The perception remains unaltered, perhaps even unalterable. The Red Sox farm system, after producing a steady flow of everyday players and stars and massive trade chips, has dried out. The Sox are light on elite prospects, having fallen behind most other organizations in that department.
Unquestionably, there is skepticism about the star power in the Red Sox system. At the same time, there’s unquestionably development taking place within it, as most of the team’s best prospects got better in 2019.
Each of the players who were at the top of the team’s prospect rankings last year — Bobby Dalbec, Michael Chavis, Darwinzon Hernandez, Jay Groome, Triston Casas, and Bryan Mata — did something in 2019 to suggest progress.
Chavis and Hernandez showed difference-making abilities in the big leagues, with Hernandez showing back-end bullpen potential and Chavis proving a power threat who adapted on the fly at a new position (second base) to make an impact. Dalbec, who finished the year in Triple A, is relatively close to joining them.
Mata likewise may be in the big leagues in 2020 after a breakthrough season as a starter. Groome, after missing all of 2018 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, made it back to the mound by the end of 2019 and gave glimpses of why he is considered a rare talent.
Casas performed at a level rare for a player of his age and experience, vaulting him not just to top-prospect standing in the Red Sox organization but also garnering national recognition — a top-100 prospect, if not yet a top-50.
Those players were headliners in a year of progress in the Red Sox system.
Here’s a look at the top 10 prospects in the Red Sox system, as I outlined them in my rankings for Baseball America:
1. Triston Casas, 1B (age 19 in 2019)
.256/.350/.480 with 20 HR in Single A/High A
The 2018 first-round pick joined Xander Bogaerts as the only Red Sox teenagers to hit 20 or more homers at any level in the last 50 years. Casas is towering (6 feet 4 inches) with long limbs that generate enormous power, yet he’s attuned to the challenges created by his size, resulting in a willingness to spread out his stance and/or choke up while trying to use the whole field. Yet instead of spraying the ball, he shows the ability to drill liners into the seats from line to line, creating the potential for a middle-of-the-order hitter with advanced pitch recognition and plate discipline. Add in excellent defense at first base and Casas represented a fairly obvious call as the top Red Sox prospect.
2. Bobby Dalbec, 3B/1B (age 24)
.239/356/.460 with 27 HR in Double A/Triple A
Dalbec backed up his 2018 32-homer campaign with further evidence that his power plays — a notion amplified when he launched seven homers in 30 Triple A games at the end of the season with the juiced major league/Triple A ball. Though strikeouts always will be part of his game, Dalbec’s understanding of the strike zone can fuel solid on-base percentages, and his hitting intellect seems to allow him to adapt and improve with greater exposure to new levels. He’s a solid defensive third baseman who likely will have to play first or the outfield (the former pitcher has exceptional arm strength) to break into the big leagues, but he’s positioned himself to help in 2020.
3. Bryan Mata, RHP (age 20)
7-7, 3.43 ERA, 9.5 K/9, 3.6 BB/9 in High A/Double A
In 2018, Mata struggled to throw strikes while transitioning from a pitcher who primarily threw four-seamers to one who, taking advantage of his arm slot and action, threw two-seamers. But that transition gave way to success in 2019. Mata paired a mid- to high-90s two-seamer and slider, a combination that (in tandem with a four-seamer, change, and curveball) gave him the look of a mid-rotation starter. He dominated in High A Salem (3-1, 1.75 ERA) before struggling in Double A (4-6, 5.03) and had an up-and-down run as a reliever in the Arizona Fall League (5.23 ERA, 11 walks and 10 strikeouts in 10⅓ innings). The Sox hope that Mata, 2020 or 2021, can challenge the team’s longstanding homegrown starting pitcher slump.
