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Boston Red Sox Prospects Who Have the Highest Ceilings

Evan BrunellFeatured ColumnistMay 8, 2014

Boston Red Sox Prospects Who Have the Highest Ceilings

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    Xander Bogaerts has the highest ceiling of any Red Sox prospect in recent memory.
    Xander Bogaerts has the highest ceiling of any Red Sox prospect in recent memory.Associated Press

    With Xander Bogaerts in the major leagues and well on his way to being a centerpiece of the Red Sox team for the next decade, the focus shifts to who could be the next impact prospect on the farm.

    It's not easy trying to figure out who the best prospects on any given team are. It's even more difficult with the Boston Red Sox, who boast a deep farm system; ESPN's Keith Law (subscription required) had them fifth in 2014's organizational farm rankings. What ESPN and other prospect sites concern themselves with in top prospect rankings is a blend of current talent, future talent, age and likelihood of reaching said talent.

    By virtue of that blend, some players may go unmentioned in Top 10 prospect rankings that could end up being the next Hall of Fame talent. That's what this list is about: finding prospects with the highest ceilings. Throw out probability of reaching said ceiling, throw out how close they are to the ceiling currently, throw out their age. Which prospects drip Hall of Fame talent?

    Let's find out in our Top 10 of Boston Red Sox prospects who have the highest ceilings.

Honorable Mention: Javier Guerra, SS

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    Could Guerra supplant Bogaerts at short?
    Could Guerra supplant Bogaerts at short?Photo by Bryan Green (Flickr)

    Javier Guerra could be the long-term shortstop of the Red Sox.

    Signed as an international free agent in 2012, Guerra made his debut in 2013 in the Dominican Summer League, hitting .248 with a .356 on-base percentage, but he collected just nine extra-base hits.

    The 18-year-old will likely never have power as an integral part of his game, but he could rise to the majors as a disciplined hitter who hits for average. It's not unreasonable to expect Guerra to add some weight to his 5'11", 155-pound body, which could cause a jump in power.

    On defense, Guerra stands out as a man among boys with "a quick release and plus arm, combined with soft hands and fluid actions," as SoxProspects.com reported during spring training.

    WEEI's Alex Speier, who put together the Top 10 Red Sox prospects for Baseball America (subscription required), noted that Guerra impressed in instructional leagues following his DSL season. That was enough to rank him in the top 30 of Red Sox prospects and identify him as someone who could make some noise once he makes his debut in the American minor leagues.

10. Sean Coyle, 2B/3B

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    Is there a home for Coyle in Boston?
    Is there a home for Coyle in Boston?Photo by Bryan Green (Flickr)

    It's not often you see second basemen capable of hitting 30 home runs, but Sean Coyle could be that man.

    Drafted in the third round of the 2010 draft, the Red Sox saw someone who could reach 30 home runs in the major leagues if all broke right, per Alex Speier of WEEI.

    Unfortunately for Coyle, he took a big step back in 2013, missing time due to injury. Speier also noted in his Baseball America chat (subscription required) that Coyle's hyper-intensive approach can backfire, as it can lead to frustration. Those types of emotions in a baseball player can hold a player back as he starts trying to do too much.

    Still, even with his approach and the injuries, he finished 2013 with a .513 slugging percentage for advanced Single-A. To start the 2014 season, the 22-year-old was promoted to Double-A, and is hitting .316/.381/.474 in the early going. If he can keep up this production, a promotion to Triple-A during the season can't be ruled out.

    The issue is that Coyle is completely blocked in Boston at second base. The club has incumbent Dustin Pedroia, who isn't going anywhere thanks to a contract that takes him through the 2021 season. In addition, Coyle has to contend with rising prospect Mookie Betts, who is also in Portland and also plays second base.

    Due to Betts' sizzling start to the year, (.430/.481/.688 in 93 at-bats) Coyle hasn't played as often as he would like at second. Instead, he's been playing mostly third base to help accommodate Betts. Problem is, Will Middlebrooks currently has the major league job there, although he's much less locked into that position than Pedroia is at second.

    While Betts is getting all the press right now, it's easy to ignore the ceiling of Coyle. The capability to hit 30 home runs does not grow on trees.

9. Jon Denney, C

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    Photo by Bryan Green (Flickr)

    Jon Denney made the news for all the wrong reasons in spring training as he was arrested due to driving with a suspended license, according to The Boston Globe.

