Mid-June typically represents a time of prospect movement. Top minor league performers deemed ready for their next challenge graduate one rung of the ladder, edging closer to their big league dreams.
In theory, it wouldn't have been outlandish to imagine righthander Michael Kopech nearing a move from High A Salem to Double A Portland. The 20-year-old righthander has the arsenal — a mid- to high-90s fastball, a swing-and-miss breaking ball, and a developing changeup — to have suggested the possibility of dominance in the Carolina League that could have resulted in a mid-year or more likely late-year ascent.
Instead, Kopech has arrived at a very different landmark. On Friday, he'll take the mound for the Lowell Spinners in their season opener against Vermont. Instead of facing upper-level competition, he'll stare down players who are closer to the start of their professional careers, a level below where Kopech pitched in 2015 with Single A Greenville (4-5, 3.46 ERA, 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings), two levels below where he was expected to start 2016, in Salem, and three levels from Portland.
Yet as he prepares to pitch for a Red Sox affiliate in a regular-season game for the first time since last July, Kopech doesn't express disappointment about being in Lowell. Instead, given the lengthy interruption to his career — first due to a 50-game positive test for a banned stimulant that wiped out his final two months of 2015 with Greenville, then from surgery to repair a bone broken in his pitching hand after a spring training scuffle with a teammate — Kopech is simply eager to pitch under lights for a team.
"Close to a year, it's been kind of frustrating to say the least. But I'm just happy to be back. I can't express how excited I am to be back. It was a long journey. I'm happy to be here now," Kopech on Wednesday. "I don't really like to think about ifs or buts. Some people would say it's a setback. I don't really think it's a setback. I was able to work on a lot of stuff. Hopefully by the end of this year or next year, I can show that I can be a guy who competes for [Double A]."
Kopech, who entered the year the No. 5 prospect in the Red Sox system, likely won't be in Lowell for long. The organization wanted him to gain exposure in a more adrenaline-filled setting — a game played under lights and in front of a crowd, as opposed to extended spring training contests that are usually played in the late morning in virtual anonymity — before he goes to a full-season affiliate.
Still, Kopech said he doesn't want to look beyond his current setting, just as he suggests he made the most of his unexpectedly lengthy stay in Fort Myers over the last several months. At a time when there will be questions about his makeup, Kopech — a first-round pick in 2014 — had time to reflect on his need for personal growth, on and off the field.
"I don't want to be portrayed as a bad person, by any means. But the past is the past. I'm ready to just better myself," said Kopech. "I had a lot of growing up to do. I feel like I have. I was able to go down there, work on myself as a person, work on myself as a pitcher. Bettering myself is all I'm here to do. I just want to continue that.
"I don't want to say I was immature, but I definitely had some growing up to do. I think I've matured a lot in the last few months. I had a lot of time to think. I think in the long run it will help me."
Kopech acknowledges that some Red Sox fans will think first about his off-field missteps when they hear his name or see him pitch for the first time. He likewise recognizes that there's only way to start altering any preconceptions.
"I think the only thing I can really do is go out and pitch to the best of my abilities," he said. "If I perform the way I want to perform, I think that will happen. . . . My goal is to be better than I ever have been. That's always the goal."
Sailing in Salem
Salem (41-24) clinched the Carolina League's Southern Division first-half title on Monday, the franchise's first first-half title as a Red Sox affiliate. While player development is typically individually focused, and the ultimate success of this year's Salem affiliate will be the extent to which it contributed to big league futures for prospects such as Yoan Moncada, Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers, Mauricio Dubon, and Nick Longhi, the collective accomplishment came with considerable satisfaction.
"You get the chance to enjoy the fruits of your hard labor [in the offseason and spring training] by winning the first half. You could just feel the elation in the clubhouse and the chemistry of the club," said Salem manager Joe Oliver. "That's a special time for these guys. The majority of this group fell short [of the playoffs with Greenville] last year. That probably stuck in their craw all offseason. To see them come back hungry and wanting it even more was special."
The opportunity for a talented young core to win together can be a meaningful player development experience.
"I think it's important for anybody to experience the feeling of what it's like to win," said Oliver. "Sure, at this level, you're focused on development. But when you can develop and experience winning, you're kind of doing double time. It gives guys a great sense of accomplishment knowing that what you're working on and what you're trying to get better at, it shows in positive results not just as a player but in winning."
Moncada could move up
Moncada was out of Salem's lineup for three straight games while nursing minor injuries. He won't participate in next Tuesday's California League-Carolina League All-Star Game. The All-Star break nonetheless represents a standard time for top prospects to move up the ladder.
In Moncada's case, there's a chance he could move up to Portland shortly after his return to health. For now, all of Moncada's work remains at second base, with no immediate plans to have him gain exposure to other positions either during or before games. Moncada is hitting .370/.473/.609 with 11 doubles in his last 12 games for Salem.
Ramos is right again
Outfielder Henry Ramos, an athletic 24-year-old out of Puerto Rico whose progress through the Red Sox system has been stalled by injuries while in Double A the last two years, has hit the ground running after finally advancing to Triple A Pawtucket. The switch-hitter — considered an above-average outfielder who is ideally suited for right but can play all three positions — went 0-for-3 in his PawSox debut last week, but followed that contest with a six-game hitting streak in which he was 8 for 20 with a pair of doubles entering Thursday night . . . Benintendi appears to be finding his footing at Portland. The 21-year-old recently had multihit games in a four-game stretch, including his first two homers for the Sea Dogs.