Grading the Performance of Boston Red Sox's Top Prospects at Spring Training
With spring training winding to a close and the 2014 regular season just around the corner, it is time to take a quick look back at the Boston Red Sox and their plethora of talented prospects as the franchise moves toward Opening Day.
In the wake of their 2013 World Series championship, the Red Sox have another tremendous storyline on the books heading into 2014.
While much of the focus from Red Sox Nation has focused on the incumbent stars and fan favorites—guys like David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester—2014 may be the start of a shift in focus to Boston's up-and-coming talent.
Loaded with prospects, the Red Sox are poised to make a notable transition from aging veterans to young phenoms in the next few seasons.
To note that Boston is laden with young talent is an understatement. Anyone who has paid remote attention to the Red Sox recently could tell you this.
Yet let us dive a little further in evaluating where all that young talent stands, especially in regards to what the team is looking to do in defense of their World Series crown.
In this slideshow, we shall take a look at the top 10 prospects and their individual spring training performances.
For the purposes of clarity and consistency, we shall use the prospect rankings provided by Alex Speier of Baseball America.
Each prospect shall be evaluated on his individual spring training performance and then a prediction shall be assigned to each player, projecting his likely 2014 impact. Some, like Boston's No. 1 prospect Xander Bogaerts, will assuredly start with the Red Sox on Opening Day.
Others may be at the fringe of a major league roster spot, while others may find themselves continuously developing at the minor league level.
Finally, we shall assign a grade to each prospect. The criteria for such shall be determined on the individual performances during spring training based on statistics and other intangibles such as leadership, character, etc.
Let's get started.
No. 10: Trey Ball, LHP
Trey Ball, Left-Handed Pitcher
Age: 19 Years Old
At No. 10, 19-year-old Trey Ball probably does not figure to break into the majors any time soon.
In 2013, he pitched in only five minor league games for Boston's rookie-league affiliate, and his statistics last season were nothing to get overly excited about.
Ball started this year's spring training in Boston's minor league camp, per Phil Beebe of IndyStar.com, and was quick to take in all the excitement of being at the same facility as the major leaguers.
Ball stated, via Brian MacPherson of The Providence Journal:
I’m getting to be able to talk with the older guys about what they’ve done, not trying to copy them but trying to listen to what they have to say. Being a two-way in high school, actually focusing fully on pitching now, I’m just becoming an all-around better pitcher.
His first minor league spring outing went very well, as tweeted by New Castle Baseball (@Baseball_NCHS)—two innings pitched with three strikeouts, one walk, one hit and one pickoff on 35 pitches.
While this sample size is too small to assign a realistic grade, it does indicate to us a couple of key things. First, much like how they handled him last season, the Red Sox organization wants to limit Ball's pitch count as they continue to develop him as a full-time pitcher.
In addition, we can assume that Ball will not make any big league debut until 2017, most likely—a prediction pointed out by SoxProspects.com.
We should therefore assume that Ball will reach no higher than the Red Sox's Single-A affiliate in 2014, if he makes it that high. In spite of his talents and potential, Ball does have a long way to go.
In determining the final grade, we must take into consideration the small sample size but also the attitude and development goals Ball has discussed before spring training. Those help boost his overall grade in spite of his limited statistics.
Ball is a long way off before cracking into the majors, but so far things have looked good in his still-young professional career.
No. 9: Matt Barnes, RHP
Matt Barnes, Right-Handed Pitcher
Age: 23 Years Old
Unlike his predecessor on this slideshow, right-handed pitcher Matt Barnes is much further along, not only in his age, but in his maturation and development.
Having spent the 2013 season pitching at Boston's AA and AAA affiliates, Barnes has to be viewed as ripe for making a major league roster in the near future.
While the Red Sox's major league pitching roster is most likely too crowded for Barnes to crack into the big leagues in 2014, we should assume that Barnes' eventual debut comes relatively soon.
SoxProspects.com projects Barnes could very well be a late-season call-up in 2014, which keeps the young righty on our major league radar.
There are plenty of reasons to be excited about Barnes, some of which were indicated during a live batting practice session against major leaguers David Ortiz and Mike Carp—the video of which can be viewed here, provided by Ricky Doyle of NESN.com.
Barnes looked good during the session, although we cannot get overly excited about a mere batting practice performance from the young pitcher.
Instead, we must take the entire picture into consideration.
Barnes has been dealing with a shoulder injury for most of spring training, per Doyle—an aspect that has certainly hindered the right-hander's development, but by no means sets him back in terms of his overall expectations.
