After last night's home loss to the White Sox, the Red Sox saw their record fall to 39-50, putting them in last place in the American League East and leaving them tied for the sixth worst record in all of baseball. It goes without saying that this is not what was expected from them the year after winning a championship.
Still, while the big league club has been awful, there have been a lot of positives on the farm, most notably in Portland. The Double-A Sea Dogs are the best team in the Eastern League with a 59-30 record, and have several players knocking on the door to Pawtucket. In fact, Deven Marrero recently made the jump to Triple-A after posting a .291/.371/.433 batting line in 268 at bats while providing his usual excellent defense. He won't be the last, either, with three guys in particular looking like they are in need of a new challenge. This poses a small problem for the Red Sox, as Pawtucket's roster is pretty full in its own right. How can Ben Cherington arrange the puzzle pieces to get everyone where they need to go?
Owens is the most obvious player in this threesome who needs a promotion. While most don't see Owens as a front-line starter, he does project as a future number-three pitcher with a chance to get up to a number two in a best-case scenario, making him a very valuable commodity in his own right. The most talented in the group, and named to both Baseball Prospectus' and Baseball America's midseason top-50 prospect lists, Owens was first promoted to Portland towards the end of the 2013 season, and has now made 23 starts at the Double-A level. In that time, he's thrown 136 innings (about six innings per start) with a 2.12 ERA and an impressive 29 percent K-rate accompanied by a 10 percent walk rate.
While the latter number would ideally come down, it's clear that he is no longer being challenged by Double-A hitting, and is ready to take the last step before reaching the majors. It's actually not too difficult for that to happen. It's been said a million times that everything for the Red Sox would be easier if Jake Peavy was traded. With the Cardinals now supposedly showing interest, it's time to get that deal done. That would get Rubby De La Rosa back on the roster permanently, with Owens able to take his spot in Pawtucket, where he belongs.
via Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
via Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
While Johnson is not nearly as well-regarded throughout the prospect community as Owens, he still has done enough to show that he is likely ready for the jump to the next level. While the lefty started the year at High-A Salem, and has only twelve starts in Portland under his belt, he's more advanced than that would suggest. Already 23 years old, Johnson has had plenty of experience against reasonably advanced competition at both the college level and for Team USA.
The big left-hander has really come into his own this year, and while he doesn't have a ceiling as high as others in the system, he does have one of the highest floors, and could very well settle into a back-end starting role for years to come. Even after a rough outing last night, he still has a 2.64 ERA with a 55/19 K/BB over 64.2 innings in his twelve starts with Portland. His path to Pawtucket is a little murkier than Owens', but it's still very possible, with a few different scenarios possible.
First, Felix Doubront has fallen out of Boston's rotation, and has indicated that he'd be open to a trade to a team that could fit him into their rotation. The Red Sox could also opt to trade the struggling Clay Buchholz if they determine that he won't be able to rebound to his old self, or they could even just put him back on the disabled list. With the team likely settling in sell-mode, Koji Uehara becomes one of their most valuable trade chips. It would be surprising if he remained on the roster past July 31, which means a bullpen spot should be opening up soon. It's also possible they could designate Craig Breslow for assignment, who has struggled and seen a significant dropoff in velocity this season after a great 2013. Any of these moves would open a spot on the roster for either Allen Webster or Anthony Ranaudo, likely in the bullpen. Once one of those two finds their way out of Pawtucket, Johnson could jump up and take their slot in the AAA rotation.
Of the three in this group, Coyle is likely the hardest to find a spot for in Triple-A. This is not a knock on the infielder, though, as he has absolutely torn up the Eastern League, slashing .355/.431/.615 in 233 plate appearances for the Sea Dogs. The 22-year-old is going to be eligible for the Rule 5 draft this winter, so it would stand to reason that the Red Sox front office would like to see him against Triple-A competition before deciding what to do with him after the season.
(There is also the opposite school of thought: keep him in AA so other teams would be less willing to take him if he were to be unprotected for the Rule 5 draft, but that idea seems a bit far-fetched to me.)
The problem, though, is that Pawtucket's roster is already pretty loaded with infielders, and there isn't a lot of room to be created on the major-league roster. With Will Middlebrooks reaching the end of his rehab assignment, they basically have to find a way to clear two spots. It's most probable that Mookie Betts will find his way back to Pawtucket to clear room for Middlebrooks, though with Xander Bogaerts struggling, there's an outside chance they'd send him down to get his confidence back up by virtue of at least picking up a few hits. An easy way to clear room for Coyle would be cutting loose one of two older infielders on Pawtucket's roster who don't have a future with the organization. Mike McCoy is a 33-year-old second baseman who has gone two years without an MLB appearance, and has struggled in all of his experiences at the highest level. He's played in 67 games for Pawtucket, and has slashed just .190/.308/.262. Similarly, Justin Henry is 29, and has never played in a major-league game. In 158 Triple-A plate appearances, he's slashed .199/.306/.279. Parting ways with one of those guys would easily open up a spot for Coyle. While it's unlikely, they could also see if another team would take a flyer on Ryan Roberts, who has excelled in Pawtucket after being designated for assignment earlier in the season. Any of these moves would make room for Coyle and give him the look at Pawtucket that he deserves.
All three of these guys should and likely will be in Pawtucket before the season ends. They've all been major parts of Portland's tear through the Eastern League, and have been at Double-A long enough to prove they deserve the next jump. These are only the top-three candidates for promotion, too. Guys like Noe Ramirez and Blake Swihart will also very likely be tabbed for promotions later in the season. Some of it will take some complicated juggling, but the front office needs to find a way to get these three guys playing in Pawtucket, and sooner rather than later.