It’s a strange, challenging time for ranking the Red Sox’ top prospects — an undertaking that, in theory, affects what they would be able to do in the trade market.
The Red Sox are two years removed from the landmark trade that sent Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, and Luis Alexander Basabe to the White Sox for Chris Sale. Prior to that deal, with Moncada, Kopech, Andrew Benintendi, and Rafael Devers, no other team in baseball could claim to match the inventory of top-shelf prospects that the Red Sox had.
Since the deal, and with the graduations of Benintendi and Devers to the big leagues, the top of the Red Sox system is considered one of the weakest in baseball.
That doesn’t mean the system lacks those who might one day emerge as at least above-average everyday players. It simply means that it’s difficult to forecast who has the best chance. The result is that Red Sox prospects aren’t getting named in top-100 lists, creating murky conversations about who qualifies as the team’s top prospect and constraining what the organization might be able to accomplish in the trade market this offseason.
My recent list of the top 10 prospects in the Red Sox system for Baseball America identified third baseman Bobby Dalbec, who combines impressive defense with elite power, as No. 1.
Yet in a survey of evaluators, five players – Dalbec, third baseman Michael Chavis, lefthander Jay Groome, corner infielder Triston Casas, and shortstop Antoni Flores — were mentioned as candidates for the top spot. While Dalbec and Chavis were most frequently cited as the top prospect, some evaluators questioned whether either was even a top-five prospect in the system, and some even had questions about the top 10.
That lack of consensus likely will keep the Red Sox on the sidelines for any of the biggest names on the trade market this winter.
That said, in the last couple of years, the Red Sox have started the process of refilling the pipeline. Through the draft and the international amateur market (after penalties kept them from pursuing overseas talent in 2016-17), there is a growing population of teenagers in the lower levels with a chance to become standout prospects. But they are at such an early stage of their career development that they aren’t in conversations about top prospects.
A few other thoughts on the Red Sox’ inventory of trade chips:
■ For all of the industry criticism levied at their farm system, the Red Sox were able to get two players last summer who made huge postseason impacts in Steve Pearce (acquired for 2016 10th-rounder Santiago Espinal) and Nathan Eovaldi (landed for Jalen Beeks, a 14th-round pick in 2014).
Neither Beeks nor Espinal was heralded when drafted; both improved once in the system, a credit to the players themselves, the scouts who knew them well enough to believe in their ability and commitment, and the coaches and executives who helped them advance their skill sets.
The Red Sox have had sufficient capital in their system the last two years to make several moves involving rentals. The cost of doing business in the offseason has been higher, and the Red Sox have acted accordingly.
■ While not a “prospect,” given how long he’s been in the big leagues, Blake Swihart is the biggest chip the Red Sox may play this winter. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski is on record saying that it would be hard, if not impossible, to keep three catchers on the big league roster for another year.
With Christian Vazquez looking in October like the catcher who could lead the staff behind the plate while also contributing adequate offense, and Sandy Leon a trusted option behind the plate, it makes sense for the Sox to explore Swihart’s value now.
■ If the Red Sox do make a move, their pool of third base prospects is an area that could give them flexibility. In October, Devers reinforced the view that he is a potential star with game-changing ability. Behind him, Dalbec and Chavis have spent most of their pro careers at third base.
The team also has as many as four additional top 15-20 prospects who are slated to continue their development at third: 2018 first-rounder Triston Casas, 2018 21st-rounder Brandon Howlett, 2018 11th-rounder Nick Northcut, and 17-year-old slugger Danny Diaz.
“I have really never found any negatives to [a concentration of talent at one position],” Dombrowski said in September. “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.”
Here is a look at my top 10:
NO. 1: 3B BOBBY DALBEC, 23
.257/.361/.558 WITH 32 HOMERS AND 109 RBI IN HIGH-A SALEM AND DOUBLE-A PORTLAND
Dalbec has several tools that play as above-average to elite. He’s got immense power that led to 32 homers, he shows a good ability to discern balls and strikes, and while big at 6 feet 4 inches, he showed surprising range at third and a fantastic arm that permitted him to throw 98 miles per hour as a college pitcher. There’s a Matt Chapman-type starter kit there.