Still, Barnes is one of many Sox prospects who were unable to crack the major league roster and were subsequently reassigned to the minors on March 13 per Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe.
This really should not come as a surprise. In spite of the talent, the Red Sox simply do not have enough room to place a talented prospect like Barnes on the major league roster. He, like many other Boston prospects, will make his eventual big league debut at an undetermined point in the future.
Yet Barnes is still working on his craft. His curveball, which is largely considered to be the weakest in his repertoire, is the best that it has been in three spring trainings, per his remarks via Kevin Duffy of CTPost.com.
That is a good sign moving forward and shall hopefully be a solid indication of whether or not he is major league ready.
Barnes will likely start 2014 at the AAA level, but do not be surprised if Barnes eventually works his way towards a major league call-up this season.
The shoulder injury knocks Barnes' grade down a bit, but it is nothing to be concerned about.
No. 8: Brandon Workman, RHP
Brandon Workman, Right-Handed Pitcher
Age: 25 Years Old
Right=handed pitcher Brandon Workman has the luxury of being one of the few Red Sox prospects that has bona fide major league experience.
Workman filled in 20 games in 2013, helping alleviate an injury-riddled Boston rotation—posting a 4.97 ERA during the span.
At 25 years old, Workman is probably the closest to being major league ready out of the Red Sox's rookie pitchers and prospects. His big league experience here already earns him points.
While not as heralded, nor projected as having a higher ceiling than some of his counterparts, per SoxProspects.com, Workman may likely fill an important need for the Red Sox in 2014.
More on that shortly.
So how has spring training benefited Workman thus far?
Workman has appeared in four games thus far with the Red Sox and has posted a 6.55 ERA—nothing spectacular, but not necessarily anything to be concerned about just yet.
Yes, Workman has had some troubles this spring, but the fact that he is in line to become a swingman of sorts in 2014 could work to his benefit.
Last season at the major league level, Workman saw action both as a starter and reliever. This season, manager John Farrell has indicated that he would prefer to keep Workman in a steady role and not shift him back and forth between the rotation and bullpen, per Ricky Doyle of NESN.com. He stated:
If you make the shift, then you stick to whatever shift you move to. But to go back and forth, that takes a lot out of a pitcher, regardless of age. And, in some ways, you can put a guy a little bit more at risk because of the change in role and the difference in the teams. Physically, you’re asking a lot of a guy to do that.
Workman has avoided any minor league reassignments thus far and continues to pitch against major league hitters as spring training draws to a close.
This, combined with the fact that he has already pitched in the majors, is a good sign for Workman and his development.
Still, the Red Sox's rotation and bullpen are probably too crowded for him to earn a spot on the 25-man roster, and this author has a hunch that Workman will probably start the 2014 season down the road at AAA.
Yet with the fragility of some of the Red Sox's starters—Clay Buchholz being the most notable—it is likely we will see Workman pitching for Boston at some point this season and probably making a case to stay there for the long run.
No. 7: Mookie Betts, 2B
Mookie Betts, Second Base
Age: 21 Years Old
Switching from prospect pitchers to position players for a while, let us take a look at Boston's No. 7 prospect—second baseman Mookie Betts.
First and foremost, Betts has the unfortunate circumstance of being behind Dustin Pedroia on Boston's organizational depth chart at second base. With Pedroia not going anywhere in the foreseeable future, who knows when Betts cracks the Red Sox's major league lineup.
But for now, let us focus more on what Betts' spring training prospectus has looked like so far.
In spite of a breakout 2013 campaign—where power suddenly became a facet of his game—Betts did not receive an invitation to the Red Sox's major league camp.
This was a bit of a surprise to Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe, who tweeted such back on March 15.
Betts has gone hitless in five at-bats this spring with one walk and one strikeout.
The sample size is obviously small, but the overall expectation is not.
Mike Andrews of ESPNBoston.com lists Betts as a potential major league starter one day and heralds the fact that the Red Sox have so much strength up the middle.
Jim Callis of MLB.com sang even more praises about Betts, citing him as one of the best minor league prospects on their way up.
Yet Callis points out that Betts will have to somehow figure out how to get into Boston's major league plans. With Pedroia standing in his way at second, Betts may have to learn another position, perhaps at shortstop or even in the outfield.
But if Betts continues to produce like he did in 2013, the Red Sox will find a way to work the young talent into their future roster.
