The Red Sox have one of the best farm systems in the game, with plenty of youthful prospects to dream on as well as minor-league vets knocking on the door to the majors. The system isn't perfect, though, and hasn't been for a few years now. There has been a hole where prospects should be quietly moving its way through the organization, and in 2015, it's going to rest at Double-A Portland.
It all started at Low-A Greenville two years ago. Almost no one hit, and the one prospect who did, Mookie Betts, took a month to start doing so and then quickly made his way to High-A Salem. Almost none of the pitchers were a success, either, despite plenty of potential within the ranks: Brian Johnson thrived, but in limited innings thanks to a shoulder injury, and other 2012 picks such as Pat Light and Austin Maddox were horrendous. The only other real standouts were Luis Diaz, who was mostly helping his case to be a future big-league reliever, and Justin Haley, who managed to qualify for this sentence even though he walked over five batters per nine on the year.
It was an ugly season, with the exclamation point the total collapse of 19-year-old Jose Vinicio's offense: the shortstop who was thought by some to possibly be the best in the system a year before just fell apart, and while his 2014 was better, that's mostly because it couldn't be worse.
This roster moved up to Salem for 2014, and while things improved by the end of the year, it was still an ugly season for prospects there. None of the full-time position players at the level were notable prospects, and still aren't after their performances. The pitching was a little better, with Corey Littrell succeeding for much of the year, but he was sent to the Cardinals in July in the John Lackey trade. Haley proved that his second-half surge for Greenville was the real thing with a strong performance that eventually got him promoted to Double-A. Brian Johnson got the same treatment even earlier in the season, with the lefty throwing just 25 frames for Salem. While Light's campaign at High-A wasn't a disaster, it wasn't a success, either.
They can't all be Manuel Margot. (Photo credit: MLB.com
There were players to watch here, which was at least a departure from what Greenville felt like the year prior, but any real standouts were either traded or promoted quickly, or, in the case of Manuel Margot and Carlos Asuaje, came up late enough in the season that they were plugging talent holes instead of adding additional talent to the roster.
So, where does that leave Portland for 2015? Possibly not in that bad of a space, if you can believe it. Yeah, Greenville was a disaster that's best left behind and forgotten, and Salem never quite got together a full roster of watchable parts at the same time, but Portland just might be okay for the majority of this summer.
There are going to be rough patches, especially early on. The Opening Day rotation is likely going to be highlighted by a group of pitchers who are as likely to be big-league relievers as they are to be career minor-league arms: if you want an ordered list of their chances at the former, it goes Haley, Diaz, Simon Mercedes, Keith Couch, and Mike Augliera, with Haley in the lead because there is still a chance he is a starter. The projected Opening Day lineup has one player who can be considered a prospect in it, Henry Ramos, and he's still more tools than production at this point even though he's 23.
A month or two into the season, however, that could all change. Carlos Asuaje hit .323/.398/.516 in 39 games for Salem last year, and could be promoted quickly if he comes out of the gate like that in his return to the level. Teddy Stankiewicz threw 140 innings for Greenville last summer, and will be just 21 years old, but if he's plowing through lineups the first couple of months of 2015, the potential mid-rotation piece could be in line for a promotion to Portland. Pat Light's star has certainly fallen, but the career at the back-end of a bullpen he was always projected to have is still a possibility, and a strong start to 2015 could earn him a trip to Maine. Manuel Margot is probably too young to be jumped to Double-A early in the year, but the Sox have been known to push youthful prospects who show they're finished with High-A up another level even if it seems aggressive from a games played perspective. Speaking of aggressive, there are those such as ESPN's Keith Law who think 2014 second-round pick Sam Travis could go to Double-A right now, so it might not be too long before he's playing first base for the Sea Dogs, even if he doesn't start his 2015 there.
Of course, let's not forget about Yoan Moncada, who would likely start the year in Portland if the Eastern League season didn't involve a lot of 45 degree nights in its first month. The Cuban import is more likely to see his first minor-league game experience at Salem, but if he's hitting when it starts to warm up in the northeast, the 19-year-old will be crushing balls at Hadlock before too long.
There is a hole in the system, one that has now found its way to the Double-A level. That hole is starting to be filled in, though, and will continue to be as Salem begins to graduate its best pieces. When you consider that Triple-A Pawtucket is overflowing with quality prospects as is, to the point that Will Middlebrooks was traded and Sean Coyle doesn't have an obvious place to play, it becomes clear that this terrifying gap in the system, one that could have messed with Boston's big-league plans at some point like a previous developmental gap did in 2011, is instead likely to just be an unfortunate occurrence for local fans of the lower levels the last two seasons. The big picture is still looking great, and it's a testament to Boston's drafting, trading, and international work that this is the case.
Try to remember all that when checking out how the Sea Dogs' players are doing in April. You'll be happier for doing so.