Expect Ryan Lavarnway to slug his way into the Sox starting lineup next season.
Nearly 15 months have passed since the Boston Herald declared the Red Sox the "Best Team Ever." In that time, we've seen a summer of .600 ball, an unprecedented September collapse and a season riddled with injuries, under-performance and decline from a collection of stars that were expected to carry the team back to the World Series.
The problem, from an organizational perspective, is that the Red Sox strayed from their plan to build a "scouting and player development machine," as former General Manager Theo Epstein articulated in November 2002 (Source: Chicago Tribune).
Rather than filling positional holes with affordable, short-term stopgaps like Epstein did in 2003 with Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar and David Ortiz, the Red Sox began to dole out premium contracts to big-name players entering their 30s. In essence, they have shifted to a player-acquisition model that overvalues past, rather than future, performance.
Instead of exhibiting patience with the young, cost-controlled OF Josh Reddick (who broke out this season with the Oakland A's), the Red Sox gave the now 31-year old Carl Crawford a seven-year, $142 million contract. Instead of signing someone like Jon Garland to a short-term deal and waiting for one of its prospects to emerge (or the opportunity to acquire an ace to present itself), Boston opted to ink John Lackey, a pitcher with a documented history of arm damage, to an $85 million deal that lasts through his 36th birthday.
Now, unsurprisingly, the Boston Red Sox find themselves with limited financial flexibility, few trade-able assets, and a bevvy of injuries and under-performance from players with bloated contracts. With this in mind, the Red Sox need to balance their immediate problems (declining ticket sales and fan interest) with their long-term organizational aspirations to remain perennial contenders in an increasingly competitive American League.
There is one thing that can satisfy both of those needs: an infusion of youth.
In order to finally gain some payroll flexibility (and develop trade-able assets), the Red Sox need to give their top prospects a chance to shine in the majors. Let's take a look at five youngsters who belong on the big-league squad next year.
Jackie Bradley, Jr. has a rifle for an arm.
That's one of the first things you'll hear from scouts when they talk about Bradley's immense skill set; he's got a great arm (rumored to be clocked at 101 mph) with good accuracy and that, paired with his speed and range, give him a chance to be a future Gold Glover.
With that said, Bradley is far from a one-trick pony. He has legitimate five-tool potential that starts with good bat speed, an even lefty swing that gives him the ability to spray the ball to all fields (he's sporting a .944 OPS between Class-A and Double-A this season) and enough speed to make him a threat out of the box and on the basepaths (23 steals this year).
Bradley needs to continue to fill out in order to become a power threat, an aspect of his game which has effectively disappeared since he made the jump to pro ball and had to switch from metal to wooden bats.
Still, he will likely get a cup of coffee with the big-league roster in 2013, and could prove to be a solid fourth outfielder or fill-in for an injury. His arm and his foot speed alone make him an exciting prospect to watch next season, and with the right opportunity he could electrify Fenway Park.
Ryan Lavarnway has what every catcher needs: intelligence.
A philosophy major at Yale University, Lavarnway is a smart catcher with plus power and great plate discipline. Initially maligned for his defense, Lavarnway has begun to take strides as a catcher, an impressive feat given that he only switched to the position in late 2007.
Lavarnway can rake with the best prospects in baseball: he hit 32 homers between Double-A and Triple-A in 2011 and was tagged as the best power prospect in the International League. Though his production has dropped this season, Lavarnway is still young (he turns 25 this month). Given his domination of left-handed pitching (1.021 OPS against LHP in Triple-A) he remains a top candidate for a platoon with current Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
That is, if he can stick as a catcher in the majors.
His soft hands coupled with his deep dedication to the craft of catching will help Lavarnway in his quest to become a full-time catcher, where his power bat will make him a much more highly-valued commodity than at first base.
