Triple-A Pawtucket: Deven Marrero, SS
There are better prospects in the Red Sox system than Deven Marrero, sure, but he's still one of their most important pieces on the farm in 2015. For one, ranking 11th, as he does at Sox Prospects, in a system as stacked as Boston's is no insult: he's behind the likes of top-20 prospects like Blake Swihart and Yoan Moncada, trailing a pair of near-ready MLB starters in Henry Owens and Eduardo Rodriguez, after one of the top teenage bats in the minors in 18-year-old Rafael Devers, and listed behind Boston's pair of first-round picks from the 2014 draft. He's 11th for the Sox, who have one of the top three or four farm systems in the entire game, but he's a better prospect than that suggests.
There are two key reasons why this is the case, and they both end with his glove. Marrero is the only real shortstop depth the Red Sox have: Brock Holt is a utility man who can't be tied down to one position for very long, because his versatility allows the Boston bench options for resting someone different on the roster every single day. So, if Xander Bogaerts were to go down with an injury -- a possibility Red Sox fans had to imagine last week when he underwent an MRI on his knee -- Marrero might be the player who gets the call to replace him. His bat might not be big-league ready just yet, not after just 239 plate appearances at Triple-A, but his glove is plus, and that kind of thing matters with a rotation constructed like Boston's.
The other is Marrero's potential as a trade chip. Yes, he's the only shortstop depth the Red Sox have, but if an opportunity for a Marrero trade that makes the big-league roster better immediately comes up this summer, the Sox will listen to it. That plus glove makes him playable immediately, even if his bat isn't ready, and his early start at Triple-A suggests the bat might be closer than we think it is. Not by itself, of course, not after nine games and 33 plate appearances, but given what we know about Marrero in general, he's close. He's a smart, disciplined hitter who has quality at-bats, and while he'll never hit for a lot of power, his time at Double-A Portland last year, when he hit .291/.371/.433, gives you an indication of the kind of upside his bat has. Remember, too, that his offensive numbers have not been great historically because his glove has made the Red Sox promote him aggressively.
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No, Marrero wouldn't replicate that line perfectly in the majors, but if he hit .275/.340/.400 with plus defense, he'd be a hugely valuable contributor to whoever had him. If he keeps on mashing at Triple-A, that line looks much more realistic than it does as of this writing, and someone, somewhere is going to want to add Marrero to the mix. It could be the Mets, who are dealing with Wilmer Flores' awful defense at short on a team that wants to win now. It could be the Padres, who need to do something about their defense somewhere since their pitchers can't strike every single opposing batter out. It could be someone building for the future like the Phillies. There are options, and they will only improve as Marrero does.
Double-A Portland: Mike Augliera, RHP
Augliera is still starting even though his future is in relief, and much of that has to do with how few prospects the Sox have at Double-A. Almost that entire rotation, with the exception of maybe Justin Haley, has a future in relief if they have any future in the majors at all. It's difficult to bump Augliera from the starting five out of the gate at the same time 27-year-old non-prospect Michael McCarthy is holding down a rotation spot.
Augliera is 25 years old already, but he also was drafted as a college senior so he didn't even join the pros until he was already 22. The attractive item in his game is his control, which is exceptional: he led the NCAA in strikeout-to-walk ratio as a senior, and has walked just 1.7 batters per nine over 337 minor-league innings. He doesn't have swing-and-miss stuff, however, and his command is just pretty good, not incredible, so a career as a starter just isn't going to happen. If he could work out of the pen for an inning or so at a time, though, there is maybe something here since you know he could avoid walks and throw pitches where he needed to, whether they be for attempting to induce a double play or just trying to avoid a big hit.
He's still something of a longshot, though, but for someone like this, his age isn't a significant factor. If he can't get into the Triple-A bullpen until late in the year, it's not a huge loss, as he's a maybe reliever who is already in his mid-20s. He still has some time to find his path even if he's in something of a Double-A rut at the moment.
High-A Salem: Joe Gunkel, RHP
Gunkel was an 18th-round pick of the Red Sox in the 2013 draft, but had a 2014 season that merited another look. He breezed through Low-A Greenville with a 2.28 ERA over 51 innings, striking out almost 11 batters per nine and walking under two per nine, but then struggled a bit more after a promotion to High-A. He's back at that level now, and still not missing bats at the level, but has so far managed to keep the ball in the park once more.
Gunkel isn't going to be a starter in the majors, not unless something extraordinary occurs in his development between now and his ascension to the bigs, but there is a chance he'll make it as a low-leverage relief arm. It's not sexy, but it's still an important piece of the puzzle. Now, he just needs to get past High-A hitters so he can face a real test in the upper minors, against competition he can't so easily fool with the tricks that worked in Low-A.
Low-A Greenville: Ty Buttrey, RHP
Buttrey signed a $1.3 million bonus when the Sox selected him in the 2012 draft, but it was known he was a raw, project arm coming out of high school who would take some time to get acclimated. This is his fourth year in the system, but only his second in full-season ball, and he's still only 22 years old, and just turned it a few weeks ago. So, it's fair if you've been disappointed by his production to this point, but he's still young, with plenty of time left to develop.
His start to 2015 suggests that could be happening, too, as Buttrey has looked very different in the early going. He's struck out 12 batters in his first 10 innings without allowing a walk, and while he's given up a pair of homers already, his home run rate mostly looks bad because of how few frames he's pitched: if he throws another five innings in his next start and doesn't allow a homer, it drops from 1.8 to 1.2 per nine -- it's still very, very early to be looking too closely at numbers. Of course, we shouldn't just wave off the dingers entirely: Buttrey could be living in the strike zone quite a bit, and needs to figure out where the danger zones are, how to throw a quality strike instead of just a strike. Again, though, he's just 22, he's 6-foot-6 with a power pitcher's body, and if he can put things together, you'll hear a whole lot more about him, possibly soon.