    Denney also grew belligerent with officers, telling them he "made more money than the officers would ever see" and would be freed from jail quickly thanks to playing for the Red Sox. That's not the kind of character a team likes to see in one of its players.

    Thought to be a first-round talent entering the 2013 draft, he instead fell to the third round before Boston picked him up, as WEEI's Alex Speier writes. Part of that was due to his makeup concerns.

    That first-round talent is still there, though. There's a reason Denney was ranked the 25th-best prospect by Baseball America entering the draft. His scouting report, according to SoxProspects.com, says he has "plus power" with a "very high ceiling." That ceiling could potentially be as a middle-of-the-order hitter, which would be extraordinarily valuable coming out of the catcher's spot.

    Denney isn't the only catcher in Boston's system with a high ceiling. The Red Sox suddenly have an embarrassment of riches at the backstop position after going years without many.

    In Triple-A, Christian Vazquez is being lined up to start for the Red Sox in 2015, while Double-A's Blake Swihart is off to a torrid start and could end up pushing Vazquez by 2016, if not earlier. And now the Sox have Denney, if he can get past his off-field issues and produce at the plate.

    It's a nice problem to have.

8. Cody Kukuk, LHP

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    Kukuk could be the best Sox left-hander of all time.
    Kukuk could be the best Sox left-hander of all time.Photo by Bryan Green (Flickr)

    Cody Kukuk can throw hard.

    His fastball registered 97 mph for Single-A Greenville, as Alex Speier, writing for Baseball America (subscription required), relayed. Speier also said that Kukuk could have a "wipeout" slider. With these two pitches at the front of Kukuk's arsenal, he could be a major force at the top of the rotation one day if he can develop a third strong pitch to prevent hitters from sitting on his fastball-slider combination.

    The problem is, Kukuk often doesn't know where the ball is going. In 2013, the left-hander struck out 113 in 107 1/3 innings...and walked 81, leading to a 4.63 ERA and 6.8 BB/9 rate. That kind of walk rate just won't cut it and is a big reason why he's back in Greenville to start 2014. He needs to show improvement in his control if he wants to keep his prospect luster shining.

    He seems to have taken a step forward to start the 2014 season, registering a 1.88 ERA in five starts. Kukuk, who was drafted in the seventh round of the 2011 draft, has punched out 29 and walked 12. That's good for a 4.9 BB/9 rate, which, while a step forward, is still a long ways from allowing the Kansas native to emerge as a front-line starter.

    Just 21, the raw stuff is there for the 6'4" starter to supplant Jon Lester as the best Red Sox left-hander of all time, but it will take a while for Kukuk to reach that potential.

7. Mookie Betts, 2B

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    Betts has been on fire thus far in 2014.
    Betts has been on fire thus far in 2014.Photo by Bryan Green (Flickr)

    Mookie Betts has been on fire to start the year, hitting a ridiculous .430/.481/.688 through his first 22 games for Double-A Portland. This extends Betts' on-base streak, which began last season, to 52 games. 

    It continues a tradition for the Sea Dogs. The minor-league record for most consecutive games reaching base is 71, held by former Sea Dogs Kevin Millar and Kevin Youkilis, as The Portland Daily Sun notes. The major league record is held by Red Sox great Ted Williams, who once reached in 84 straight.

    Betts wasn't on the radar screen before 2013, when he suddenly started putting it all together for Single-A Lowell. Many were still unsure about Betts' overall future potential prior to the season, causing many to rank Betts low on Top 10s entering the season. For example, Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus had him eighth, but the fifth rounder in the 2011 draft has started making believers out of people.

    Parks, for one, now considers Betts a top-50 prospect in the majors. He's not ready to name Betts a perennial All-Star, but Betts has done enough to appear on this Top 10 list of ceilings, a designation he would have missed entirely in spring training. He could really boost his value by adding positions to his forte: He's a former shortstop who moved over to second after the 2011 season. He could always move back to shortstop and add that position to his resume. Betts also takes regular practice at center field as WEEI's Alex Speier relays, putting Betts in prime position to potentially become the Red Sox's version of Ben Zobrist.

    The Tampa Bay Rays have played Zobrist at second base, right field, shortstop, left field, center field, first base and third base over his career. Betts could have the same kind of impact, allowing the club to carry him as a roving backup who plays frequently.

    As for Betts' ceiling, Parks says it's possible he could win batting titles and be a repeat All-Star.

