Kevin Goldstein wrote a neat piece for Baseball Prospectus and ESPN, detailing the very best of the prospect-only rotations possible to create. He ignored whether or not they were major league ready or not, instead building these hypothetical starting units with no regards for age and level, focusing on talent only.
To no one's surprise, Boston didn't make the cut. They lack high-end pitching prospects, and their top two starter prospects are considered more middle-of-the-rotation types than anything. There's nothing wrong with that, but no one is about to confuse them with the Braves Triple-A staff anytime soon.
Still, we can play out this little experiment on our own, looking at who would comprise a prospect-only rotation for the Red Sox. The first two spots are obvious, but after that, it's a little murky.Matt Barnes: It doesn't matter much if you put Barnes first and Ranaudo second, or the other way around. All of the prospect gurus out there have rated these two arms as the tops in the Red Sox farm system, following the trade of Casey Kelly to the Padres.
Barnes has an excellent fastball, but his secondary stuff is more suspect -- if his change-up or curveball were better, he'd get more love from scouts than he does. He profiles as a mid-rotation starter at the moment, but in this system, he's at (or near) the top in terms of ceiling.
Anthony Ranaudo: Ranaudo received more love than Barnes in the past, but inconsistent performances and an uninspiring performance at High-A Salem dropped his stock. There are those who think Ranaudo is no better than a fifth starter, and others who believe he might end up in the bullpen because of those inconsistent mechanics and performances. That being said, his ceiling is still greater than that of many of the other pitching prospects in the system; if he could stumble upon some consistency, his career's trajectory would change significantly.
After these two, things are a bit murkier. Starting with the prospect closest to the majors:
Alex Wilson: Wilson was drafted in the second round of the 2009 amateur entry draft, and had his status slip a bit after struggling at Double-A in the second half of 2010. He rebounded last season, though, throwing 112 innings for Portland with plenty of missed bats and a 2.7 K/BB ratio before earning a promotion to Pawtucket. Against more advanced hitters, he was even better, striking out 10.3 per nine in his 21 innings.
He'll likely start 2012 at Triple-A once again, but he's competing for a job in spring training. His progress in 2011 was encouraging enough that Goldstein bumped him from outside of the top 20 to #15 this year, with a three-star rating. The same rating as Anthony Ranaudo and Matt Barnes.
Following that, you have to choose between Henry Owens, a 6-foot-6, 190 pound lefty selected #36 overall by the Red Sox in last year's amateur entry draft with nary a professional inning to his credit, the old-for-his-level but productive thus far Brandon Workman, or one of the struggling pair of Drake Britton and Stolmy Pimentel.
Keith Law rates Britton as the #10 prospect in the system, but not everyone is that optimistic. Goldstein felt there should have been a breakout last season, another year removed from Tommy John surgery, but struggles with his command kept that from happening. Pimentel was a mess even after a demotion, and it's possible we'll figure out this year if the righty has a career in front of him.
Workman threw 131 innings for Single-A Greenville last year, and produced a quality season (7.9 K/9, 3.5 K/BB, 3.71 ERA). He'll need to move through the system faster than that this year to keep the prospect mavens interested, though. Like Wilson, he's a fringe three-star prospect, so don't confuse this complaint about his age for condemnation of his abilities. Like Wilson in 2011, he'll just need to have a multi-level season of success to keep things going.
My personal sleeper in this regard is Chris Balcom-Miller, the extreme groundball pitcher who can miss bats. He was acquired from the Rockies for Manny Delcarmen, and while he is likely destined for a bullpen role, his fastball is good enough that he might make it as a starter yet. While he had a 4.81 ERA for Double-A Portland, the 22-year-old also struck out 8.2 batters per nine, kept homers to a minimum, and posted a 2.3 K/BB. We're just looking for a fifth starter here, so he might fit the bill in this hypothetical game.
Barnes, Ranaudo, Wilson, Workman, and then Balcom-Miller would be my five, but only because we have nothing to go on with Henry Owens besides scouting just yet, and I'm not sure either Britton or Pimentel will be starters at this point (though I have more faith in the left-handed Britton turning things around at a later date). Not to discount the role of scouting, of course -- it's integral to understanding players at a level where results aren't necessarily the most important thing -- but Owens is not as obvious of a pitching prospect as Barnes yet, as he's almost entirely projection at this point. This time next year, it's possible this "rotation" will be different, due to breakouts, collapses, and promotions, but for now this is my five. Who's in yours?