4. Jarren Duran, OF (age 22)
.303/.367/.408, 5 HR, 46 SB in High A/Double A
Duran complemented game-changing speed with the regular ability to square up balls and produce line drives while dominating in Salem (.387/.456/.543). His performance ticked back in Double A (.250/.309/.325), though he enjoyed stretches where he still looked like a top-of-the-order catalyst. That profile represents his ceiling, though his struggles against more advanced pitching raise questions about whether he’ll reach it. All the same, his speed showed up as he moved from the infield to center, and he looks at least like a valuable fourth outfielder — with the possibility of a more Jacoby Ellsbury-ish profile if everything clicks. With the Sox entering a time of change in their outfield, Duran’s development could prove critical for the Sox.
5. Darwinzon Hernandez, LHP (age 22)
0-1, 4.45 ERA, 16.9 K/9, 7.7 BB/9 in MLB; 2-6, 5.02 ERA, 12.4 K/9, 7.5 BB/9 in Double A/Triple A
Hernandez somewhat absurdly retains prospect status, but in his 29 games (and 30⅓ innings), he showed one of the most electrifying fastballs in the game along with a sharp slider. That tandem allowed him, at times, to overpower even superstars (he blew away Mike Trout with high-90s fastballs). If he throws a decent number of strikes, he could emerge as a strikeout machine in the late innings. If not, he could struggle to stay in the big leagues.
6. Thad Ward, RHP (age 22)
8-5, 2.14 ERA, 11.2 K/9, 4.1 BB/9 in Single A/High A
Ward entered pro ball with a sinker/slider combination that made him look like a big league reliever, but the 2018 fifth-rounder added a cutter in spring training and created considerable confusion in opposing hitters, who struggled to distinguish between those three pitches. With improved velocity, he had one of the top performances of any pitcher in the minors. The rangy righty emerged as a potential No. 4 or No. 5 starter who will be tested in the upper levels, starting this year.
7. Jay Groome, LHP (age 20)
0-0, 2.25 ERA, 13.5 K/9, 2.3 BB/9 in Rookie/Short-season
Groome got back in games by the end of the year and topped out at 96 miles per hour, enough to make the year a success. The 2020 season will determine whether he is still the pitcher with a potential top-of-the-rotation mix – his curveball is a devastating pitch, and he showed good feel for a changeup before his Tommy John surgery – or if his ceiling will need to be adjusted.
8. Gilberto Jimenez, OF (age 18)
.359/.393/.470 with 3 HR and 14 SB in Short-season
Jimenez is incredibly raw but incredibly talented, a player with five-tool potential who still has a ton to learn. In Lowell, his insane speed turned every groundball into a potential hit, inflating his batting average. Even though new to switch-hitting (Jimenez only batted righthanded until signing with the Sox), he occasionally showed the sort of hard contact to suggest a player with shoot-the-moon possibilities. He could be an above-average or even an All-Star outfielder, or he could stall out in the upper minors.
9. Noah Song, RHP (age 22)
0-0, 1.06 ERA, 10.1 K/9, 2.6 BB/9 in Short-season
Song was one of the top college pitchers at the Naval Academy this year, showing a starter’s four-pitch mix anchored by a mid- to high-90s fastball that was on display in the recent Premier12 tournament. He fell to the fourth round because of his uncertain baseball future given a forthcoming military service commitment of at least two years. It’s possible that the government will waive his military obligation, or that the military will change its policy to permit athletes to pursue professional careers prior to their service. If he is able to pursue his pro career immediately, then he’d probably at least rank fourth in the system. If he must wait two years (or more), then it’s difficult to say what shape his career might take.
10. Tanner Houck, RHP (age 23)
8-6, 4.01 ERA, 8.9 K/9, 3.8 BB/9 in Double A/Triple A
That Houck ranks 10th speaks to the improving state of the Red Sox system. At the least, Houck’s two-seamer and sweeping slider will give righthanded hitters fits, making him a potentially strong late-innings option. If he can command his slider against lefties and work in a functional changeup, the 2017 first-rounder still could emerge as a back-end starter.