6. Henry Owens, LHP

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    Owens could join fellow left-hander Jon Lester in the rotation this year.
    Owens could join fellow left-hander Jon Lester in the rotation this year.Photo by Bryan Green (Flickr)

    Henry Owens ranked second (subscription required) on ESPN's Top 10 Red Sox prospects list entering the 2014 season. That's high praise for the left-hander, who could see Boston before the year is out.

    Owens rose to Double-A Portland to cap off his 2013 season, registering a 1.78 ERA in six starts. He rose quickly through the system after being drafted in the first round (compensatory round) of the 2011 draft, thanks to a good feel for pitching and quality secondary pitches. However, his fastball can be "pedestrian" at times, according to Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks (subscription required), and he needs to add strength to his body for the fastball to play up.

    Parks believes Owens is a back-of-the-rotation starter, and while he may be trending that way, the 21-year-old still has immense potential that could put him at the front of a rotation.

    To start 2014, Owens returned to Portland and has posted a 3.77 ERA through five starts. He's not striking out as many batters as he used to, so he'll have to work on his control in order to move through the system.

5. Manuel Margot, OF

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    Margot is raw, but talented.
    Margot is raw, but talented.Photo by Bryan Green (Flickr)

    In ESPN's ranking (subscription required) of Boston's Top 10 prospects, Keith Law singled out Manuel Margot as his sleeper pick.

    Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus did the same, labeling Margot a "prospect on the rise" in his own Red Sox Top 10 (subscription required). 

    Clearly, Margot is a player to watch and could leap up into the top half of the list with a strong 2014. For Single-A Greenville, he's well on his way with a .289/.344/.470 line in 83 at-bats. The 19-year-old has "impact speed," according to Parks, with the overall package potentially leading to an All-Star Game appearance as a center fielder.

    Margot could make Jackie Bradley Jr.'s stay in center field a short one, thanks to Margot's better offensive game. He has the potential to hit 15 home runs in a season, as Baseball America's Alex Speier says (subscription required), which Bradley lacks.

    Margot, who signed as an international free agent in 2011, needs to work on his pitch recognition for him to reach his ceiling, which could be hitting at the top of the order for a division-contending team. That means the right-hander has a significant ceiling.

4. Allen Webster, RHP

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    Webster hopes to get another crack in Boston.
    Webster hopes to get another crack in Boston.Photo by Bryan Green (Flickr)

    The only player on this Top 10 list to already have debuted for the Red Sox, the right-handed Allen Webster was part of the August 2012 trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers that shipped Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett out of town.

    Webster appeared in eight games, making seven starts, for Boston in 2013. He didn't find the majors to his liking, as his 8.60 ERA on the season would attest. He walked far too many batters, issuing 18 free passes in 30 1/3 innings, which comes out to a 5.3 BB/9 rate. 

    Webster also issued seven home runs, as he couldn't easily pump his strong fastball past seasoned major league hitters, and his secondary pitches were too inconsistent and subpar to back up his fastball. If Webster wants to succeed in the majors, his breaking pitches will have to become more consistent. Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks says his slider "flashes wipeout potential at times"—those times need to become more frequent if he hopes to stick in the rotation.

    But his ceiling is still extremely high.

    "Webster has an outrageous ceiling – how many pitchers have multiple swing-and-miss secondary offerings along with a mid- to high-90s fastball with sink?" Alex Speier asked in a Baseball America chat (subscription required).

    Webster, who was drafted in the 18th round of the 2008 draft, has the second-highest ceiling of all Red Sox pitchers (Keep reading to find out who has the highest!). The issue is that due to spotty command and inconsistent secondary pitches, many see him as a reliever, including Parks. In the bullpen, his command and breaking pitches would be hidden more, and he could feasibly emerge as an option to supplant Koji Uehara as closer.

    For now, the Red Sox are keeping him in the rotation, and he should be one of the first starters called up from the minors if and when injury strikes. So far for Triple-A Pawtucket, he has a 2.78 ERA in six starts, but interestingly enough, his strikeouts have declined while he hasn't taken a step forward with control. It's a situation that bears monitoring.

3. Blake Swihart, C

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    Could Swihart be the 2015 backstop in Boston?
    Could Swihart be the 2015 backstop in Boston?Photo by Bryan Green (Flickr)

    The Portland Sea Dogs are absolutely loaded with talent, as the Double-A franchise of the Red Sox is home to many prospects on this list. Swihart is one of these players, and he could even be the Red Sox's starting catcher in 2016.

