Keith Law of ESPN has released his farm system rankings. You need an ESPN Insider subscription to see anything besides the fact that former Red Sox assistant general manager Jed Hoyer, with help another former Sox staffer in Jason McLeod, brought the Padres to first overall, but we can at least give you a taste of it. It's absolutely worth reading the whole thing, of course, to get a sense of where the rest of the league is.
The Red Sox rank 18 out of 30 -- not too shabby, considering they lack any kind of elite talent at the upper levels thanks to trades for Victor Martinez, Adrian Gonzalez, and others the past few years. Law is positive about parts of the system, despite this:
I do see a large group of prospects from low Class A and below that should produce a couple of breakout prospects in 2012, including Brandon Jacobs, Garin Cecchini, Henry Owens, Matt Barnes and Sean Coyle.
There are plenty of fans of all of those prospects here at Over the Monster. Jacobs is the ninth-ranked prospect over at SoxProspects.com, while Cecchini is 12, Owens 20, Barnes seventh, and Coyle 11. Not one of them has been rated in the first six of our community prospect rankings, either, so these aren't exactly the kind of prospects most people get excited about (even if we, as Sox fans, are into them). It's good to see Law expects breakouts from them.
Law's perception of the system also fits neatly into what new general manager Ben Cherington said about it when he first took over the job from the departed Theo Epstein:
Cherington, a New Hampshire native, has been with the Red Sox for 13 seasons and had served as assistant GM since January 2009, ascending to the role when Jed Hoyer became GM of the Padres. Cherington and Hoyer also served briefly as interim GM when Epstein resigned in 2005. Prior to his role, he oversaw the farm system including developing such players as Daniel Bard, Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jed Lowrie.
Speaking of the farm system, Cherington believes the Red Sox system is "stronger and deeper than ever," although he did admit much of the talent is low. Boston's high minors have entered a bit of a fallow period as part of a cycle, but the low minors is highly regarded, even after dealing away several top prospects for Adrian Gonzalez prior to the season.
The upper levels have some interesting names like Alex Wilson and Alex Hassan, but neither of those minor leaguers is getting prospect mavens excited. Ryan Kalish is only a prospect in the sense he is young and still in Triple-A -- his rookie eligibility no longer exists, so he's largely ignored when evaluating systems. Jose Iglesias could turn out to be a very useful major league shortstop, but he's not exactly projected to be an impact player, either, even if he is good. Felix Doubront might be able to turn into something, but it will have to be in the majors to do so, and he needs to earn a role first. Ryan Lavarnway is probably the best bet from the group to be an impact player, but that's no sure thing. Will Middlebrooks is the only agreed-upon top 100 prospect at the upper levels, and he's considered to be somewhere in the middle of that list, rather than truly elite.
The lower levels, on the other hand, feature the prospects Law named, as well as Anthony Ranaudo, Xander Bogaerts, Bryce Brentz, as well as the rest of the 2011 draft class, a group that includes Blake Swihart, Jackie Bradley, and more. It's easier to dream on players who are further away from the majors -- check a top 100 prospect list sometime to get a sense of that -- but the Red Sox have loads of those guys, too. The reality of a player's future becomes more real with time, hence why, even if Triple-A features some good prospects, they aren't thought of as highly as those who are far off and easier to create a future for.
That cycle Cherington mentioned can work in two ways for the Red Sox. They can sit on those prospects in the hopes they end up with a large infusion of talent from the prospects that do work out, or they can trade some of the ones other teams are interested in for more established major league properties to help them win now, keeping the ones they think will turn into your Bards, Buchholzs, Ellsburys, Lavarnways, Middlebrooks, etc. You can't always keep those guys, or maybe sometimes you guess wrong -- Justin Masterson says hello, either way -- but Boston has a pretty good track record of keeping the right prospects in town. (Ask the Pirates about that one.)
The balancing act is more likely, given the team's history. It's also probably the better route for a team in Boston's situation, too, as they have the resources to bring in outside help should their farm system fail to develop top talent consistently -- making lottery tickets someone else's property in exchange for more of a sure thing is a quality plan. It wouldn't be surprising to see one of those potential breakout guys Law mentioned packaged in a deal for someone like Gavin Floyd or Wandy Rodriguez, or a position player at some point during the season, to do just that, should the Red Sox need that kind of boost in the present day.