One disaster after another befell the Red Sox farm system to start this season, a shocking succession of developments savaging the organization’s top prospects: the 80-game suspension for top position prospect Michael Chavis; Tommy John surgery for top pitching prospect Jay Groome; staggering control struggles for several other top pitching prospects; and profound early-season slumps for the top position prospects who were on the field.
Yet a year that featured few breaks in the storm clouds in the early months saw sunnier skies in the latter part of the year. While more health disappointments took place — first- and second-rounders Triston Casas (thumb) and Nick Decker (wrist) barely got on the field, and righthander Bryan Mata (back) missed the final five weeks — the Sox had strong season-ending performances from a wide cross-section of their most promising young players.
“Obviously it was a challenging start to the year for a lot of different reasons,” said vice president of player development Ben Crockett. “A lot of guys have taken those early challenges to heart, really grown from them, and been able to be resilient through that adversity.”
Third baseman Bobby Dalbec displayed prodigious power. His 32 homers combined with strong defense suggest a player with considerable upside. Chavis returned in impressive fashion, with some evaluators inside and outside the organization concluding that he looked like a better prospect in 2018 than they’d encountered in 2017.
The top pitching prospects who endured the most extreme struggles at the start of the year — such as Mata, Tanner Houck, and Darwinzon Hernandez — dominated down the stretch. Moreover, a few players who entered the system to little fanfare showed head-turning tools or performances that offer hope for the farm system.
“Who knows what people will say? It doesn’t really make any difference,” said president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. “But from our own perspective, a lot of those young guys have started to make strides.
“We thought the second half was very promising. We keep talking about building our farm system back. We think we’re doing that.”
Here’s a look at the state of the system, broken down by position and organized by the relative strength of the system:
Best 2018 performer: Bobby Dalbec (.257/.361/.558 with 32 homers for High A Salem and Double A Portland).
The hot corner features a concentration of the Red Sox’ hottest commodities. Chavis (Pawtucket) and Dalbec (Portland) are staggered at different levels — for now — but after their strong performances in 2018, the big leagues are coming into view for both, helping to explain the Sox’ interest in diversifying the positions they can play.
Below them, the Sox have four potential middle-of-the-order bats in the lower minors. Three were drafted this year: first-rounder Triston Casas (who will develop at third in the short term, though his future may be at first), 11th-rounder Nick Northcut, and 21st-rounder Brandon Howlett, who looks like a potential draft steal. Even further away, Danny Diaz slugged six homers in 26 games in the Dominican Summer League.
That group is behind 21-year-old Rafael Devers, whom the Sox still expect to secure the position beyond this year. No position in the organization gives the team more possibilities.
“I have really never found any negatives to [a concentration of talent at one position],” said Dombrowski. “The reality is you never can have too much talent. The more talent you have that’s legitimate talent, you can either have those players progress with you at that position, you can switch positions with them, or you can use them in trades.”
Best 2018 performer: LHP Darwinzon Hernandez (9-5, 3.53 ERA, 11.3 K/9, 5.6 BB/9 for High A Salem and Double A Portland).
Groome remains the Red Sox’ top pitching prospect, with the potential for a three- or four-pitch mix that can front a rotation, though the fact that he logged just 62 pro innings more than two years since being drafted raises questions.
Beyond Groome, the second half featured several steps forward by potential starters who had awful beginnings to the season. Over his final two months, Hernandez was 6-0 with a 1.50 ERA, 13.1 strikeouts per nine, and 4.9 walks per nine. In his last 12 starts, Houck had a 2.84 ERA with 9.5 strikeouts and 3.0 walks per nine innings while getting a ton of ground balls.
Both Houck and Hernandez may end up as late-inning relievers, but they have shown enough with more than two pitches that the Sox will continue the development of both as starters and see where that takes them.
Righthander Mike Shawaryn (3.44 ERA, 8.0 strikeouts and 2.3 walks per nine in Double A and Triple A), Denyi Reyes (1.97 ERA, 8.4 strikeouts and 1.1 walks per nine in Single A Greenville and High A Salem), and Kutter Crawford (7-7, 3.26 ERA, 9.8 strikeouts and 3.0 walks per nine in Single A and High A) showed back-of-the-rotation potential.
Righthander Alex Scherff, whose innings were limited by injuries in his first pro season, finished strongly, with a 1.50 ERA, 16 strikeouts, and 2 walks in 18 innings over his final four starts with Greenville.
