PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Some prospects arrive to the big leagues with years of hype behind them and breathless front-of-the-rotation possibilities in front of them.
Even as righthander Aaron Wilkerson pounds on the big league door after forging a 2.20 ERA in Triple A Pawtucket — with the possibility that he could make his big league debut as soon as Sunday — he represents an entirely different sort of prospect.
He went undrafted after both his junior and senior years with Cumberland University, overlooked by scouts who usually had to prioritize games at Division 1 programs.
Though he set NAIA records by throwing 54 straight scoreless innings and claiming 26 consecutive wins and led Cumberland to an NAIA championship as a junior in 2010, the 27-year-old has never been touted as the next big thing — in part because of the conditions that made his streaks all the more remarkable.
"I think a lot of my success that year had to do with having played the teams the prior year and they'd be like, 'Oh, it's Wilkerson —  to , touching ,' " he recalled. "And I was throwing 82-85. That kind of threw them off."
"The beginning of the year, the very first game he pitched, he hit 93 on the gun," said Cumberland pitching coach Kevin Hite, "and by the time the end of the year rolled around, it dropped 10 or 15 miles, which obviously showed us something serious and was a big-time red flag.
"He kept throwing strikes and kept saying he felt all right. We all knew in our heads something isn't right but he kept telling us, 'Hey, I feel OK. My elbow is a little sore but I am good.' "
He wasn't. Near the end of his senior year, after the conclusion of his scoreless-innings streak and in the middle of his winning streak, he discovered that he had a frayed ulnar collateral ligament and a bone chip in his elbow that would require Tommy John surgery.
Teams that might have viewed him as a late-round draft candidate backed off. Wilkerson had the surgery, then spent a year outside of organized baseball while rehabbing on his own. But he held on to the idea of a pro career.
"He built his own mound [in his backyard] so he could get his work in and do his rehab stuff," said Hite. "I can't think of anyone else, really, who's put the time and work in to get the opportunity that he has."
At one point in late 2012, more than a year removed from surgery, Wilkerson started working in a grocery store, believing that his playing days were done after a tryout with the Rangers didn't net a phone call.
"You start working and thinking, 'Well, baseball's not really showing much interest in me anymore,' " said Wilkerson. "I kind of hung up my cleats for a little bit."
But a call inviting him to a tryout with the independent Gary (Ind.) South Shore RailCats after the 2012 season allowed him to reverse course.
He had a strong year in 2013 that put him on the radar of the Red Sox, who under former pro scouting director Jared Porter and pro scout Jaymie Bane have long had a deep commitment to scouring the independent leagues.
By the middle of 2014, having seen the deception and fastball life that generated swings and misses, the Sox wanted to grab the righthander before another team did, so they acquired him from Grand Prairie and gave him a shot at a rotation vacancy with the Lowell Spinners.
Since then, Wilkerson has had a run of nearly unbroken success across five levels of minor league ball, forging a 22-6 record with a 2.48 ERA, 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings, and 2.4 walks per nine.
This year, he has had excellent showings in both Double A Portland (2-1, 1.83 ERA in eight starts) and Pawtucket (4-1, 2.20 with 49 strikeouts and 10 walks in 41 innings).
He does not light up a radar gun (typically around 90-92, with one scout saying he'd seen him up to 94) or feature a nightmare-inspiring breaking ball. Instead, he has four pitches — fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup — none of which grades as above-average.
But he can locate his mix inside the strike zone and sequence it in a way that creates deception and unpredictability that make him what scouts view as a viable candidate for big league spot-starting duty.
"He can't out-stuff you, but he can outpitch you," said a National League scout. "His stuff is kind of on the edge, but his pitchability is outstanding. He knows who he is."
Given his long, independent road, Wilkerson has had little choice but to operate with total self-awareness.
"The whole path that I've taken is kind of the road less traveled," he said. "It's always been a little harder road. My dream is one step away.
"For them to be throwing my name out there, it's a different feeling. It's something I never thought would happen, but it's something I've always strived for. I'm fortunate and blessed to be where I'm at right now."
High ceiling in Low A
Yoan Aybar, a tall, lanky 18-year-old outfielder with speed, some power, and arguably the best throwing arm in the Red Sox system, hit his first professional home run for Lowell on Wednesday. The incredibly raw Aybar, who is hitting .262/.311/.405, is considered one of the highest-ceiling position players in the lower levels of the Sox system, even if he remains years from the big leagues. "He's starting to get a routine down," said Lowell manager Iggy Suarez. "He's going in with a plan. You can see him process stuff in his head. You can see the wheels turning. That's unusual for a young guy. He's strong. There's room to grow. And he's got an arm in the outfield. It's kind of scary to see once we tap into that full potential the player he's going to turn into."
Future is now
It came as little surprise that a pair of prospects in Portland, outfielder Andrew Benintendi and second baseman Yoan Moncada, were selected to the All-Star Futures Game in San Diego July 10. They will be the sixth and seventh Sea Dogs to play in the Futures Game in the last four years, joining Manuel Margot (2015), Henry Owens (2014), Sean Coyle (2014), Anthony Ranaudo (2013), and Garin Cecchini (2013). Margot and utilityman Carlos Asuaje, both dealt to San Diego as part of the Craig Kimbrel deal, will take part in the Futures Game as representatives of the Padres . . . Lefthander Trey Ball, the Sox' 2013 first-round pick (No. 7 overall), has three outings of seven innings in his 11 starts for High A Salem. Entering the year, he had never completed seven innings in 52 career starts. Ball is 5-3 with a 2.29 ERA for Salem (the level where he spent all of 2015), though with just 5.8 strikeouts per nine innings and 4.4 walks per nine.