for a player with this kind of power potential. On the 20-80 scouting scale, Devers regularly gets projections of 60 or better for both his projected hitting ability and power potential.
Projection: Though Devers showed more as an 18-year-old than any Red Sox positional prospect since Xander Bogaerts, the team need not rush his progression, letting him learn to make adjustments against older and more advanced pitchers. For now, he shows the feet, hands, and arm of a third baseman, but even if he's a future first baseman, his bat should profile for the position.
Questions: Will he harness his aggressive offensive approach in a way that permits him to improve his on-base percentage and walk rate? Given that he carries a bit more weight than a typical 18-year-old, evaluators also wonder whether he'll add pounds in a way that would earn comparisons to a young Pablo Sandoval or if he'll become leaner, creating a physique that would resemble someone like Adrian Beltre. How Devers answers that question likely will determine which infield corner he ultimately plays.
Player comparisons: Pablo Sandoval, Adrian Beltre, Robinson Cano
No. 3: Andrew Benintendi, CF
2015 Levels: Short-Season Single A Lowell, Single A Greenville
2015 Line: 54 games, .313/.416/.556, 11 HR, 10 SB
Why he's ranked here: Based on his 2015 performance alone – both in terms of tools and actual statistics – a strong case could be made that Benintendi deserved top-prospect ranking in the Sox system. Whereas Moncada represents projection and daydreaming, Benintendi showed an above-average to plus across-the-board skill set that required little imagination to see a future above-average every-day big league center fielder who won't require much time in the minors. So why was he held back at No. 3? Chiefly, there's a somewhat limited history related to his emergence. He went from hitting one homer in 2014 to 31 between college and the minors in 2015. That doesn't mean the performance wasn't real, but the limited track record did hold down his ranking – just as it did (wrongly, as it turns out) with Mookie Betts after the 2013 season and Eduardo Rodriguez after 2014.
Projection: Benintendi has an advanced plate approach and feel for the strike zone. Though diminutive, he shows a knack for getting the barrel on the ball, helping to explain his 31-homer explosion in 2015. And his speed translates to both top-of-the-lineup skills and at least average defense in center field.
He has a chance to fly through the minors and reach the big leagues by 2017, if not by the end of next year.
Questions: With his smallish frame, can he stay on the field for six months? Will he continue to show above-average power, or will he settle into being more of a gap-to-gap hitter?
Player comparisons: Jacoby Ellsbury, Mark Kotsay, a lefthanded Mookie Betts
No. 4: Anderson Espinoza, RHP
2015 Levels: Dominican Summer League, Rookie Level Gulf Coast League, Single A Greenville
2015 Line: 58 innings, 0-2, 1.23 ERA, 10.0 K/9, 2.2 BB/9
Why he's ranked here: Though just six feet tall and slight at age 17, he can throw 100 mph with a changeup and curveball that both already grade as major league average or better. He combines that with a feel for pitching that is beyond his years. Some believe Espinoza is the top prospect in the system. The reason he ranks behind Moncada, Devers, and Benintendi has more to do with the inherent dangers of pitching than with any shortcomings.
Projection: Espinoza is the first 17-year-old Red Sox pitcher in decades to reach Single A. Some rival evaluators believe that his stuff would allow him to hold his own in the big leagues by 2017, when he'll be 19, but Sox officials seem inclined to try to slow a runaway train of expectations. He could represent an interesting test case for the Red Sox' player development philosophy under president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski.
Questions: Can he stay healthy?
Player comparisons: Pedro Martinez, Francisco Rodriguez, Dwight Gooden
No. 5: Michael Kopech, RHP
2015 Level: Single A Greenville
2015 Line: 65 innings, 4-5, 2.63 ERA, 9.7 K/9, 3.7 BB/9
Why he's ranked here: Kopech isn't Espinoza … but he's not that far behind him as the most overpowering high school pitcher the Sox have drafted since Jon Lester. He hit 100 this year in Greenville and typically sat in the mid-90s while touching the upper-90s. Both his slider and changeup have shown enough promise to justify continued development as a starter. Kopech's first full pro season ended with a 50-game suspension after he tested positive for an amphetamine, but when he returned to pitch in fall instructional league, he was, if anything, more impressive than he'd been before the suspension, showing greater feel for pitching and an increased ability to use secondary pitches.
Projection: His success in 2015 seemed, at times, to come almost entirely on the strength of his fastball. The jury is split as to whether he'll be a fastball-slider late-innings reliever or if his changeup will develop enough to permit him to be a No. 2 starter with the sort of power stuff that Dombrowski loves. He's unlikely to move as fast as Espinoza, given that his delivery isn't as polished and he needs greater refinement in his arsenal.
Questions: Will he develop a third pitch that will permit him to start? Will he develop the command needed to limit walks and pitch deep enough into games to start? Will his breaking ball – currently a slider/power curve hybrid – gain definition as a true slider, a curveball, a cutter, or none of the above? Was the positive amphetamine test a sign of larger makeup concerns?
Player comparisons: A.J. Burnett, Noah Syndergaard, Jonathan Papelbon
No. 6: Brian Johnson, LHP
2015 Levels: Triple A Pawtucket, Major Leagues
2015 Line: 100 innings, 9-7, 2.78 ERA, 8.3 K/9, 3.2 BB/9
Why he's ranked here: Johnson, the first player in the top 10 above Single A, is easily the most polished Red Sox pitching prospect in the system. Most evaluators believe that his lack of blow-away stuff caps his ceiling as no more than a No. 3 or No. 4 starter, but if he's healthy, his execution could permit him to be a longtime starter in the big leagues. He might have ranked higher than Kopech but for the elbow nerve irritation that cost him the final two months of the season – a particularly unfortunate development given that he appeared poised for a crack at the big league rotation over the final two months. Still, he's a nearly big league-ready starting pitcher, the only "prospect" in the Sox system who qualifies for that designation now that Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Steven Wright have accumulated too many big league innings for prospect status.
