3 Hyped Red Sox Prospects to Watch in Spring Training
I've cautioned in the past about the perils of overvaluing prospects. Because of that, there's a nasty misnomer out there that I'm anti-farm system.
On the contrary, I completely recognize the worth of having a young stable of up-and-comers. It's paramount to develop that talent for the future of any franchise. My quibble is that when you're a team with the payroll ceiling of the Boston Red Sox, you're not always nurturing the skills of those prospects for yourself.
Small-market clubs like the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins have to stockpile as many promising players from the most recent generation that they can. Strapped with a lack of funds and being in non-destination cities for free agents, that's their best chance to construct a contender.
However, for general manager Ben Cherington and company, cashing in on the seductive potential of youngsters is equally as important as building up the farm system in the first place.
There will always be the Mike Trouts and Bryce Harpers who are untouchable. But peruse the archives of Baseball America's rankings and it becomes apparent that evaluating prospects is still a crapshoot. If a contending club has the ability to take on salary to address a need and can turn a dice roll into a proven, high-caliber entity, then that's a no-brainer.
Don't interpret that as an endorsement to rush a trade, as playing hardball when trying to acquire someone is commonplace. USA Today's Bob Nightengale reports Boston isn't the only team waiting out Philadelphia Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. in the Cole Hamels sweepstakes. To those who still doubt the validity of the three-time All-Star, here's a nice stat from BaseballSavant.com's Daren Willman.
Even after dealing away young pieces in multiple trades this offseason, the Red Sox still have a strong group of prospects at their disposal. ESPN's Keith Law ranked Boston's farm system the fifth-best in baseball entering 2015.
There are two late-bloomer candidates to keep an eye on this spring in Garin Cecchini and Matt Barnes. Cecchini is an on-base machine transitioning to a new position in 2015. With Pablo Sandoval now entrenched at third base, the soon-to-be 24-year-old will work to learn how to play the outfield.
Barnes, on the other hand, will try to regain some of his value after a lackluster 2014 season in Triple-A. The right-handed pitcher is still ranked among Boston's top 10 prospects, but he's approaching 25 years old with only nine innings of MLB experience and a big league rotation spot looking highly unlikely.
While those two have promise, three exciting youngsters on the cusp of big things warrant greater attention. Whether it's auditioning for Boston's 25-man roster or showing well for a potential trade partner, spring training will be crucial for the following three players.
The hype around Rusney Castillo continues to build. Some Red Sox fans have completely bought in and already etched his name in stone in the Opening Day lineup. It's hard to blame them given Boston's $72 million investment, the Cuban's exciting 10-game MLB stint and the flashy quotes thrown about describing him.
Red Sox farm director Ben Crockett commended the five-tool outfielder's "tremendous workout routine" and willingness to learn, via the Providence Journal's Brian MacPherson. In that same piece, Castillo discussed the value of establishing a regular regimen once he arrives in Fort Myers. He's bounced around since late August, trying to get as many games under his belt as possible following a two-year hiatus from the sport before he signed with Boston.
Crockett continued to hail Castillo in a MassLive.com article, complimenting his "bat speed and raw power" as well as his ability to use the whole field. Mookie Betts praised Castillo's physique, quickness and speed, while Christian Vazquez spoke glowingly about the 27-year-old "killing pitchers" in the Roberto Clemente League, per MassLive.com's Jason Mastrodonato, with a laser show that would make Dustin Pedroia proud.
The positive chatter is a good sign, but it's far from a guarantee that Castillo will tear it up in the majors in 2015. Xander Bogaerts was a more heralded prospect with a better track record, and he had long stretches where MLB arms baffled him a season ago.
That's not to say that will happen to Castillo, but it should serve as a cautionary tale to those with grand expectations in the Cuban's first full season. The significant financial commitment is a belief in his long-term potential, but coming off the aforementioned two-year layoff, some growing pains are to be expected.
The element of the unknown makes Castillo Boston's most intriguing player to watch this spring. Other Red Sox prospects have seasons of minor league stats to their name. That makes it easier to measure their success thanks to a general understanding of the competition in Double-A and Triple-A. Castillo's time in different winter leagues is good for reps yet harder to quantify if the results are translatable to the big leagues.
The brewing battle between Castillo and Shane Victorino for the final starting outfield spot will be one of the most heated individual contests in Florida. The rookie could do everything in his power and still not be able to outperform the now healthy two-time All-Star who is entering a contract season.
Fenway faithful should be fervently checking Castillo's box scores and mining for more nuggets of information on his progress through April.
Some see the "young Buster Posey" comparison made in the previously linked article and say the Red Sox have to hold onto the athletic backstop. Meanwhile, others recognize the soon-to-be 23-year-old's upside but see him as expendable given the organizational belief in 24-year-old Christian Vazquez's talents.
