As the season rolls on and the losses continue to pile up for the Boston Red Sox, it may not be long before fans' interest begins to turn towards the future.
With that in mind, here are the top 10 prospects in the Red Sox organization and the greatest strengths and weaknesses of each.
No. 10: Brian Johnson, LHP, Portland (AA)
The 23-year-old was taken by the Red Sox with the 31st pick in the first round of the 2012 draft. Johnson's development hit a speed bump when he was struck in the head by a line drive in August of 2012, but he now appears to be back on track. His biggest asset to this point is his overall ability to confuse batters with a variety of pitches and great location. Writes Tim Britton of the Providence Journal:
"I loved his changeup," Portland pitching coach Bob Kipper said of a Johnson start in May. "He threw it on some hitters’ counts. He had guys geared to hit the fastball, and he was able to commit himself mentally to throw his changeup, and he had success with it."
Kipper has been impressed with how Johnson has mixed in his changeup and curveball to go along with his well-commanded fastball, which allows him to keep hitters off balance multiple times through the order.
The knock on Johnson is that his fastball is routinely thrown in the 88-90 mph range, which is well below average compared to some of the organization's other top young arms. From Alex Speier and Katie Morrison of WEEI.com: "The lack of premium velocity likely will suppress Johnson’s standings in prospect rankings."
No. 9: Deven Marrero, SS, Portland (AA)
Boston drafted Marrero out of Arizona State with the 24th selection in the first round in 2012. Marrero spent some time with the big league club in spring training this year, showing flashes of brilliant defense, which is clearly his greatest strength. On May 21 Kevin Thomas of the Portland Press Herald wrote:
Last Sunday, he fielded a hard-hit grounder in the hole and leaped, making a strong throw to first for the out. Pitcher Mike Augliera still shakes his head about it.
“The best play I’ve ever seen in person,” Augliera said. “Right off the bat, I thought that’s a hit. Then I remembered Deven was back there. As crazy as that play was, you almost expect it. He makes all those hard plays look easy.
“He’s the best I’ve ever seen.”
In addition to his outstanding glove, Marrero also has very good speed. He's stolen 11 bases this season in 14 attempts. But like previous Boston shortstop Jose Iglesias, Marerro's bat may be what holds him back. Through 219 career minor league games he's hit just 6 home runs with a .260 batting average.
No. 8: Christian Vazquez, C, Pawtucket (AAA)
Vazquez has been a member of the Red Sox organization since they drafted him out of high school in the ninth round in 2008. Long known for his spectacular arm and ability to throw out potential base stealers, Vazquez has made great strides this year in other of areas behind the plate. Says Britton:
...the coaching and pitching staffs at Pawtucket have noticed how much better Vazquez is at the less heralded aspects of being a backstop. He’s more aggressive when blocking the ball, moving toward the ball to take its spin off the bounce out of play. He’s a craftier framer now, quieter behind the plate having cut down the distance his glove travels to areas of the zone. That’s leading to more strike calls.
While thought by many to be ready for the majors defensively, Vazquez's power has fallen off considerably during his rise through the minor league ranks. He hit five home runs in 342 at-bats in Double-A in 2013, and he has managed just one homer in 47 games for Pawtucket this year. Via Speier, Vazquez went 276 at-bats between long balls spanning both seasons.
No. 7: Garin Cecchini, 3B, Pawtucket (AAA)
Selected by Boston in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, the 23-year-old Cecchini recently made his big league debut with the Red Sox on June 1. His 1-for-2 performance that day (before being sent back down to Pawtucket) leaves him as a .500 hitter all-time on the major league level.
All jokes aside, despite posting just a .263 average in Triple-A so far this season, Cecchini is batting .304 with a .406 on-base percentage in 335 games career games in the minor leagues. His 195 walks in that time also suggest he'll continue to be patient in the batter's box at the next level.
Like Vazquez, Cecchini's power numbers are his greatest weakness at the moment. He's gone deep only once in 194 at-bats this year, and he has a total of just 15 home runs in 1217 at-bats as a pro.
No. 6: Anthony Ranaudo, RHP, Pawtucket (AAA)
The Red Sox chose Ranaudo, now 24 years old, with the 39th overall pick in the first round in 2010. His size and strength make him an encouraging major league prospect—Ranaudo stands 6'7" and weighs 230 pounds with a fastball clocked upwards of 95 mph. On May 21, Speier wrote the following regarding Ranaudo's start the day before:
...but while he’s not in position to jump into the big league rotation right now, the time isn’t far when he will be in position to do so. He has the arsenal along with the frame to take on a workload (the 6-foot-7 right-hander was strong through the last of his 106 pitches, one start after a career-high 109 pitches); the question is the consistency of execution.
Ranaudo has had control issues in Triple-A this season, walking 36 batters in 71 innings. He's also struggled with injuries throughout his career. Ranaudo missed significant time with elbow problems as a college freshman and junior, and a groin strain forced him out of action for most of 2012.
