Every minor league year is a tumultuous one. Given the nature of prospects and the minors, it's no surprise that each season brings quite a few more big breakouts and busts than we could hope to see in the majors.
Last year was no exception for the Red Sox, as top prospects Lars Anderson and Michael Bowden fell from grace while names like Anthony Rizzo and Roman Mendez emerged. But let's focus on the breakouts instead of the busts for now—what good is there in predicting lost value, after all?
With the four full-season Red Sox MiLB teams set to start their years tonight, here are my picks for each team's breakout players.
Hitter: Mark Wagner
While it's hard to "break out" once you've gotten to AAA, Mark Wagner has always been sort of haunted by the those really bad numbers that show up every other assignment when you look at his career stats. Seems to me like people see those more than they do his good ones, which are by all accounts great—especially for a catcher. Mark Wagner's problem has either always been going late in the year, or it's been getting promoted to a higher level, which can often be problematic for any young talent. Wagner had his time to struggle in AAA in 154 plate appearance's last year. If he follows his usual trend, he'll be raking this year, and it'll be hard to ignore a young catcher with great defensive tools OPSing .850+ in AAA.
Pitcher: Robert Manuel
Manuel has already had success on Seattle and Cincinnati's AAA teams. I don't expect his game translates to well to the MLB, but he should see enough success down in Pawtucket to get people clamoring for him some if the bullpen continues to struggle. Dustin Richardson would probably get this if most of you folks didn't seem to already know his name quite well for a AAA bullpen pitcher.
Hitter: Jason Place
This is probably the pick with the least reasoning behind it, but I'd say it's about time for Place to finally cast off his "bust" yoke and show some of the promise his draft position suggests he should have. There are some signs, though. The first thing to look at is his progression through the system. Despite never putting up impressive numbers at any level, the Sox have seen fit to steadily advance him through the system up to AA. While his numbers have never really improved, they've also never particularly faltered, which is a little odd for a guy who's supposed to be a bust. With that sort of constant progression, it's no surprise he's fairly young for his league at only 21 (he will turn 22 in May). Place definitely does need to cut down on his strikeouts, but if he does he should rush up the charts since he already knows how to take a walk and seems to project as a good defensive center fielder. Jason could end up being just another victim of getting pushed too high too fast, or he could well prove the organization right with a breakout year.
Pitcher: Eammon Portice
Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't a 141:36 K:BB and a .84 HR/9 look like it deserves a better ERA than 4.35? A surprisingly high percentage of his runs were earned compared to other pitchers on the team last year, making me think he may have been the victim of the scorer, or just having the misfortune of his teammates not getting to the ball instead of screwing it up when they do. That .334 BABIP is mighty unsustainable too. According to the most recent SoxProspects.com podcast, while Portice is listed as a pen arm, he's expected to piggyback with Casey Kelly much of the way, so here's hoping the team doesn't overlook a potentially valuable arm in its system because he's got an inflated ERA.
Hitter: Will Middlebrooks
One of the guys who probably could have won a "most disappointing" contests in 2007, Middlebrooks came in with a ton of hype, with SoxProspects saying he was "probably the best overall talent selected by the Red Sox in the 2007 draft. Last year, Middlebrooks flashed some signs of resurgence with a June-July tear. Perhaps most importantly, he started taking some pitches at the plate. While he did strike out a ton, he also dramatically improved his walk rate from 2008. 8 late-season homers also don't hurt, nor do reports of improved defense. There is an elephant in the room for Middlebrooks, though, in the form of a .373 BABIP.
Pitcher: Brock Huntzinger
Remember Eammon Portice having the screwy ERA? Ditto Brock Huntzinger. 102:32 K:BB, 7 home runs in 125 innings pitched, and a tidy 4.09 ERA. While his .317 BABIP isn't quite as egregious, it's still high. In fact, he and Portice are remarkably similar: They both utilize low-90s fastballs with a slider and a changeup as secondary pitches, and they both have an unorthodox delivery that deceives hitters. Hopefully, they'll both have great seasons too.
Hitter: Ken Roque
After finally busting out of the GCL last year, Roque is ready to emerge as a prominent middle-infield prospect for the Red Sox. After spending 2 years without doing much in the rookie leagues, Roque finally made his way to Lowell with a .310/.389/.517 line. That's a pretty high slugging percentage for a guy who's supposed to have little power (16 of 39 hits went for extra bases, including 5 triples), and he kept his good discipline going (17 walks in 140 plate appearances). He will have to dodge the BABIP bug, though, as his, like Middlebrooks', is quite high.
Pitcher: Drake Britton
Everyone and their grandmother seems to be predicting a big comeback year for Drake Britton, who has only managed 45 innings since being drafted as a late-round signability pick in 2007 thanks to Tommy John surgery late in 2008. Britton's SoxProspects scouting report reads a lot more like a top prospect's, talking of a mid-high 90s fastball and a plus curveball. Britton could well be this year's Nick Hagadone, rocketing back from surgery to force his way into the top-10. Oh, did I mention he's a lefty?
How about you guys? Breakouts, dark horses, busts? Make your predictions in the comments, we've got a long season ahead.