Still, Lavarnway needs to get his body in position to block balls more consistently; he has a reputation for allowing too many passed balls on pitches in the dirt. Lavarnway spoke about his defensive issues in a WEEI.com podcast with Alex Speier:
"My hips were below my knees, which meant to go down to block [a pitch in the dirt] I first had to raise my center of mass, which takes too long when a pitch is coming at 90 MPH and you have four-tenths of a second to block it. The position I was in, with the inside of my feet bowed out, also restricted my lateral movement so my receiving was limited to balls that were within my frame."
Lavarnway's potential (and commitment to improvement) should warrant him a spot on next year's roster, and eventually, he should slug his way into the starting lineup.
As of right now, Jose Iglesias is not a Major League-caliber hitter.
In fact, he's not even a Triple-A-caliber hitter.
Iglesias, a 22 year-old Cuban shortstop signed in 2009, has generational talent with the glove. According to SoxProspects.com, Iglesias grades as an 80 defensively- the highest possible score on scouts' traditional 20-80 scale.
His hands are remarkably soft and his approach to the shortstop position has been compared to defensive greats like Omar Vizquel. His anticipation and quickness grant him fantastic range, and he is able to throw accurately off-balance due to his fantastic body control. He is, according to anyone who watches him field, a sure-fire perennial Gold Glove shortstop.
The problem with Iglesias has always been hitting. He's an undisciplined pull hitter with an impatient approach at the plate, and his production in Triple-A this year (.554 OPS in 357 ABs) has been unacceptably bad.
Still, Iglesias is young, and the Red Sox have thrown him into the fire as a 21-year-old facing much older competition in Pawtucket. If he can fill out his frame and improve his understanding of the strike zone, even just enough to make him a .650 OPS player in the majors, his brilliant glove-work will be enough to make him a valuable MLB player.
As for next year, Iglesias will likely start the season in the minors to continue to work on his approach at the plate. Expect to see him on the big-league roster throughout the year, as a late-inning defensive whiz, pinch-runner and a fill-in for injured players.
Ryan Kalish has dealt with high expectations since he signed an over-slot bonus in the summer of 2006. As a three-sport athlete in college with great speed and a solid defensive reputation, he quickly grew into the highest-upside position player in a pitching-heavy Sox system.
Kalish has the plate discipline and defensive range to be an above-average starting outfielder next season, and he should get the opportunity to start in the outfield if Carl Crawford opts to undergo Tommy John surgery.
Though he has the skill-set to be a five-tool player with some seasoning in the majors, there are two big concerns regarding Kalish's future. First, his style of play has led to several major injuries, including a broken hamate bone in his right wrist, a bulging disc in his neck and a torn labrum in his left shoulder.
The second issue with Kalish is his power: many scouts doubt that he will develop the kind of 25-plus home run potential typically expected of a corner outfielder. Still, his sweet left-handed swing, high energy and ability to play all three outfield positions in a pinch mean that Kalish deserves more than a cup of coffee in the majors next season.
Let us first make one thing clear about Pedro Ciriaco: he is not a viable starting option if the Red Sox hope to contend in 2013.
Ciriaco's numbers during his stint in the majors look good: in 77 at-bats, he's hitting .338 with an .814 OPS, and he has been successful in all six of his stolen base attempts. However, a deeper look at his season shows that much of his performance is a mirage. Ciriaco is sporting an unsustainably high .403 BABIP (batting average on balls in play), meaning that more than his share of balls he made contact on have found holes in the defense.
The inevitable regression of his BABIP, coupled with his impatience at the plate (he sees just 3.14 pitches per plate appearance, which puts him second-to-last in all of MLB) nearly guarantees that he won't reach base often enough to justify a spot in the starting lineup.
Nevertheless, Ciriaco can carve out a future for himself as a super-sub, given his speed and positional versatility. In his short time in the majors with Pittsburgh and Boston, Ciriaco has played every position except first base and catcher. With his ability to play almost every position adequately, coupled with his baserunning, bat-speed and occasional pop, Ciriaco can contribute to a Major League team.
Just not as a starter.