Triple-A Pawtucket: Jackie Bradley Jr., CF
Jackie Bradley's major problem on the Red Sox was strikeouts. He punched out 29 percent of the time with Boston in 2014 -- nearly once per game, as he whiffed 121 times over 127 games -- and at the same rate as in his poor initial run in the majors in 2013 when it looked like he clearly was not ready. So, with that in mind, it's good to see Bradley has struck out just 10 times in his first 61 plate appearances, or, 16 percent of the time.
Don't get too excited just yet, though, for a couple of reasons. For one, this is 61 plate appearances we're talking about: Bradley had successful runs like this against major-league pitching in the midst of his otherwise awful 2014, so there is nothing to be that happy about just yet, a couple weeks into the minor-league season. Second, this is just minor-league pitching he's facing: he's defeated it before, handily even, and it didn't mean anything in terms of what he could do in the majors.
Bradley is in a difficult position, where his swing needs to be ready to fight off big-league velocity inside, but also not be made susceptible to breaking balls on the outer portions of the plate. The good news is that his defense is Gold Glove-caliber, and chances will be there for him, even if they aren't in Boston. What exactly his value is otherwise is still up in the air, but it exists, whether it results in a career as a starter or as a vital bench piece.
Photo credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Double-A Portland: Reed Gragnani, IF
Reed Gragnani's start to 2015 is going just about how you would expect. He's hitting for a high average, his on-base percentage is even higher, and there is little power at all to speak of. That's just who he's going to be in a best-case world, and that kind of player can show up in an eight-game sample with regularity. It's what he does the rest of the time that determines whether he's a prospect or just a young guy playing minor-league ball.
Gragnani has split time between second and third with a dash of DH tossed in, and he hasn't seen his batting average on balls in play fall just yet. It's going to fall, we know that much, as it's currently .421 after 2014's already absurd .346 showing. How far it drops is the question: if he's putting the ball in play constantly, we can be a little more forgiving with our mental projections, but if he strikes out, then things change. Even right now, when he's successfully tallying a hit 42 percent of the time he puts the ball in play, he's hitting "just" .308 due to the first swinging and missing he's really done in his career -- seven strikeouts in 32 plate appearances doesn't sound like much, but when your primary strength is Almost Never Strikes Out, it's potentially alarming. That BABIP will drop, and if his line is going to continue to look like anything worth seeing, the strikeout rate will have to along with it.
Of course, there are the usual small-sample caveats, but in general these lessons apply to the 24-year-old infielder. He's not going to hit for power, and his on-base percentage is only likely to shrink as he faces tougher competition, so he can't afford to strike out much if there is to be a career here.
High-A Salem: German Taveras, RHP
Taveras is a raw 22-year-old who has a potential future in relief, and the Red Sox have already been using him in that role at High-A. While they tend to like their relief prospects to start for as long as possible, Taveras has the misfortune of pitching for Salem, where the rotation is already loaded with guys who very well could be actual starters in the majors someday if they develop as hoped. It's probably for the best, though, as while Taveras has his intriguing qualities, he's also a two-pitch guy who is going to rely heavily on a fastball that lives in the mid-90s.
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Things have not gone great for him to start 2015, with five runs and three walks in his first 5-1/3 innings of relief, pitched over three appearances. A little scuffling shouldn't be surprising, considering Taveras split 2014 between short-season Lowell and Low-A Greenville, totaling just 44 innings in the process, and now finds himself in High-A ball. While he's the right age for the level -- your average Carolina League hurler is 23 -- Taveras is a little bit limited in experience, so there will be some ugly outings. It's what he learns from those challenges that will help shape the pitcher he comes, though, so how he's doing later in the year matters much more than how he begins it.
Low-A Greenville: Nick Longhi, 1B/RF
Nick Longhi has been tearing up the Sally League to begin 2015, hitting .356/.396/.622 in his first 11 games and 48 plate appearances. Longhi already has a pair of homers, as well as four doubles and a triple, and while he's only walked three times so far, he's also only struck out five times. The big question surrounding the 19-year-old prospect has and will be for some time whether or not his obvious power will play in-game. These 11 games are nothing close to a definitive answer, but if he keeps this up, we'll know, at least, that it works against Low-A pitchers.
Longhi is something of a forgotten prospect in the system since he was drafted in the 30th round in 2013 and the spent 2014 in short-season ball. Longhi was given a $440,000 bonus for a reason, though, and it's because he had talent that belonged in the first five or so sounds of the draft, talent attached to signability concerns. It could take him some time to work his way through the system, especially with 2014 second-rounder Sam Travis playing first base for Salem, but if Longhi's bat stays hot, the Sox could always bump him to High-A and have him spend his time primarily in the outfield, where he's already splitting time for the Drive.
That could end up being the better spot for Longhi in the long run, anyway. While he might be a better defensive presence at first, his bat is likely a better fit for an outfield corner. If he can eventually handle left field just fine, and manages to keep his power stroke during his ascent, then the Sox' gamble on a late pick will have paid off. We're a long way from knowing just how this is going to go, but Longhi is a name to remember in the meantime.