In 2014, the lesson seemed unmistakable. En route to a last-place finish, the Red Sox had asked too much of their young players, placing too much responsibility in the hands of players such as Jackie Bradley Jr., Will Middlebrooks, and Xander Bogaerts (among others) without the necessary seasoning in Triple A. Going forward, a compelling case could be made for the team to take a more conservative path.
Instead, two years later, Yoan Moncada is joining Andrew Benintendi as the second top Red Sox prospect to bypass Triple A completely en route to an in-season call-up. Are the Red Sox ignoring the sins of the past? Are they overlooking the value of Triple A, and if not, what value does Triple A have?
To the Red Sox, the answer is not necessarily an answer to the questions so much as a disagreement with the sweeping premises of the questions. A strong case can be made that players such as Middlebrooks, Bogaerts, Bradley, and to a lesser degree Mookie Betts, endured harder transitions to the big leagues as a result of their relatively brief experiences in Triple A. Bradley’s time in 2015 in Pawtucket was immensely fruitful after his 2014 struggles; so was the time Clay Buchholz spent in 2009 after he couldn’t hold onto a big league rotation spot in 2008.
Undoubtedly, there are players for whom Triple A is a critical developmental stage. If the Red Sox could script their players’ development paths, they’d like most if not all of their prospects to spend a full year in Triple A and learn to make the adjustments and counter-adjustments against advanced pitchers — many with big league experience — that they’ll have to make at the game’s highest level.
Yet other Red Sox players have excelled with little to no Triple A experience. Jonathan Papelbon had four Triple A starts under his belt when he debuted in 2005. Daniel Bard had thrown 16 Triple A innings in 2009 when he came up to the big leagues as a difference-maker. Players such as Jacoby Ellsbury, Bogaerts, and Middlebrooks had less than two months in Pawtucket when they made their big league debuts and enjoyed immediate success. Benintendi himself offers a case of a player whose skill set permitted him to succeed almost immediately at the game’s highest level.
In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all rule for advancement through the minors. The 2014 struggles did not yield a redefined, unbreakable template for player development. There are numerous instances of elite prospects who have thrived when skipping a level en route to the big leagues. There are others who have failed. A case study cannot be comprised entirely of one group without being mindful of the other.
“Creating policies or procedures around that small sample [of players who struggled when reaching the big leagues] can be a mistake, because it will prevent you from calling up the next guy. That’s something you have to be careful of in these situations,” said Hazen. “When you look at it at the micro level, you can pick apart any one decision, any one path, any one player, any one background, and create large-scale theories on that. We need to evaluate each one of these situations in the context of the individual.”
In theory, when the Red Sox were starting to think about the idea of promoting Moncada or Benintendi to the big leagues, they could have advanced them immediately to Pawtucket. Yet given that both players already had made the move from Salem to Portland during the season, the team weighed the benefits of a brief exposure to Triple A against the value of maintaining the routines that had served them well in Portland and opted for continuity.
In the case of Benintendi, Portland afforded a chance to learn to play left field in front of the Maine Monster — a close approximation of Fenway’s signature landmark. For Moncada, there was a chance to build upon the early defensive work he’d been doing with the Portland staff, while developing the ability to make counter-adjustments to the way that the Eastern League had been attacking him in late July and early August.
“It’s a case-by-case basis. Each case may have a different reason. . . . I think each player is going to have a different set of circumstances surrounding that progression,” said Red Sox farm director Ben Crockett. “You’ve got to look at each guy individually. You have to look at what you think is best for each player and the organization.”
With both Benintendi (left field) and Moncada (third base), the Red Sox had particular needs, and specific reasons to prefer keeping both players in Portland rather than moving them for brief stints to Pawtucket. Moreover, while both are on aggressive development paths, the Sox do see a difference in bringing up a player with little Triple A experience at the beginning of a season as opposed to in the final third of the year — both because that player theoretically faces less pressure in coming up to fill a complementary role, and because he has the foundation of a strong year upon which to build in the majors.
Still, at its heart, the decision to let a player jump from Double A to the big leagues reflects his ability.
“In most cases,” said Crockett, “you’re talking about a pretty special talent.”
But the most consistently impressive performance by a Red Sox starting pitcher this year has likely been that of 18-year-old righthander Roniel Raudes in Nicaragua. At a listed size of 6 feet 1 inch and 160 pounds, he’s far from intimidating, and his velocity (typically 88-91 miles per hour), for now, would qualify as below average — though with the possibility that he’ll make gains as he matures physically. Still, Raudes is a relentless strike-thrower who creates deception in his delivery (there’s a little Tiant-ishness to his windup) while showing standout command and feel for how to use his fastball, curveball, and changeup at such a young age.
“There’s maturity there that’s very impressive. There’s competitiveness that most don’t have,” Greenville manager Darren Fenster said recently. “The stuff plays up because he throws three pitches for strikes with command and knows how to sequence. He’s not a guy who rears back and throws as hard as he can without any idea where it’s going. He really has a sense of what he’s doing. It’s impressive for any age, but for a kid who is now the youngest in the league, it’s even more so.
Fall League crop announced
The Red Sox’ announced group of seven prospects for the Arizona Fall League represents the team’s most impressive crop in years for the much-followed prospect league. Moncada and Kopech are the headliners, joined by infielder Mauricio Dubon, lefthanders Trey Ball (the Sox’ 2013 first-rounder) and Jalen Beeks, righthanded reliever Jamie Callahan, and outfielder Danny Mars. Ball and Beeks are slated to pitch out of the bullpen for the Surprise Saguaros, though for now, both are slated to come to spring training next year as starters . . . For most affiliates, the minor league season wraps up on Labor Day. A pair of Sox minor league teams, however, will play on, as High A Salem is in the postseason and the short-season Lowell Spinners had a magic number of one to clinch the Stedler Division title in the New York-Penn League. The opportunity to let prospects get more playing time in a postseason setting can govern late-season promotion decisions. The Sox promoted 20-year-old switch-hitter Luis Alexander Basabe from Greenville to Salem on Thursday. Meanwhile, the opportunity to get at least one additional start in the playoffs with Salem likely played a role in the decision to keep righthander Kopech at that level rather than pushing him to Double A Portland . . . A number of Red Sox players were recognized as postseason All-Stars in their leagues, including: 1B/OF Chris Marrero (.286/.343/.499, 23 homers for Triple A Pawtucket), OF Aneury Tavarez (.336/.382/.499 for Double A Portland), Moncada (recognized by the High A Carolina League, where he hit .307/.427/.496 with 36 steals in 61 games), 3B Rafael Devers (.284/.336/.449 with 11 homers), Basabe (.258/.325/.447 with 12 homers and 25 steals in Greenville), and OF Tate Matheny (.285/.329/.393 with 20 steals in Greenville).
Alex Speier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.