Few managers in the minors will work with a prospect group as highly touted as the trio entrusted to Joe Oliver of the Red Sox’ high Single A affiliate in Salem, Va. Second baseman Yoan Moncada, third baseman Rafael Devers, and center fielder Andrew Benintendi all rank among Baseball America’s top 20 minor league prospects.
For Oliver, the opportunity to work with such highly regarded players is unusual. Yet the undertaking is not without challenges — particularly when it comes to managing the expectations surrounding players who are three rungs from the big leagues. From personal experience, he regards with suspicion efforts to anoint any of his players The Next Big Thing.
“You don’t want to label someone a Hall of Famer,” said Oliver, a highly regarded catcher in the Reds system in the late 1980s who went on to a 13-year big-league career. “As a player myself, I got labeled the next Johnny Bench. I absolutely hated that moniker, because that’s one of the greatest catchers of all time. I think most players think of it as a compliment, but they don’t want to follow in a shadow. They want to create their own.
“When you get compared to a Hall of Famer, you’re set up to fail. There’s not many people who can follow that path — or very few. It’s an unfair comparison, I think, to most athletes. They appreciate the thought, but they just hate when it keeps coming up and coming up. That builds that pressure and anxiety to perform at that level that maybe they’re not capable of.”
When Moncada opened last year in extended spring training, Oliver was in many ways responsible for familiarizing him with his professional work routines and positioning him to translate his extraordinary physical tools into game-readiness prior to his assignment to Single A Greenville last May.
“His athleticism is off the charts — his foot speed, his hands, his quickness around the bag. He’s pretty exciting and electric when you see his hands and feet working. To go up to Greenville last year and steal 50 bases, that tells you what type of athlete he is,” Oliver said of the 20-year-old Cuban. “He’s going to be our table-setter. This engine will run when he gets on base.”
After Oliver went from extended spring training to Lowell for the New York-Penn League season that started in the summer, he became Benintendi’s first professional manager. There, he saw the 2015 first-round pick assert himself as the best player at that level, hitting .290/.408/.540 with seven homers in 35 games before a promotion to Greenville.
“He has the bat speed. He’s a plus runner. He’s got a plus arm. He runs the ball down extremely well in the outfield. He has some of the best reads off the bat that I’ve seen in quite some time,” said Oliver. “He does a lot of things that makes the players around him better.”
This spring represented a chance for Oliver to get to know Devers, who at 19 will be among the younger players in the Carolina League. While it is Devers’s lefthanded power stroke to all fields that turns heads — he had 50 extra-base hits in 115 games in Greenville last year — Oliver’s initial impression focused elsewhere.
“I’m really impressed with how he works. He wants to get better. He’s a 19-year-old kid that hates days off,” said Oliver. “It’s a special treat to see a 19-year-old coming in here with some youthful enthusiasm. I never see him acting like he’s having a bad day. He’s a young man with a lot of confidence, and it’s only going to get better with more experience and games played.”
The talent will draw attention to all three. Oliver’s job will be to make them — along with the other Salem players with big-league potential —
“If they’re going out there and doing their work, other people will be as hungry as well. They’ll see these guys aren’t taking it for granted. They’re not buying into the hype they’re hearing,” said Oliver. “Usually when you get good athletes around each other, they push and drive each other and bring out the best, not only in the elite players but in the role players on the club. Hopefully it kind of spurns others to develop as well.”
Around the system
Deven Marrero (a righthanded hitter) will serve as Pawtucket’s primary shortstop and Marco Hernandez (a lefthanded hitter) will get most of his starts at second base, but both also will play third and second as potential depth utility options for Boston. Given that Brock Holt is spending most of his time in left field, the versatility of the two infielders could make them attractive to the Red Sox in terms of roster flexibility.
At Double A Portland, Luis Ysla — who pitched for the Red Sox during their exhibition series in Montreal — possesses one of the more electrifying lefthanded arms in the system. Though the 23-year-old reliever, acquired from the Giants last August for Alejandro De Aza, posted a 5.85 ERA last year at high Single A, he struck out 101 batters in 84⅔ innings. He was throwing 97 miles per hour in minor league camp, and if he can throw strikes consistently (he walked 4.6 per nine innings last year), his stuff could land him on the big-league team’s radar.
In Greenville, the Red Sox will feature two of the organization’s starting pitching prospects with the biggest upside, righthanders Anderson Espinoza and Roniel Raudes, two 18-year-olds who signed as international free agents in 2014. Red Sox farm director Ben Crockett said both likely will follow a blueprint that would have them on track for roughly 100 innings this year, with their workloads capped at about five innings per start.
Lefthander Trey Ball (knee), seen as a likely candidate for Portland, and PawSox outfielder Bryce Brentz (oblique) will open the year on the disabled list.