    Swihart was taken in the first round of the 2011 draft and so far has delivered on what Boston hoped he could become. Swihart could be one of the best catchers in the game before long, due to his ability to both hit and play good defense. Catchers that do both these things well are rare.

    Swihart does have prospect Christian Vazquez ahead of him on the depth chart, but Vazquez is a defense-first catcher with a limited bat. While Vazquez will beat him to the majors and was assumed to be the 2015 catcher per NESN, Swihart's development may have taken the next step, which could put him in direct competition with Vazquez in spring training of next year.

    For Portland, Swihart is hitting .320/.338/.520 through 77 at-bats. While his plate discipline hasn't been present in the early going, he has displayed such an aptitude in the past, drawing 41 walks in the 2013 season. The switch-hitter may never hit for significant power, but he should have a high batting average and rack up doubles.

    The offensive bar for a catcher is low: Due to the importance of having a catcher who can block balls, throw runners out and call a good game, teams place far more value on defensive traits for a catcher than they would for, say, a left fielder. Further, catchers take such a beating behind the plate that it can't help but impact their bats. Those that come along with impact bats and quality defense are to be coveted.

    Other teams may be jealously watching from afar before long, if Swihart hits his ceiling.

2. Trey Ball, LHP

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    If Ball can put it all together... look out.
    If Ball can put it all together... look out.Photo by Bryan Green (Flickr)

    Trey Ball, the Red Sox's first-round pick in the 2013 draft, is extremely raw. Only 19, it's going to take a while for him to put his immense talents together, but this is someone who could anchor the Red Sox rotation for years to come.

    The left-hander was selected seventh overall, and thanks to his tall (6'6") and lean frame, he has the potential to grow into his body and increase his endurance and velocity. His fastball in particular could take a leap forward, which would register him among the game's best prospects.

    MLB.com is a believer, saying via MiLB.com that he could have the highest ceiling of any Red Sox pitcher in the system. His athleticism allows Ball a very good chance to reach that type of lofty potential...but again, it will take a while for Ball to put it all together. As SoxProspects.com notes, he doesn't have "a lot of miles on his arm," and he didn't start throwing a curveball until his junior year in high school.

    Sometimes, being raw isn't a good thing. If a raw player doesn't have the athleticism and aptitude to grow and improve, a raw player quickly becomes a not-very-good player. But Ball's athleticism and lack of wear and tear on his arm can only be a good thing, as he should be able to develop the necessary traits to one day rank as Boston's best prospect.

1. Rafael Devers, 3B

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    Devers knows what he wants—a major league career.
    Devers knows what he wants—a major league career.Photo by Bryan Green (Flickr)

    Devers is a long, long way from the major leagues, but Red Sox fans may become intimately acquainted with his name once he hits the majors.

    Devers has "one of the sweetest swings I’ve ever seen from a 16-year-old," says Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus (subscription required), going on to compare the swing to Robinson Cano's. 

    That swing is what got Cano his 10-year, $240 million deal from the Mariners, so it's certainly a lofty tag to put on Devers, but the Dominican may well live up to that comparison.

    SoxProspects.com throws out another comparison in Adrian Beltre, comparing the Rangers' third baseman's physique to that of Devers. It's yet another lofty comparison that Devers will have to aspire to reach.

    Devers' calling card is his ability to hit, which made him very sought after during the international free agent signing period in 2013. Choosing the Red Sox, he has yet to debut in pro baseball but should do so once short-season ball opens for business. Devers will likely open the year with the Gulf Coast Red Sox, the rookie squad for Boston.

    According to SoxProspects, Devers has "outstanding bat speed and an advanced approach for his age." He could project to have plus-power down the road, giving him all the tools to emerge as a middle-of-the-order hitter for Boston. The last prospect to have that tag for the Red Sox is Xander Bogaerts, who is in the middle of his rookie campaign with Boston. Yet another lofty comparison.

    Devers "absolutely dazzled anyone who saw him in instructional league," Alex Speier, writing for Baseball America (subscription required), states.

    There's no shortage of hype around Devers. His seemingly insurmountable ceiling has him ranking tops on our Top 10 Red Sox prospects with the highest ceiling.

    Now, we wait and find out if any of these players can reach the peak of their talents.

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