The Red Sox' farm system features a spectacular top end.
On Wednesday, Baseball America unveiled its top 10 prospects for the team entering 2016. It will be years before anyone will know how the sense of possibility for that group translates into actual production, or which of them will end up being stars and which will bust, but at this moment, few teams can match the potential impact of second baseman Yoan Moncada, third baseman Rafael Devers, centerfielder Andrew Benintendi, and righthander Anderson Espinoza.
That said, there is a common trait among those players that represents something of a limitation for the Red Sox entering 2016: They all finished the year in Single A Greenville. Aside from lefthander Brian Johnson (No. 6 in the Red Sox system), first baseman Sam Travis (No. 7), and shortstop Deven Marrero (No. 8), who are expected to open the year in Pawtucket, the Red Sox' top prospects will all start the year in the lower levels of the minors.
That's significant for a simple reason. The bottom-heavy strength of the Red Sox farm system suggests that, at the major league level in 2016, the Red Sox' depth may be limited – particularly in the outfield.
On the major league roster, the Sox will feature a group of starters with a limited track record, including two outfielders who have offered just brief glimpses of big league success in Jackie Bradley Jr. and Rusney Castillo. The presence of reserves Chris Young and Brock Holt will give the team additional options for the outfield, but of course if Holt plays one position, it removes him as an insurance option elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Sox' most advanced Triple A outfield prospect, Bryce Brentz, is (like Young, Castillo, and Betts) righthanded, and likely lacks the defensive versatility to play anything but left at Fenway. The Sox discovered last year how an outfield ensemble that appears deep on paper can become a liability. As the team pieces together its roster for next year, such a concern still lingers, making the team's minor league free agent signings between now and the start of spring training a matter of potential significance.
The Sox announced six signings of minor league free agents, including outfielder Ryan LaMarre, writes Peter Abraham.
Here's my Globe companion guide to the top 10 prospects list.
To the links!
EAST TAKING SHAPE (SORT OF): Tim Britton, in a series of examinations of Red Sox divisional rivals for the Providence Journal, observes that the incredible Blue Jays lineup should sustain Toronto's place as the A.L. East favorites for 2016.
In a separate piece, he examines the Yankees' somewhat ill-defined relationship to their present and future, and in another part of the series, writes that the Orioles may be positioned to contend – depending on what they accomplish with their rotation between now and the start of the season.
SMITH BRINGS THE FUNK: Carson Smith will offer a very different look to the Red Sox bullpen, a sidearm delivery that makes him a very difficult look for opposing hitters. Ian Browne of MLB.com examines how Smith developed his signature delivery.
BETTER DAYS AHEAD FOR HANLEY?: Nick Canelas, writing for Baseball Prospectus, re-examines the 2015 season of Hanley Ramirez and wonders if a bounce back is in order.
The ability of Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval to bounce back, in turn, will have significant ramifications for the Red Sox' depth equation referenced above. Travis Shaw and Holt offer some protection on the big league roster if one of those players struggles, but if Shaw ends up being, for instance, an everyday first baseman if Ramirez is injured or struggles with the position, the Red Sox will only have players whose bats don't profile for the position (Marrero, Holt) as alternatives for third.
QUESTIONING THE DECISION TO OPT-IN FOR OPT-OUTS: MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports that "the logic of opt-out clauses for the club escapes me."
In theory, of course, a player's ability to opt-out in the middle of his contract – a right that the Red Sox conferred upon David Price after three years and the first $90 million of his seven-year, $217 million contract – would appear to benefit the player alone. If the player has performed well, he gets to hit the open market in pursuit of more riches; if he flails, he won't opt out and the team is stuck with a bad contract.
The Economist recently surveyed the limited history of opt-outs, noting that a) players do opt-out; and b) players tend to perform very, very well in the "walk year" that precedes opt-outs, creating surplus value in those seasons to the teams for whom they're playing.
But the fact that a player would have performed well in the years leading up to his opt-out does not mean that he will perform well beyond them. What remains to be seen is whether the broadening use of opt-outs leads to a growing practice of letting players walk in the middle of their nine-figure contracts – thus letting teams capture the years that are most likely to deliver significant bang for the buck, while sparing them from the riskiest years of a contract that present the greatest likelihood of steep decline.