It will not likely be in 2014, and we should expect Betts to start the season at or around the AA level.
Still, we should keep an eye on Betts thus far and should take into account some of the recent accolades he has received in recent weeks. Those alone help propel Betts' preseason grade up a bit.
No. 6: Garin Cecchini, 3B
Garin Cecchini, Third Base
Age: 22 Years Old
Spring training has been kind to the No. 6 prospect on this list—third baseman Garin Cecchini.
Cecchini, or "Cheech" as he is known, has torn his way through Boston's minor league affiliates since being signed in the 2010 MLB June Amateur Draft, and his long-term prognosis is that the Red Sox will have a bona fide starter on their roster in the near future.
Cecchini brought this reputation with him into spring this season—the nature of which is described further by Tim Britton of The Providence Journal.
While his .188 batting average during spring training could be an indication that he is not quite ready for the majors, one cannot overlook some of the other aspects that make Cecchini a favorite among Boston's young talent.
First, there is Cecchini's speed. Manager John Farrell pointed this out via Jason Mastrodonato of MassLive.com on March 3.
Then there is Cecchini's approach at the plate, which favors him as being able to eventually adjust to major league pitching in the near future.
When asked which player could have an impact this season, Red Sox team president and CEO Larry Lucchino stated via a broadcast on WEEI (h/t Mastrodonato of MassLive.com), "[Cecchini]. There’s a guy with a major league hitting approach.”
While most of the focus on Boston's positional prospects has been on players like Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr., Cecchini cannot be overlooked in the slightest.
In fact, he may be the next in line to work his way into the Red Sox's 25-man roster.
Even though Cecchini was one of the 12 Red Sox prospects reassigned to minor league camp earlier this month, his eventual big league debut may be sooner than you think.
For starters, it is safe to say that incumbent third baseman Will Middlebrooks is on the hot seat following a lackluster 2013 season. Depending on how Middlebrooks' 2014 campaign goes, Cecchini could benefit from an eventual call-up in 2015, or this season if the situation dictates.
There has been a lot of praise surrounding Cecchini this spring and that shall continue, even if Cheech starts out at the AAA level this season.
Because of this, and the notion that he is on the fringe of making it to the big leagues soon, Cheech receives a good grade this spring.
No. 5: Blake Swihart, C
Blake Swihart, Catcher
Age: 21 Years Old
The Red Sox's 2014 catching tandem of A.J. Pierzynski and David Ross are getting up there in age—both at 37 years old.
Thus, the time is drawing near when Boston has to consider its future options behind the plate. Fortunately, the Red Sox can count on two prospects waiting in the folds to make their major league debuts.
Backstops Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart are the next tandem to likely find their way into a Red Sox uniform in the near future. Vazquez is arguably the most ready to go out of the two but primarily associated as a defensive-minded catcher, and per SoxProspects.com, he does not make the top 10 list of Boston's young prospects.
Instead, Swihart makes Speier's list at No. 5.
The switch-hitting Swihart looks as if he is the next Jason Varitek in the making. He possesses not only a great approach at the plate from both sides, but also has the leadership and maturity necessary at such a vital position.
His drive to succeed has been evident, not only this spring, but also over the entire duration of his amateur and professional careers.
“Wherever they want me to play I’ll play,” Swihart stated via Ricky Doyle of NESN.com. “I want to get to the next level, so if they believe that’s (as a) catcher, I’m going to work hard to get there.”
Oh, and Swihart had an impressive spring training, as well.
Swihart went 3-for-7 this spring, posting a .429 batting average and an even .500 on-base percentage.
In all likelihood, we will not see Swihart in 2014 with both Pierzynski and Ross holding down the catching tandem at the major league level. With Vazquez further along in his development, it is possible that Swihart may not even crack the major league roster until 2015 or later.
Still, there is a lot to like about this young talent, and he was able to showcase much of that this spring training.
All signs are pointing in the right direction so far and as a result, Swihart earns high grades for his spring training performance.
No. 4: Allen Webster, RHP
Allen Webster, Right-Handed Pitcher
Age: 24 Years Old
It has been a shaky spring training thus far for 24-year-old pitching prospect Allen Webster.
In 2013, Webster had an impressive spring training, utilizing an effective sinker that produced weak contact, per Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe. His effectiveness earned him a call-up to the majors during that season where he posted a 8.60 ERA over 30.1 innings pitched.
After the brief tenure, it was a safe assumption that the young righty acquired in the blockbuster 2012 trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers was not quite ready for the big leagues, and he was subsequently sent back down to the minors.