No. 5: Matt Barnes, RHP, Pawtucket (AAA)
Barnes was taken by Boston 19th overall in Round 1 of the 2011 draft from the University of Connecticut. His fastball tops out at 98 mph, and he has an above average curveball and changeup as well. David Borges of the New Haven Register quotes Red Sox farm director Ben Crockett with this recent assessment of Barnes:
He’s been able to upset hitters’ timing. It really plays off his fastball pretty well. And his curveball has picked up right where it left off at the end of last year. He’s gotten swings and misses on it, and he has the ability to throw it in the strike zone when he needs to.
Barnes has shown good control with Pawtucket this season, walking just 15 batters so far. However, he is allowing opposing hitters to put the ball in play more often than he would like. His 40 strikeouts in 48 innings (7.5 per 9 IP) doesn't seem too bad, but it's a far cry from the 135 punch-outs he registered in 108 innings (11.25 per 9 IP) in Double-A a year ago.
No. 4: Allen Webster, RHP, Pawtucket (AAA)
The Red Sox acquired Webster from the Los Angeles Dodgers as a focal point of the late season trade in 2012 that sent Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford to L.A. Webster made eight big league appearances for Boston in 2013, posting an 8.60 ERA in 30.1 innings.
Of all the pitching prospects in the Red Sox organization, Webster is likely the most ready for the majors right now. Britton had this to say after Webster's outing on June 9:
What Webster possesses can be so obvious at times. His fastball hit 97 on Monday, and he complemented it with a diving slider and a changeup with the late gravitational plunge of a waterfall...
Webster’s effort slides neatly into the tapestry of this consistent season from the right-hander. He’s allowed more than three earned runs just once in 14 starts now; this was only the fourth time he’s allowed even three. In eight starts since the beginning of May, he has struck out 45 and walked only 17. His ERA on the season is 2.94.
The biggest thing working against Webster for the time being may be his lack of success in Boston a year ago. While his Triple-A numbers are very solid, they're not significantly better than last season. Several of Boston's other pitching prospects are moving up the ranks, and Webster is stuck treading water.
No. 3: Blake Swihart, C, Portland (AA)
The Red Sox took high school third baseman and outfielder Swihart with the 26th pick in the 2011 draft, and they promptly decided to convert him into a catcher. The move has paid off greatly, as he is putting up very impressive offensive numbers for a 22-year-old switch-hitting backstop at the Double-A level.
Through 49 games with Portland this season, Swihart has 6 home runs, 31 RBI and a .287 batting average. He's also stolen three bases—his overall speed is noticeably above average for a catcher.
Being new to his position, the concerns regarding Swihart are for his defensive abilities behind the plate. And at 6'1" and 175 pounds, he's definitely an undersized catcher. To this point he's performed admirably however, even throwing out 18 of 35 runners attempting to steal this year.
No. 2: Henry Owens, LHP, Portland (AA)
Owens was selected 36th overall by Boston in round one in 2011, and he has been putting up increasingly better numbers with each promotion through the minor leagues. Like Ranaudo, the 21-year-old Owens is 6'7", but he's not quite as much of a "power pitcher." Owens' most devastating pitch is his changeup. On June 7 Thomas wrote:
...in Owens’ last six games, he’s allowed only 12 hits and three runs. In four of those starts he lasted at least seven innings.
His fastball command has improved drastically, his curve is getting better and Owens’ beloved change-up remains practically unhittable at the Double-A level.
Owens has thrown 22 consecutive scoreless innings, including eight most recently in the longest start of his career. For the season, he's struck out 74 hitters in 72.1 innings while posting a 2.24 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and a .170 batting average against.
The weaknesses are hard to come by with Owens, although scouting reports say his curveball is inconsistent. At the moment the greatest obstacle in Owens' way could be the abundance of talent in Pawtucket's rotation. Unless there's an injury or more players get called up to Boston, there may not be a spot available for him in Triple-A.
No. 1: Mookie Betts, 2B/OF, Pawtucket (AAA)
The Red Sox took Betts in the fifth round in 2011, with the 172nd pick that's looking like the steal of the draft. In just his third full professional season, the 21-year-old Betts has all the makings of a five-tool player.
Before being promoted to Pawtucket, Betts recorded 214 at-bats in Double-A this year. His numbers were staggering: .355 average, .443 OBP, six home runs, 18 doubles, three triples, 34 RBI and 22 steals.
Not even a year ago, he was buried in the Red Sox prospects rankings. But in 14 months, he has leaped through three levels. A 66-game on-base streak captured the attention of seamheads.
While the Sox didn’t intend for Betts’s progression to be this swift, the possibility of him reaching the major leagues this season is real. The way he’s handled every step gives them confidence that he’ll be prepared should that time come.
For those looking to nitpick, Betts is hitting just .269 in the seven games (26 at-bats) since moving up to Triple-A. But even in that small sample he's still managed to keep his OBP at .406, identical to his career number.