Projection: Johnson is slated to open the year in Triple A, but if he bursts out of the gate in a fashion comparable to the one with which he kicked off the 2015 campaign and if Henry Owens once again struggles with his command out of the gates, Johnson could thrust himself right back into prominence as a primary starting depth option. It will be interesting to see after his year-ending shutdown whether Johnson's velocity more closely resembles its 2014 level, which was a tick or two above where he sat in 2015 (usually 88-90).
Questions: Is the 2015 elbow injury completely behind him? What kind of fastball will he have?
Player comparisons: Mark Buehrle, Wade Miley, David Wells, Brian Anderson.
No. 7: Sam Travis, 1B
2015 Levels: High A Salem, Double A Portland
2015 Line: 131 games, .307/.381/.452, 9 HR, 19 SB
Why he's ranked here: "He can flat-out hit." The refrain for Travis is a common one, and given that Travis didn't crack double digits in homers yet still is widely viewed as a potential everyday first baseman, it's clear just how compelling evaluators find his ability to barrel the ball and drive it for singles and into the gaps. His willingness to let the ball travel deep in the strike zone and hit liners to center and right-center makes him a good hitter but compromises his power; if he starts to ambush fastballs and look to pull them with loft, Travis offers intriguing upside, given that some evaluators believe that he showed as much raw power in batting practice as his college teammate, Kyle Schwarber.
Projection: Travis, in tandem with Travis Shaw, represents the Sox' insurance policy for Hanley Ramirez at first base. He'll likely open the year in Pawtucket, but few in the Sox organization would be shocked if he proves ready for a callup at some point in 2016. He's not Shaw's defensive equal at first base, but Travis is athletic enough both to hold his own at the position and to suggest that it wouldn't be surprising to see him get some time in left.
Questions: Will he hit for power, and if he does, will it compromise the approach that is currently at the heart of his prospect value? Can he profile as an every-day first baseman if he doesn't add more power? Will he be able to add other positions to his profile in order to develop additional pathways to the big leagues?
Player comparisons: Mark Grace, Sean Casey, Chris Colabello, Steven Pearce.
No. 8: Deven Marrero, SS
2015 Levels: Triple A Pawtucket, Major Leagues
2015 Line: 125 games, .252/.311/.336, 7 HR, 14 SB
Why he's ranked here: Marrero's glove will make him a big leaguer, and his defense is so compelling that he doesn't need to produce a great deal of offense to gain consideration as an every-day option. He seems destined to either be a utility infielder or a bottom-of-the-order shortstop who serves as the glue of an infield.
Projection: Marrero seems likely to open the year in Pawtucket, but his defensive gifts will make him a callup in case of virtually any infield injury.
Questions: How much will he hit?
Player comparisons: Recent Alexei Ramirez, Alcides Escobar, John McDonald, early-career Brandon Crawford.
No. 9: Luis Alexander Basabe, CF
2015 Level: Short-Season Single A Lowell
2015 Line: 56 games, .243/.340/.401, 7 HR, 15 SB
Why he's ranked here: Basabe combined speed and power as an 18-year-old in Lowell in a fashion that stood out, particularly given that he showed the ability to impact the ball from both sides of the plate. Basabe's seven homers were the most by an 18-year-old in the New York-Penn League since 2004. He's got miles to go before he's a big leaguer, but some evaluators believed that his ceiling exceeded that of former Sox center field prospect Manuel Margot – something that may have helped to make Margot expendable this winter. Basabe will have to cut down on his strikeouts considerably in order to cement his prospect status, but outside of the Greenville group, he showed the highest ceiling of nearly any Red Sox positional prospect.
Projection: If everything clicks, he's an above-average middle-of-the-field player. While his 26 percent strikeout rate in a short-season league is cause for concern, some felt that he's likely to see that number go down, given that many of his strikeouts were called – and may have represented bad calls by lower-levels umpires.
Questions: How will he fill out? How will his contact skills develop, particularly against more sophisticated pitch repertoires?
Player comparison: Coco Crisp, with more power.
No. 10: Michael Chavis, 3B
2015 Level: Single A Greenville
2015 Line: 109 games, .223/.277/.405, 16 HR
Why he's ranked here: Though he endured a significant struggle in his first full pro season, and his short, stocky stature doesn't profile neatly at any position, Chavis has power. He led all Red Sox minor leaguers in homers, even as his average sat near the Mendoza Line for significant swaths of the year and his strikeout total bordered on alarming at times.
Projection: More than any of the other top prospects in Greenville, Chavis struggled. Of course, he also came to Greenville as a high schooler, suggesting a level of inexperience that didn't exist for Moncada (Cuba's Serie Nacional), Devers (one full year in the Red Sox system), Benintendi (college), or Javier Guerra (two full years in the system). That being the case, even if the 2014 first-rounder ends up repeating at Greenville to open 2016, there's still some need to measure expectations for his performance against players of comparable experience levels. Evaluators are divided on where he might find his home on the field, but as with his offense, Chavis showed both the commitment and aptitude to get better defensively at third base over the course of the year.
Questions: Can Chavis improve his contact rate as he further develops his offensive approach? Will he stick at third, or might he need to move to either second or left field – and, for that matter, can he play at those positions? Can a player who sometimes fought himself while enmeshed in slumps play with the confidence to minimize his troughs?
Player comparisons: Dan Uggla, Clint Frazier, Will Middlebrooks (of a very different stature)
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.