Yet at No. 4 on Speier's list of top Red Sox prospects, there are still plenty of expectations and hopes placed on Webster entering 2014.
Unfortunately, spring training has been rough thus far.
Webster's inconsistencies have been a problem for him during his tenure with the Red Sox. Most of all, there are concerns that he will struggle against big league hitters.
The problems eventually resulted in a conference between Webster and major leaguers John Lackey and Jon Lester—described further by The Providence Journal's Brian MacPherson.
Subsequent results from Webster have been mixed at best, which is pretty much in line with what has been expected out of him as of late.
When Webster's command and control is on, he is tough to hit.
When those elements are not working, well...
Before spring training, Webster was likely one of those pitchers who was vying for a potential spot on the Red Sox's 25-man roster. Like fellow prospect Brandon Workman, Webster would likely be keyed as a swingman, capable of being utilized in a reserve role.
Yet Webster has since been reassigned to Boston's minor league camp per MiLB.com, and it looks as if Webster has perhaps taken a step back in his maturation and development.
While other roster moves make sense—such as the reassignments of pitchers like Matt Barnes and Henry Owens—Webster should have been closer to establishing himself in a major league role. Him being sent down at this point is indication that the Red Sox do not quite have the faith in him as earlier hoped.
It has been a disappointing spring for Webster, but hopefully he can turn things around at Pawtucket to start the 2014 season.
No. 3: Jackie Bradley Jr., Center Field
Jackie Bradley Jr., Center Field
Age: 23 Years Old
Up to this point, almost all of the top-10 prospects do not figure to be an integral part of the Red Sox's major league plans in 2014.
Heading towards Opening Day, the jury may still be out on center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr.
Bradley's 2013 numbers in his limited time in Boston indicated that he probably was not quite ready for life at the major league level.
In an ideal world, Bradley would have probably benefited from at least one more season in the minors and the Red Sox would have kept Jacoby Ellsbury in center for another season. Yet ideal situations do not always transpire, and the Red Sox's hand was forced when Ellsbury signed with the New York Yankees during the offseason.
Thus, the preeminent question was asked—is Bradley ready to take over the job?
Initially, it appeared as if the Red Sox were willing to gamble on Bradley's major league capabilities. Then the team signed oft-injured outfielder Grady Sizemore to a one-year, incentive-laden deal, which at least gave the team options and flexibility.
Spring training would be the time to determine which player would earn the roster spot.
Before moving any further, let us evaluate the numbers of each player this spring.
Bradley thus far is hitting an underwhelming .189 in 37 at-bats—eerily similar to the average he posted in 37 major league games last season. Sizemore, on the other hand, is batting .381 in 21 at-bats.
Based on those numbers alone, Sizemore is clearly winning the competition.
Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe describes how Bradley is feeling the heat this spring. He elaborates:
Where established veteran players need to work on things, young players need to make it based on their performance. So Bradley, who has struggled at the plate, has had to watch Grady Sizemore be the “talk of the camp” this season. That can’t be a comforting thought. As of a few days ago, the Red Sox were still considering Bradley to be their starting center fielder, but then Sizemore, who has been out of baseball for two years and has seen limited action in the last four, throws this monkey wrench into the mix—three hits, two great catches in center.
Yet looking back at the numbers once more, we can see that the Red Sox are still giving Bradley a chance to prove himself this spring. He does have 37 at-bats compared to Sizemore's 21.
This tells us that manager John Farrell is monitoring this situation closely. Given Sizemore's track record of injury, it is likely that Boston would rather go with a younger, healthier option in center. Bradley's sizable number of at-bats indicate they want him to succeed.
Up to this point however, he has not matched up well to the test.
As argued by New York Times writer Peter Kerasotis, Bradley is still receiving playing time, which tells us that the Red Sox are not quite convinced that he should be reassigned to the minors. That means Bradley still has a chance, regardless of how small it may be getting.
With Opening Day drawing near, however, it is hard to fathom the Red Sox carrying six outfielders on their 25-man roster. Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp all figure to be in uniform come the start of the regular season. The fifth, and most likely final, spot in the outfield should be between Bradley and Sizemore.
Unless something changes, it is hard to see Sizemore lose out on the competition based on what he has done this spring. Bradley's ongoing struggles have continued to indicate he may not be ready for the majors.
It is a setback, but one hopefully Bradley can learn from. He may just have to learn at the minor league level to start 2014.
