An American League scout recently passed through Salem, Va., to look at the Red Sox’ high Single A affiliate. His conclusion?
“They have so many good players it’s disgusting,” he said of a team that is 23-9, tops in the Carolina League.
Andrew Benintendi and Yoan Moncada have been the headliners, with daily intrigue about the timetable when one or both might move up to Double A Portland. Yet they haven’t been the only head-turners.
While the reputations of Moncada (record-setting bonus), Benintendi (College Player of the Year in 2015, No. 7 overall pick), and Rafael Devers (the top international amateur bat of the 2013 class) preceded them, a less-heralded prospect is forcing an increasingly prominent place in the discussion of Salem’s potential wave of talent.
The Red Sox selected Mauricio Dubon, a Honduras native who moved to the States during high school in hopes of pursuing a pro baseball future, in the 26th round of the 2013 draft. Yet at virtually every stop, the 21-year-old has forced a reassessment of the modest expectations that greeted the start of his days in pro ball.
He ranked among batting leaders in the New York-Penn League when he hit .320/.337/.395 for Lowell in 2014. Dubon was named a South Atlantic League All-Star while hitting .301/.354/.428 for Single A Greenville in the first half of 2015. Then, after struggling following his promotion to Salem in the second half of last year, he found his footing down the stretch, finishing with a solid .274/.343/.325 line.
This year, in his return to Salem, Dubon has looked like a different player as the everyday shortstop.
“He was just hitting the ball where it was pitched, and it was really impressive. It was a really good look. That, with the makeup and playing shortstop, it was just, ‘Wow,’ ” said the scout. “He’s impressed me more than anyone. From last year to this year, whether it’s him improving, my opinion of him changing, or both, he’s going to be an above-average player.”
That view reflects improvements Dubon has made through work with hitting coach Nelson Paulino. In the past, he showed a tendency to expand the strike zone, resulting in low walk rates and weak contact.
This year, he’s been far more selective, resulting in more walks (14) than strikeouts (9) through 30 games, along with frequent, hard contact. The result has been an impressive .350/.412/.417 line.
“I did a lot of chasing. I’m trying to be more selective in the zone, sitting on pitches, sitting on a zone I can drive,” said Dubon. “If I don’t get it, I don’t swing.”
That maturation process has been evident to those who have seen Dubon throughout his pro career.
“I’ve definitely seen a mature hitter starting to evolve from what I saw two years ago,” said Salem manager Joe Oliver, who managed Dubon with Lowell in 2014, and raved about his infield and clubhouse leadership skills.
With that approach, Dubon looks more like a potential big league regular than he has at any prior point. His ability to make contact, and defense, suggest a player with at least the floor of a utility player, but his offensive uptick is making a case not only for a promotion to Portland but also for a potential everyday role down the road.
His rise from relative obscurity offers something of a reminder about one of the last Salem standout groups. In 2012, Salem featured an array of highly regarded prospects, including Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, and Matt Barnes.
Yet less-hyped teammates Travis Shaw and Christian Vazquez made compelling cases for their own abilities, and eventually exceeded their projections. Dubon hopes to follow that example.
“I can look up to [Shaw] and say, ‘He didn’t care who was in front of him. He just played the game and let the game take care of him,’ ” said Dubon. “Being a 26th-rounder, odds are not good. That’s kind of helped me, pushed me.”
That approach has made Dubon part of the conversation with the very teammates who have made Salem one of the most-watched affiliates in the minors thus far this year.
“He’s earned every bit of it,” said Oliver. “He was such a low draft pick. What a diamond in the rough he’s turning out to be.”
The promotions of the most advanced of the Salem prospects are likely to start soon. Benintendi, who is the oldest (21), most polished, and most advanced, is likely to be the first to move up to Portland this month, possibly as soon as next week. In 30 games, he’s hitting .372/.426/.620.
Dubon and Moncada seem likely to follow him at some point, though perhaps at a slightly more deliberate pace.
“Hopefully, our job is to walk [Moncada] into the clubhouse, come into my office, and say we’re promoting you to Portland. I foresee him in the near future probably making that move, just because of that work ethic and performance,” said Oliver. “He deserves that look shortly, but it’s not going to hurt him to play here another two or three or four weeks, whatever that timetable is.”
The trio could inject life into the Sea Dogs’ offense. Portland has 90 runs in 33 games — fewer than half the number that Salem has scored (181) in 32 contests. Only the Dayton Dragons, the Single A affiliate of the Reds, have averaged fewer than Portland’s 2.7 runs per game.
Michael Chavis, sidelined since April 23 with a sprained ligament in his left thumb, has resumed baseball activities. He won’t need surgery. The 20-year-old was hitting .356/.415/.576 . . . Righthander Michael Kopech, sidelined since he broke a bone in his hand in a spring training scuffle with his roommate, has been throwing in Fort Myers and will soon begin throwing off a mound. He could join a minor league affiliate in early to mid-June.
Kevin Thomas of the Portland Press-Herald reported that first baseman Jordan Weems, the Sox’ 2011 third-round pick, has been sent from Portland to Fort Myers to move to the mound. While the Sox’ 2011 draft class (Mookie Betts, Bradley, Blake Swihart, Shaw, Barnes, Henry Owens) looks like a potential franchise-changer, the team has now seen both its second-rounder (Williams Jerez) and third-rounder (Weems) from that class move from their drafted positions to the mound.
In spring training, the Red Sox viewed their lefthanded starting pitching depth as a strength. The trio of Owens, Brian Johnson, and Roenis Elias gave the Sox three options who seemed ready to fill in when needed. Yet Sean O’Sullivan passed all of them on the way into the Sox rotation for now, and it’s not difficult to discern why.
O’Sullivan walked 3.9 percent of the batters he faced in Triple A, the eighth-lowest walk rate among the 69 pitchers with 20 or more innings in the International League. Meanwhile, Elias (16.7 percent) has the highest walk rate in the league, and he’s followed closely by Owens (15.2 percent, 3d) and Johnson (13.6 percent, 5th). An ex-Sox prospect, Casey Kelly (15.1 percent; 4th) also cracked the top five.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com.