You can safely put me in the latter camp. It's not that I don't appreciate the switch-hitting Blake Swihart's ability; I'm just having trouble finding a place for him in Boston. He is by all accounts a fine defensive catcher, but Vazquez is in a league of his own. The second-year player would have to really struggle with the bat to mitigate the value of his defensive skills in order to validate Swihart moving behind the plate.
The Red Sox could let Mike Napoli go after this season and shift Swihart to first base. The problem there is that hurts a lot of Swihart's value.
A catcher with the potential to bat .290 and slug 15 home runs is an All-Star, but those same numbers for a first baseman are pedestrian. And again, that's what smarter people than me are projecting as the ceiling for Swihart, not the floor.
So that's why it's confusing that Boston is unwilling to part with Swihart as the centerpiece of a Cole Hamels package, as reported by USA Today's Bob Nightengale. The prospect holds more value to the catcher-needy Phillies, and Boston would be able to take on Hamels' salary and strengthen its chances of contending for a World Series this season in a wide-open American League (even more so after Victor Martinez's knee injury).
If I were to guess, it's just simple negotiating tactics. There is no reason for Boston to bend with the season still two months out and other viable starting pitchers on the trade market.
The pressure is mounting on the Phillies GM, with more and more voices, including ESPN's Buster Onley, calling on him to deal his ace before the 2015 season begins. Waiting out the embattled Amaro increases the likelihood that the Red Sox can acquire Hamels for less than the sticker price.
If Swihart manages to remain with Boston, it's a real long shot that the Red Sox would sacrifice a year of control by putting him on the initial 25-man roster. He does seem primed for a spring training invite for the second straight season, though.
After struggling in limited action in Triple-A last year, it'll be interesting to see how Swihart fares against a little major league pitching. The line-drive swing and high-contact rate should play well at any level, and he did perform at Double-A (.300 average, .353 on-base percentage, 12 HR, seven steals in 92 games).
Swihart's power potential will be something to monitor throughout his 2015 campaign. His slugging percentage has climbed each of the past three seasons. If he can flash legitimate 20 home run upside, then that would make him a more intriguing option at first base going forward.
The final of Boston's big three prospects is the lone pitcher of the bunch. Baseball America ranks Henry Owens as the Red Sox's No. 2 prospect, while the left-handed pitcher is ESPN analyst Keith Law's 20th-ranked prospect in all of baseball.
The 2014 Eastern League All-Star is known for his pinpoint command and filthy changeup. He went 14-4 with a 2.60 ERA in Double-A last season, earning a selection to the MLB Futures Game.
After getting bumped up to Triple-A, his ERA in six starts was a less-than-stellar 4.03. However, his strikeout rate increased with Pawtucket (10.42 Ks per nine innings), while his walks per nine innings declined (2.84), and his fielding independent pitching (FIP) mark of 3.59 indicates he was a little unlucky, per FanGraphs.
Despite an impressive minor league career, most scouts project Owens as a middle-of-the-rotation starter. MLB.com's Bernie Pleskoff mentions the 22-year-old's limited fastball velocity and a curveball that needs polishing.
There are more optimistic outlooks, such as that of Pawtucket pitching coach Rich Sauveur, who praised Owens' "ridiculous" poise on the mound in a WEEI interview. While Sauveur sees the 2011 first-round pick as more of a No. 1 or No. 2 starter down the line, it's worth taking that with a grain of salt given his position within the organization.
Much like Swihart, Owens would have to wow to earn an Opening Day roster spot. He too will get a second straight spring training invite, but it doesn't make sense to not take advantage of the loophole that prevents a piece like Owens from accruing a full year of service time.
During his month or so with the major league squad, Owens should try to benefit by picking the brains of his fellow starters. He should talk curveball grips with Clay Buchholz and see if anything can be gleaned from those discussions to help improve his own lackluster third offering.
He should work with fellow lefty Wade Miley on a slider, a pitch the 28-year-old veteran developed for the first time in 2013 and turned into a real weapon (.207 opponents' batting average against versus 1,216 sliders, per FanGraphs).
If Owens finds success within Pawtucket's lefty-laden Triple-A rotation, he has a chance at a midseason call-up. Buchholz remains an injury risk, and there is no guarantee Justin Masterson recaptures his All-Star form.
Owens' chances of an MLB shot in 2015 are infinitely more likely if Boston doesn't acquire an ace. Bringing in a Hamels or Jordan Zimmermann would bump everyone in the rotation back a spot and afford manager John Farrell an experienced long reliever with MLB starter experience. That person would then slot into the rotation over Owens if an injury or implosion among the starting staff occurs.