Low-A Greenville: Michael Kopech, RHP
Michael Kopech is just 19 years old, so even though he seems to be handling opposing lineups well, he's just not going to throw all that many innings in his first full season in the pros. Kopech, whom the Sox drafted with the number 33 pick last June, is generally throwing over 60 but fewer than 70 pitches per start. On one occasion, this saw Kopech lifted after just 2-2/3 frames, but generally, it's made sure he's out after five innings. That fifth inning seems to be the cap on his workload at the moment, as even in his appearance with just 47 pitches through five, he was lifted.
The caution is understandable, given the youthful Kopech was pitching against high school opponents last spring, and it's also a reminder that we are unlikely to see him promoted until most of the season has gone by, if at all. Maybe he'll get a bump to High-A if he continues to pitch like he has in his last two starts, where he allowed just one run over 10 innings while striking out 13 against a pair of walks. But it would take that kind of five-inning dominance for it to happen, as Kopech's season is more about slowly getting 20-plus, small workload starts in than it is about anything else -- Henry Owens' own age-19 season with the Drive is probably a solid comparison.
The adjustment to pitching in a five-man rotation, to taking the mound every five days, is what the introduction to full-season ball is about. Kopech seems to be taking to it well, but he's also living in a protected environment. The quality pitching is appreciated, but almost secondary at his age. If it continues, though, then it gives even more reason to be excited about his age-20 season, in which he would most certainly be at High-A, with the pitch count reins loosened slightly.
Since we're in May of 2015 still, however, let's keep that potential excitement tucked away for now. Kopech is rolling, but there is still a lot of season and work left for the teenager. He's passing his first challenge well, but it's just the first of many.
Triple-A Pawtucket: Travis Shaw, 1B
Whether Travis Shaw was a big-league hitter or not has been a question that has followed him in his minor-league career, but he might not even get to answer that, as Triple-A is stumping him. Shaw was decent enough in his introduction to the level, batting .262/.321/.431 after a torrid run at Double-A saw him promoted, but his 2015 has not gone nearly as well. Shaw has been better in May, batting .244/.323/.337, but that's not nearly enough.
Shaw is having a real problem facing his fellow lefties, but it's not as if he's been significantly better against right-handers. He's still not striking out, but he also has just a .242 batting average on balls in play, which makes you wonder if this is awful luck, or Shaw's own doing: if he's swinging at the wrong pitches, then he could be responsible for his horrid line almost in its entirety.
Remember in the past that Shaw's problem was that he was too passive, that he let pitchers take control of the plate appearance and eventually strike him out while he waited for a walk. He got over that, but maybe he's swung too far in the other direction now, as he's having trouble drawing walks with his usual regularity and can't seem to put the ball in play in a productive place. Maybe slowing things back down will help him in the same way speeding things up a year ago did: Shaw needs to find that balance if he's to overcome his issues at Triple-A and see his career go any further. If you're reading a sense of urgency that maybe doesn't belong in two months of struggles to open the year, remember that Shaw is already 25 years old, and was on the bubble even before this.
Double-A Portland, William Cuevas, RHP
Cuevas is hard to figure out. He's pitching well as a starter for Double-A Portland, but that's not his eventual role. The problems that could keep him from sticking as a starter could keep him from being suited for relief work as well, though, so unlike a number of other pitchers in the system who are just temporarily starting for the sake of the extra work, Cuevas might end up as organizational filler. That's the worst-case, though, as there is some ability here. It will all come down to how well he can refine and repeat his successes.
His velocity doesn't stand out, with plenty of fastballs registering in the high-80s, but he's shown an ability to reach back for a little more on occasion -- in relief, it's likely he'd more consistently be able to hit 92-93 rather than topping out at 91, as he often does as a starter. He can throw strikes generally, but has had a harder time of it in the Eastern League, where he's facing the most advanced hitters of his career. Cuevas is walking 3.5 per nine, and you can see him dancing around the strike zone with all three of his pitches -- whether that's intentional or because his command is spotty is unknown, but it's something to watch.
Cuevas will need more than a low-90s fastball to make it as a reliever, so this work as a starter is to his benefit: maybe all of these extra frames will help him tighten up his breaking ball or learn to pitch his change more effectively, and then he'll have a future in relief. At the moment, though, Cuevas mostly looks like a guy who can succeed against minor-league arms, but would see a significant drop in his performance against anyone tougher. More, better strikes and a stronger secondary are needed for that to change.
High-A Salem: Chandler Shepherd, RHP
Chandler Shepherd, whom you might also know as "James" Shepherd, was recently promoted to Salem after nearly 15 dominant innings for Low-A Greenville. The 6-foot-2 righty struck out 5.3 times as many batters as he walked while allowing just two runs to score, and that was enough for the Sox to send the 2014 draft pick up another rung on the organizational ladder.
Sox prospects daily: JBJ still isn't hitting
The Red Sox would love to play Jackie Bradley Jr. to help their outfield, but if he's not hitting, then what can they do?
Shepherd is a fascinating 13th-round selection, as he entered last spring a potential top-100 pick after a strong showing in the Cape Cod League the year prior. He obviously didn't go that early on, with Boston making him the 404th pick in the draft, but that potential to be more than what that number represents exists. Shepherd has taken to High-A well in the early going, striking out nine batters in 9-2/3 innings while allowing three runs. He'll likely stick with these longer, three-inning-ish outings for some time, especially if the Sox plan on strapping a rocket to him to see where it can take him in his first full season in the pros -- don't be shocked if he gets bumped to Portland by the end of the year, putting him well ahead of the pace of anyone else drafted alongside him by Boston last summer.
These lengthier relief stints can give Shepherd the work he needs to refine his repertoire and approach on the mound, while also giving the Red Sox a more efficient look at the future reliever by packing more work into his appearances. As he's not the kind of pitcher who will get by with an obvious out pitch, and will instead have to get by throwing quality strikes with a number of average or better pitches, these longer outings are necessary for him to figure out what works and what doesn't.
He'll need to stay healthy and continue to see progress with his secondaries for the excitement to last, but Shepherd just might be more than a 13th-round afterthought. Let's see him throw more than 50 innings in the pros before we get too attached, though.