There's also an increased chance of netting a compensatory draft pick for a player who opts out in the middle of a deal – at the height of his market value – as opposed to playing it out to the point of his decline.
It is worth noting that the Red Sox under the stewardship of Theo Epstein/Ben Cherington proved highly conservative when it came to re-signing their own free agents, letting players like Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Johnny Damon, Jason Bay, Adrian Beltre, Victor Martinez, Jonathan Papelbon and Jon Lester walk. In contrast, with the Tigers, new Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski moved aggressively to retain his own stars, signing Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera to record-setting contract extensions years before their free agency, and trying to do the same with Max Scherzer.
So, it remains to be seen how the Red Sox will proceed if a player like Price opts out if he's coming off of three years of elite performance. At the least, however, there's evident logic to a team's willingness to give a player the right to opt out of a contract in his early-30s if it believes that same performer is likely to endure a considerable decline in the latter part of his contract.
CHAOS COMETH: Speaking of opt-outs: Price's and Clayton Kershaw's opt-outs contribute to the possibility of an insane offseason after 2018, when they could join players like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Jose Fernandez, and others on the open market, as Rob Bradford of WEEI.com writes.
HAVE BAT, WILL TRAVEL: Mike Napoli's early-season struggles played a significant role in the Red Sox' terrible start to the year, but he sustained his late-summer rebound through a trade to Texas in a fashion that helped to catapult the Rangers to the playoffs. That performance, in turn, made him an attractive buy-low bat on the market, with the Indians signing Napoli to a one-year, $7 million deal with incentives that could be worth another $3 million. Here's my story on that deal.
Matthew Kory, writing for Fangraphs, explains why Napoli represents a potentially strong value for Cleveland.
Marc Normandin of Over The Monster writes that the recent deals involving Napoli and Todd Frazier, who went from the Reds to the White Sox in a three-team trade, offer evidence that the Red Sox aren't going to be able to trade Ramirez or Sandoval anywhere.
One potentially promising aspect regarding Ramirez: According to BaseballSavant.com, he hit the ball with an average exit velocity of 91.2 mph last year – ahead of players like Mookie Betts, Edwin Encarnacion, Prince Fielder, and Bryce Harper.
THERE'S A REASON THEY'RE CALLED PROSPECTS: The Brewers signed former Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks to a minor league deal; Milwaukee GM David Stearns said Middlebrooks and another ex-Sox, Garin Cecchini, could end up sharing time at third base with the additional possibility that one or both could see time at first.
The Pirates released former Red Sox pitcher Allen Webster, writes Stephen Nesbitt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
DODGERS TURN TO RED SOX FOR COACHES: The Dodgers hired a pair of former Red Sox minor league coordinators for their big league staff, with former Red Sox outfield and baserunning coordinator George Lombard getting tabbed as Dave Roberts' first-base coach and former Red Sox assistant hitting coach Tim Hyers getting tabbed as Los Angeles' assistant hitting coach.
HEALTH IS THE NEW MONEYBALL: Joe Lemire, writing for USA Today, examines injury prevention as the next frontier of Moneyball.
This focus is true across sports, with elements such as biomechanical and biometric analysis emerging as areas where teams are increasingly willing to invest a lot of money. At a time when Price and Zack Greinke have been deemed worth about $1 million a start (thus establishing something of a financial marker for *all* elite starters, even if they're not all paid that sum), after all, the behind-the-scenes efforts to avoid losing them for, say, a start or two a year represents the sort of effort that makes all the sense in the world for teams to pursue.
CUBA COMES INTO VIEW: Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote a series of articles about Major League Baseball's goodwill trip to Cuba, examining the role of the game in the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba,
Young Cuban players are eagerly awaiting a future in which they can play in the U.S. without having to risk their lives or well-being to do so.
Goold also chronicled the emotional reunion of Cuba native Brayan Pena with his family.
Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com has more on the efforts to create safer transit for Cuban players trying to get to the States.