Best 2018 performer: RHP Travis Lakins (2.32 ERA, 9.4 strikeouts and 3.0 walks per 9 innings for Double A Portland and Triple A Pawtucket).
In all likelihood, many of the pitchers on starters’ tracks will end up pitching in the big leagues as relievers; Shawaryn, Houck, and Hernandez could land in the bullpen. Yet the organization has a few pitchers who are now on relief-only tracks and who look like they have a chance to help the big league club in that capacity by next season.
After two years as a starter that ended prematurely with elbow injuries, Lakins remained healthy while working out of the bullpen in 2018. Down the stretch, he excelled, with a 0.90 ERA, 21 strikeouts, and 3 walks in his final 20 innings.
Durbin Feltman, a third-rounder this year, dominated at three levels with a mid- to upper-90s fastball and wipeout breaking ball. It wouldn’t be a shock to see him in the big leagues next year.
Oft-injured righty Zach Schellenger (1.65 ERA, 25 strikeouts and 4 walks in 16⅓ innings in the GCL and Single A Greenville) and lefty Yoan Aybar (up to 98 m.p.h. with a swing-and-miss changeup in his first year as a pitcher after being converted from the outfield) are high-upside bullpen lottery tickets.
Best 2018 performer: SS C.J. Chatham (.314/.350/.389 with 3 homers and 11 steals in Single A Greenville and High A Salem).
The prospects are far less concentrated at other positions. Chatham, a 2016 second-rounder who was limited to seven games in 2017 by injuries, stayed on the field and showed both solid defense at the most demanding infield position and enough of a contact-oriented, high-average approach to project as a potential big league starting shortstop or a quality utility infielder.
Tzu-Wei Lin’s excellent year is often overlooked. He hit .307/.362/.448 in Pawtucket this year, and could spend the next 5-10 years as a big league utility option capable of playing six positions.
Antoni Flores, 17, dazzled in the Dominican Summer League to earn a promotion to the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League, but he was limited to two games in the GCL; still, Flores has a potential everyday shortstop’s ceiling.
Curacao native Ceddanne Rafaela, a shortstop/third baseman who hit .271/.326/.379 with 3 homers and 19 steals, and center fielder Gilberto Jimenez, an 18-year-old who hit .319/.384/.420, both made impressive debuts in the DSL.
Jarren Duran, a seventh-rounder who played second base at Long Beach State but is moving to the outfield in pro ball, had one of the best pro debuts of the last decade by a Red Sox college draftee, hitting .357/.394/.516 with 24 steals for Lowell and Greenville. His elite speed and potential to hit for average and get on base give him a chance to be an everyday outfielder, possibly even a center fielder.
Rusney Castillo remains capable of playing all three outfield positions, but he remains stuck in luxury tax purgatory.
While center fielder Cole Brannen entered the year as the organization’s top middle-of-the-field prospect based on the five-tool potential he showed in high school, the 19-year-old had a dreadful first full pro season, hitting .169/.261/.205 while getting the bat blown out of his hands in Single A Greenville and, following a demotion, short-season Lowell.
It was a tough year for the Red Sox’ best catching prospects, as Roldani Baldwin endured numerous injuries and fourth-rounder Kole Cottam had his debut truncated by surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Eighth-rounder Elih Marrero had a solid pro debut, hitting .300/.385/.400 in the GCL and Lowell.
FIRST BASE/LEFT FIELD/RIGHT FIELD
Best 2018 performer: 1B Josh Ockimey (.245/.356/.455 with 20 homers in Double A Portland and Triple A Pawtucket).
Ockimey continued to demolish righthanded pitching, posting a .273/.393/.531 line with 18 homers against them. Though he may be limited to a first base/DH role against righties, players like Adam Lind have enjoyed long careers with such skill sets.
Corner outfielder Tyler Dearden had a strong age-19 season in Lowell, hitting .306/.364/.459 with four homers, albeit with a high strikeout rate. If he gains strength as he matures physically, the lefthanded hitter, a 29th-round selection in 2017, could emerge as a promising prospect.
Sam Travis had a much better second half (.299/.345/.383) than start to the year (.227/.296/.343) in Pawtucket, but even with the uptick, it would be hard for the Red Sox to rely on him to replace free-agent-to-be Steve Pearce as a reliable righthanded bench bat.