It's the dog days of the offseason, no doubt. While the main action goes on on the hot stove, the only real baseball being played is what's going on in the minor leagues. But even there, the main attraction is well past. The Arizona Fall League, home of the best minor league talent to be found during the offseason, is over and done with. All that remains are some leagues in the Caribbean and assorted other warm locales. For the Sox, though, the talent that's still actively participating isn't hugely interesting, and so we're left to look forward to 2010.
2010 is going to be a big year for the Red Sox farm system, undoubtedly. The Sox should be busy in the draft, with 3-4 picks before the second round starts. Their draft class from last year is deep, with 9 of their first 10 picks signing with the organization, with some very interesting names in David Renfroe and Madison Younginer yet to make their professional debuts. We can look forward to seeing an almost entirely brand new Top-5 (as judged by you, the readers—Josh Reddick is the last remaining holdover) move forward to higher levels and greater challenges. Sleepers from 2009 such as GCL tandem Roman Mendez and Manny Rivera will get a chance to build on momentum gained and new sleepers to be found.
But for some prospects, this year is going to be even more important than usual. Whether because of the team's need, or the prospect's situation, the stakes are higher for these 5 guys:
5. Daniel Nava – It's hard to have 500 at bats more impressive than Nava has had in his first two years playing professional baseball. Check out these lines:
2008 (Lancaster | A+): .341/.424/.523
2009 (Salem | A+): .339/.434/.495
2009 (Portland | AA): .364/.479/.568
Does that look like a guy who should have spent the 6 years of his life prior to being signed by the Red Sox getting cut by Santa Clara and then going undrafted? Now, all the signs are there that Nava can't keep it up—he's got a high BABIP, few at bats, and as everyone loves to point out is 26 in a much younger league. He's playing much less polished competition, and probably benefiting from it.
But Nava can quiet a lot of the doubters if he can come through with a long, productive season in AAA. Is he ever likely to replicate those numbers in the majors? No, not at all. But if he can stick in AAA, with his strong arm and solid fielding in right, Nava could be a Major League Baseball player. And for someone with Nava's past, that's saying a lot.
4. Mark Wagner – The Red Sox need a backup catcher. They do. Jason Varitek is no longer a Major League level player. He bats like Mendoza, throws like Damon, and towards the end of last year he couldn't even catch strikes! Mark Wagner, on the other hand, can throw out around 40% of basestealers. He's great behind the plate in just about every way, and he's had some very good results with the bat, if inconsistent. He had 154 pretty bad at bats after being promoted to Pawtucket last year, but that's not too unpredictable. He's been mentioned as a spring training invite, and with Victor Martinez having last caught 120 games in 2007, it seems like there's going to be adequate PT for whomever comes up with the backup job. This is Mark Wagner's chance to break into the big leagues, and it's the Sox' chance to maybe find some magic behind the plate. At worst, he's a strong fielding Jason Varitek.
3. Michael Bowden – Remember when we were talking about "Bowden and Buchholz"? And how Bowden was talked about in trade deals for Miguel Montero? Oh what a difference a year can make. Last year's consensus number 2 Sox prospect, Bowden's stock has fallen like a rock as he got absolutely pounded in 16 major league innings last year. Now, when we talk about trades, his value is considered close to nothing. Sox fans talk about not having any MLB-ready players in the minors! From #2, Bowden has already dropped to at best #6 and, as the one who can see all the votes, let me tell you that #10 seems about as high as he's likely to end up.
It's a little questionable how much value a good year would actually have for Clay Buchholz. After all, he was pitching better than Buchholz for a long time in Pawtucket. And yet, it's Buchholz who is now getting penciled in the rotation at #4—and only so far back because the Sox have Lester, Beckett, and Lackey hogging the top-3. One hopes that Bowden hasn't started having that AAAA label applied to his name.
2. Luis Exposito – If the Sox need a backup catcher, than they really need a catcher of the future. Victor Martinez is on the last year of his contract, and as mentioned before has been mostly a platooning type of late, spending lots of time at first base. The Max Ramirez deal didn't go through, and Mark Wagner hasn't been really seen as a long term solution for a while. Luis Exposito, though, is existing in a sort of an odd situation between being a mid-level name, and the designated catcher of 2011 or 12.
Why is that? It's hard to say. Exposito has been pretty consistent as the years have gone on, going from an OPS of .759 to .860, and posting a pretty good line in the Arizona Fall League. He's a true catcher, and not some DH-in-hiding. But still, Sox fans have been reticent to say "this is our guy". Maybe they were hoping for a sexier acquisition—someone either MLB ready or in the upper echelons of prospects. Certainly Mauer's name has been tossed around a lot, but that's a fairly unlikely scenario if you ask me. So that leaves Exposito. And the best way for him to solidify his position in the organization is to get MLB ready over the next year. Expo didn't struggle in about 100 at bats after being brought up from Portland, but he did so with some bad peripherals that weren't straightened out till the fall. So there's still something to be proved. If Expo can come out firing in AA, and perform in AAA, then maybe we'll start thinking of him as more than a 3rd choice.
1. Lars Anderson – OK, who's surprised? Hands? I didn't think so. Everyone is down on Lars Anderson. After looking like every bit a can't-miss prospect in 2008, Lars bombed 2009 and bombed it hard. Can you say .673 OPS? And it wasn't necessarily a fluke. A high career BABIP does not typically mix with a high career ground ball rate, but that's what Lars had pulled off the last 2 years.
For Lars, there's just a ton of questions. Was it an injury problem? Were there mental issues? Can he put loft on the ball? How can a guy who's supposed to be a big slugger get by without fly balls? The loss of Lars Anderson's...almost mystique...was a significant blow to the farm system. And a big season getting it back would be just as significant a gain. Look at the issues the Sox have now in Ortiz and Lowell, and think about how much simpler things would get if suddenly the Sox had their big slugger first baseman standing by in AAA, ready to takeover at the start of 2011. This is the turning point in Lars Anderson's career one way or another. Mediocrity won't be accepted by a public that's seen him come up empty after such hype. Either he's a top prospect again this time next year, or he's a bust.