But his strikeout rate is so high (32 percent) that some evaluators wince at the idea of Dalbec at No. 1. Still, others believe that between his walks and his ability to clear fences with ease he has the best chance of being an impact player in the Red Sox organization.
There’s significant risk in his profile, as he does swing-and-miss at fastballs in the strike zone at times and with his size, he’ll be vulnerable to breaking balls that dart out of the zone. If his strikeouts remain extreme, there’s a chance he never gets an opportunity as a big league regular. But if he builds on the progress he made in his approach in 2018 — and notably, Dalbec showed an ability to reduce his strikeout rate considerably in specific situations such as with men in scoring position — he can become a valuable No. 5 or No. 6 hitter.
Dalbec is playing first and third base in the Arizona Fall League. In all likelihood, he needs another full year of development before a 2020 big league ETA.
NO. 2: 1B/3B MICHAEL CHAVIS, 23
.298/.381/.538 WITH 9 HOMERS AND 27 RBI IN SHORT-SEASON, DOUBLE-A, AND TRIPLE-A
Chavis started his year ignominiously, getting hit with an 80-game suspension for a positive test for a PED. (Chavis vehemently denies ever knowingly taking a banned substance.) When he returned to games over the final months of the season, he showed improvement. His at-bats were under control in his return to Double-A Portland, resulting in improved contact rates and a more consistent up-the-middle approach that allowed his power to play well.
He probably has a higher floor than Dalbec given that he’s a better pure hitter with a smaller hole to cover. Moreover, Chavis made defensive strides at third base, convincing some evaluators that he can stay at the position as an everyday option, while looking to others like someone who can at least have third as one of a few positions as he moves around the field.
Still, questions remain. His solid offensive line included an incredible batting average on balls in play (.382), and his strikeout rate spiked when he got to Pawtucket at the end of the year. There’s uncertainty about whether Chavis ends up being an everyday player or a platoon option. He’s similar in size and strength to Pearce, with greater positional flexibility, traits that suggest a valuable big leaguer.
NO. 3: LHP DARWINZON HERNANDEZ, 21
9-5, 3.53 ERA, 11.3 K/9 AND 5.6 BB/9 IN HIGH-A SALEM AND DOUBLE-A PORTLAND
Hernandez has overwhelming stuff, the best fastball in the system — a nasty pitch that tops out at 98 — a slider that can get swings-and-misses in bunches, and a curveball that is at least a solid big-league offering. He’s working to develop a changeup, but that pitch is behind the other three.
At times, Hernandez struggles to throw strikes, thus running up pitch counts in a way that raises serious questions about whether he can start in the big leagues. Even so, he’s made enough control gains to give him a chance to be an impact five-inning starter with high strikeout rates, and if that doesn’t pan out, he has a chance to be an elite reliever. While the Sox plan to have him work as a starter in Double-A at the start of 2019, they exposed him to work out of the bullpen in Portland at the end of 2018, and his work as a reliever in the Arizona Fall League (9 innings, 18 strikeouts, 2.00 ERA) had evaluators raving. There’s a very good chance he’s in the Red Sox bullpen mix by the end of 2019.
NO. 4: LHP JAY GROOME, 20
DID NOT PLAY IN 2018
In spring training, Groome showed the sort of standout stuff — a mid-90s fastball, a hammer of a curve, a changeup that disrupted timing and got ground balls while helping the fastball to play up — to offer credence to the belief that he is the best starting pitching prospect in the system. But at the end of spring, he experienced forearm soreness, and ultimately required Tommy John surgery that likely will keep him out until mid- to late-2019. He’s young enough that he still has time to develop into a good big league starting pitcher, but at the end of 2019, there’s a good chance that he won’t have progressed above A-ball through three full pro seasons, increasing the air of uncertainty around him.
NO. 5: 1B/3B TRISTON CASAS, 18
0-FOR-4 WITH A WALK IN THE ROOKIE LEVEL GULF COAST LEAGUE
The Red Sox were elated to have Casas on the board where they drafted, late in the first round. He shows enormous power for a high-school player, displays the size and athleticism to suggest the possibility of Gold Glove defense at first, and he’s not an all-or-nothing hitter, as he showed an unusual ability to hit the ball to the opposite field. While high school first basemen are rarely viewed as top prospects who are considered for top draft picks, some scouts believe he has the upside of Braves star Freddie Freeman.
