Red Sox may have found a hidden gem in the 21st round
The summer following the draft can be overwhelming for high schoolers getting their footing in pro ball. More often than not, the move results in significant struggles — even for high-profile, early-round picks.
So when the opposite occurs, when a high schooler like Brandon Howlett who is taken in the 21st round stands out as the best player on the field, it gets notice.
“When scouts came to see us this summer, he got everybody’s eyes, like, ‘How did this guy sign? How did he last this long?’ ” said Red Sox Gulf Coast League manager Tom Kotchman. “This kid, I think, is going to be the surprise of the draft as far as where he was taken and what he will be.”
Howlett, a third baseman taken out of George Jenkins High School who signed for $180,000, joined the Lowell Spinners this week at the conclusion of a standout debut in rookie ball. The 18-year-old hit .307 with a .405 OBP and .526 slugging mark, along with 5 homers and 15 doubles in 39 games in Fort Myers. The five homers were the most by a Red Sox high school draftee in his first pro summer in more than 15 years.
A National League evaluator described Howlett as having good plate discipline along with the possibility of plus power and solid defense at third base. Kotchman sees him as a player who could feature average to above-average hitting ability and power along with solid defense at a premium defensive position — the makings of a valuable everyday big leaguer.
Nearly everyone who has seen him required little time to reach the conclusion that he vastly exceeds someone normally taken at that stage of the draft who signed for such a modest bonus.
So what was he doing on the board after 639 players had been selected?
“I don’t know, man,” mused Red Sox North Florida scout Stephen Hargett. “I try to figure out the draft sometimes. The more you try to figure it out, the harder it gets. I was shocked.”
Hargett’s history with Howlett goes back to the fall of 2015, when he attended a workout in Tampa for high school underclassmen. There, Hargett was surprised to run into Tomas Martinez, a former coworker at the grocery store chain Publix.
“I’m like, ‘Why are you here?’ He said, ‘My kid is here. Brandon Howlett.’ Never heard of him my whole life,” said Hargett.
By the end of the afternoon, said Hargett, “I walked out and said, ‘Your stepson is the best player in this event.’
“You could just tell. He had a presence in the box from the first time we saw him. It was just kind of cool. I just saw him early by chance. He was a really good prospect when he was young. I got to know the family really well and the kid really well, and just always thought he was a really advanced hitter.”
Over the subsequent years, the Red Sox got plenty of looks at Howlett. This past fall, vice president of amateur scouting Mike Rikard and national cross-checker John Booher saw him in a prominent showcase in Jupiter, Fla.
“He hit a long home run that day,” said Hargett. “I’ll never forget it. He cranked the ball out. We looked at each other like, ‘See you in the spring, buddy!’”
Hargett repeatedly saw a player with the ability to pull homers to left and drive doubles to right-center. Kotchman, who splits his year between managing and scouting in Florida, saw him at another event at the Twins complex. He was likewise impressed.
But this wasn’t a stealth scouting process. Howlett participated in a number of high school showcases and played at a prominent Florida high school program (George Jenkins High School in Lakeland).
So why was he on the board in the 21st round? Hargett wonders whether the fact that opposing teams so often pitched around Howlett — when Hargett turned in his last update before the draft, Howlett had 42 walks in 109 plate appearances — may have made it difficult to stand out.
“I don’t think it was his fault, by any means,” said Hargett. “I remember seeing him when he’d have three walks and a line drive. That was all you got — one swing.
“It wasn’t like he underperformed. He didn’t have a game where he was 4 for 4 with four home runs, a wow day. He didn’t go 0 for 4 with four strikeouts. He did fine.”
Moreover, Hargett speculates that teams might have assumed that Howlett would be difficult to sign away from a Florida State commitment.
Whatever the reason, the excitement in the Red Sox organization for his debut is considerable. This could be a significant development for an organization looking to reload its system.
Hargett daydreams about “a guy that would hit in the middle of a lineup – a run-producing hitter, for sure.”
The ability to add players like Howlett and 11th-rounder Nick Northcut (who, like Howlett, had a strong GCL debut and earned a promotion to Lowell this week) on the third day of the draft can change the perception of a system.
“I don’t know when the last time is we’ve had a high school kid put up some power numbers and hit for an average and with the ability to be a solid-average defender at a premium position, which third base is,” said Kotchman. “Hell, I’m excited just talking about him.”
■ Third baseman Michael Chavis hit the ground running following a promotion to Triple A Pawtucket last Friday. He went 3 for 4 with a homer and two doubles in his first game, and in his first five games, he’s hitting .429/.455/.857 with two homers and three doubles.
■ Shortstop C.J. Chatham is finishing the season on a tear in High A Salem. The 23-year-old entered Thursday with multiple hits in six of seven games, going 17 for 28 with a .607/.621/.750 line (and just one strikeout) to push his season line to .325/.360/.397, with his batting average atop the Carolina League.
The 2016 second-rounder has the defensive skills to project as an everyday shortstop if he can hit, and his first full pro season (after missing all of 2017 with injuries) represented a solid first step in showing he can.
■ First baseman/left fielder Pedro Castellanos continues to demonstrate a fascinating skill set. The 20-year-old is hitting .381/.396/.495 this month to improve to .306/.337/.391 for the year. The 6-foot-3-inch Castellanos shows raw power in batting practice, and while that hasn’t manifested in games, he’s shown unusual bat-to-ball skills (13.7 percent strikeout rate) for a player of his size.
■ In an otherwise excellent start in his final outing, Triple A righthander Mike Shawaryn allowed a homer (the only hit he yielded) in six innings. Shawaryn gave up four homers in his final 9⅓ innings, and his velocity tended to fade as he worked later into outings.
Perhaps it was a reflection of his 142⅔ -inning workload this year, but also potentially a sign that he is better served in shorter outings, with some evaluators viewing him as a future reliever. Shawaryn will work out of the bullpen in the Arizona Fall League, but the Red Sox plan to continue his development as a starter in Pawtucket to open 2019.
■ At a time when he should be a consideration for a September call-up, first baseman/left fielder Sam Travis is slumping. He entered Thursday 0 for 18 in his previous five games, dropping his season line to .251/.310/.352.
■ Cole Brannen, a 2017 second-rounder, is 0 for 22 with nine strikeouts since returning to the lineup with Lowell. In his first full pro season, he has never shown the bat he displayed on the showcase circuit. In 61 games between Greenville and Lowell, he’s hit .179/.265/.213 with six extra-base hits in 266 plate appearances.
He does possess speed and the athleticism to play center, but his ability to reclaim prospect status will depend on his ability to gain the strength needed to improve his offensive profile.