No. 2: Henry Owens, LHP
Henry Owens, Left-Handed Pitcher
Age: 21 Years Old
We have already covered a sizable number of Red Sox pitching prospects throughout this slideshow and shall cap it off with Boston's top pitching prospect, Henry Owens.
At 21 years old, Owens is perhaps the most talented arm coming out of the Red Sox's farm system. In spite of his high ceiling, Owens is also at least a season removed from making a major league roster.
More on that in a bit.
Owens received an invitation to Boston's major league camp, but was subsequently reassigned earlier this month.
During his tenure, Owens posted an 8.31 ERA in 4.1 innings pitched—not good numbers, per se, but more of an indication that he needs a little more time at the developmental levels.
In his spring training debut on February 27, Owens summarized how he was feeling and what he needs to work on, via Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe:
I felt good. A lot of positives, a few negatives obviously. Got to get ahead in the count early. My fastball command got better. But again, that’s my weakness, too. I keep working on that. You can’t walk two guys and get away with it too often. Obviously it still needs to be refined and hopefully I can get better.
Yet Abraham was also critical of Owens' spring performance, citing that he has not exactly wowed coaches this spring, especially compared to some of Boston's other young arms. Abraham writes:
Pitcher Henry Owens is very talented and it's never smart to evaluate a player in spring training. But he hasn't knocked anybody's socks off in camp. Anthony Ranaudo, for instance, is trying to show people what he can do. Owens seems almost disinterested.
Indeed, Ranaudo has enjoyed a marvelous spring training, and if he had made Speier's top-10 list of Sox prospects, Ranaudo would have certainly earned high grades on this slideshow.
Obviously, like what Abraham said, we cannot look too far into Owens' apparent uninterested demeanor. Perhaps it is just a part of his easy-going personality, which Abraham described as "low-key." It is hard to fathom a young, blossoming star to be totally disinterested.
Still, young prospects have to prove themselves during spring training, and signs point to Owens not having totally accomplished this.
That, combined with his lackluster ERA during the span, knocks his grade down substantially.
He should bounce back though, even if he has to start at AA or AAA this season. After all, Owens is likely gunning for a rotation spot in Boston once some of the older members of the Red Sox staff clear out. Look for this to happen in 2015.
No. 1: Xander Bogaerts, SS/3B
Xander Bogaerts, Shortstop/Third Base
Age: 21 Years Old
Now for the slide that Red Sox fans have been waiting for...
Xander Bogaerts is the unquestioned, bona fide No. 1 prospect in the Red Sox organization. There is no questioning that, nor are there many questions surrounding what type of player he will be over the course of his career.
We already caught glimpses of what he may become during the postseason in 2013. Now, fans should be able to enjoy Bogaerts over the course of a full season at the majors.
So what has Bogaerts done thus far in spring training?
In 28 at-bats, Bogaerts has not quite performed up to expectations—hitting a mere .143 with a .616 OPS. While those numbers alone may be of concern, manager John Farrell admitted that he is spending this spring focusing almost entirely on his defense.
“He has had an extremely full spring training,” Farrell said via Tim Britton of The Providence Journal. “He’s had to balance a lot with some of the footwork that he and [third-base coach Brian Butterfield] have been working on, the responsibilities of the position. There’s a lot of expectations on him.”
Indeed, much of the focus on Bogaerts defensive game has come in the wake of taking over a new position. Last year, Bogaerts primarily spent time at third base. Now with Boston's 2013 shortstop Stephen Drew off the roster, Bogaerts will take over at short.
The transition, like any, can come with new challenges and difficulties, which Bogaerts is apparently grasping without much difficulty.
Britton points out that the Red Sox are not concerned with his meager spring training offensive numbers; rather, they are happy with his overall development.
Farrell continued, via Ricky Doyle of NESN.com:
I think what we’re seeing is the range that we’ve talked about with [Bogaerts]. There’s always been subjective comments about whether he’s got the range to play the [shortstop] position, and what we’ve seen, before camp even opened and the work in games, is that he should be fine at the position defensively.
Rest assured, Bogaerts should be fine offensively in 2014. His spring numbers, regardless of how low they are, do not indicate the true talent he is. Shoring up his defensive game is equally important.
While the offensive statistics knock down Bogaerts' grade to an extent, one cannot overlook how much he has excelled defensively this preseason. As a result, he earns a solid grade—right about where he should be heading forward to Opening Day 2014.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the Boston Red Sox. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.