NO. 6: RHP BRYAN MATA, 19
6-3, 3.50 ERA, 7.6 K/9, AND 7.3 BB/9 IN HIGH-A SALEM
The 2018 season was a learning year for Mata, who struggled to keep his fastball in the strike zone as he transitioned from being primarily a four-seam thrower to putting a greater emphasis on the two-seamer. He has a starter’s size, physicality, and mix, with a mid-90s fastball that opponents rarely drive, a good feel for a changeup that could play as above-average, and a solid curveball. He’ll likely work to develop a fourth pitch at some point, but for now, he’ll continue to be challenged as one of the youngest pitchers at his level (he was, in fact, the youngest pitcher in the High A Carolina League in 2018), with the chance to emerge as a solid No. 4 starter with the upside of a No. 3.
NO. 7: RHP TANNER HOUCK, 22
7-11, 4.24 ERA, 8.4 K/9, AND 4.5 BB/9 IN HIGH-A SALEM
Houck started the year enduring a profound struggle, as he tried to change from a sinker/slider pitcher as an amateur to a four-seam/curveball pitcher in pro ball, while slightly elevating his arm slot to further move from an east/west to a north/south attack. It didn’t go well early, as Houck struggled to throw strikes, and when his four-seamer did land in the strike zone, it got crushed.
But in the second half, he re-emphasized his strengths, and his two-seamer got a ton of ground balls, his slider showed the ability to generate swings-and-misses, and he did a better job of locating his four-seamer above the strike zone to miss bats while posting a 2.86 ERA in his last 12 starts. The sinker/slider combination from a low arm slot make him a tough matchup for righties and give him a solid setup profile. Many evaluators believe he’s a future reliever. But if he can develop his changeup, he has a chance to emerge as a starter.
NO. 8: RHP MIKE SHAWARYN, 24
9-10, 3.44 ERA, 8.0 K/9, AND 2.3 BB/9 IN DOUBLE-A PORTLAND AND TRIPLE-A PAWTUCKET
Shawaryn combines a low-90s fastball with excellent feel for his slider and a breaking ball that he turns into multiple pitches by varying its speed and break. He’s not afraid to throw strikes, and he tended to show sharper stuff in the early innings of his outings, suggesting a pitcher with a chance to emerge as an interesting bullpen option. He’s also intelligent enough about how to execute a game plan that he shows back-end starter potential if he can develop a changeup, an area of focus for him in Pawtucket this year. His fastball results in a lot of fly balls, an issue that could be problematic at Fenway, but he also shows dogged competitiveness and the possibility of a swing-and-miss slider that creates a good likelihood that he’ll be contributing in the big leagues at some point in 2019.
NO. 9: SS ANTONI FLORES, 18
.340/.435/.528 WITH 1 HOMER AND 14 RBI IN THE DOMINICAN SUMMER LEAGUE AND ROOKIE BALL
Flores played just two games in Fort Myers before getting shut down with lower body injuries, but as an up-the-middle player who has shown a consistently strong feel for hitting with the potential for at least solid power and speed, some feel that his profile stands out among Red Sox prospects. His 2018 season was so brief (15 games) and he’s so far from the big leagues that there’s a lot of risk attached to the Venezuelan shortstop’s future, but if he cements what he showed in a brief glimpse in 2018 with a full, healthy season in 2019, he’d vault up the list.
NO. 10: SS C.J. CHATHAM, 23
.314/.350/.389 WITH 3 HOMERS AND 52 RBI IN SINGLE-A GREENVILLE AND HIGH-A SALEM
After he lost his first full pro season almost completely to hamstring injuries, Chatham combined solid defense at shortstop with a surprisingly consistent hit tool in the batter’s box in 2018. He competed until the final days of the season for the Carolina League batting title. Based on what Chatham showed in college, the Red Sox believe that he does have more power than he showed in 2018. At the least, his glove and ability to put the bat on the ball suggest a solid utility player, and Chatham has a chance to emerge as an everyday shortstop if he can build on his significant step forward in 2018.