The minor-league season ended a while before the major-league season and the dust has mostly settled on that portion of the year. Of course, a lot of prospects are playing in high-profile baseball pretty much all year round with the Arizona Fall League happening right now and winter leagues in Latin America starting up soon themselves. That said, games affiliated specifically with the Red Sox have been over for some time. With that time behind us to give us a breather to step back and look at what we’ve seen this year, it’s time to put out the All-Star roster for Red Sox prospects.
A couple of notes before we begin. Yesterday we covered the first half of this exercise by looking at the top hitters in the organization this past year. There, we named an honorable mention for each spot. We are not going to do that for the starting pitchers, because I’m already naming five. That’s enough, dammit! I will, however, for the two reliever spots. Also, again, this is based on 2019 performance rather than strict prospect status. Now let’s get going.
Starting Pitcher (1)
We start with the pitcher who gained the most in terms of reputation in 2019 with Thad Ward. The 2018 fifth round pick had a solid start to his pro career that summer in eleven shortened outings for Lowell, but no one could have expected this kind of breakout in 2019. Equipped with a new cutter to bring an extra look into his repertoire, he has looked like a new guy. Ward started the year in Greenville and was just very clearly too good for that level, pitching to an absurd 1.99 ERA over 13 starts before moving up to Salem and pitching to a 2.33 ERA over 12 starts there. The control did fall off a bit as he moved up the ladder, but it was a small enough sample with a few bad outings skewing things a bit that I wouldn’t worry too much. There was some question as to whether or not he would be able to stick in the rotation after he was drafted. That will always remain a question for pitchers lacking elite pedigree who have not yet reached the upper minors, but Ward’s outlook is much better now than it was a year ago, to say the least. On Sox Prospects, for example, he has moved from 38th on their rankings before the season to number eight now. Speaking of Sox Prospects, they have him projected to start 2020 in Portland, which is a reality I’m ready to sign up for.
Starting Pitcher (2)
We go from the pitcher whose stock has improved the most to the pitcher who is now unquestionably the top arm in the entire farm system. Mata jumped onto the scene after his first full season in 2017 when he pitched to a 3.74 ERA with nearly a strikeout per inning as an 18-year-old in Greenville. He took a bit of a step back last year when he put up decent results in Salem but struggled mightily with command. According to reports a lot of that was possibly due to extra muscle mass added to his body that he had yet to get used to. He was also only 19 in High-A. So, he started 2019 by repeating the level, which is never a great thing but less of a big deal here because he was still the youngest player in the Carolina League to start the season. Mata was utterly dominant in his second go around this level, pitching to a 1.75 ERA over ten starts before a promotion to Portland. Like Ward, Mata’s command did fall off a bit after his promotion, but again it was only eleven starts and there were enough flashes to stary confident. The righty will probably start next year in Portland but could be an early promotion candidate and potentially an option for a late-season call-up if the stars align correctly. A more likely major-league debut is still in 2021, though.
Starting Pitcher (3)
Our third starting pitcher is both the lest regarded on this list as well as the final full-season arm. McGrath didn’t really get the headlines he deserved this year (including from me) due to his relative lack of prospect status, but the dude dealt all year long. Spending most of the year in Portland, the southpaw pitched to a 1.68 ERA over 112 1⁄3 innings at Double-A. To be fair, he did struggle in a couple of outings with Pawtucket. Still, that run in Portland was special, and not just because of this end-of-year numbers. At one point in the summer McGrath went 46 innings without allowing a single earned run and allowed just one earned run over 59 innings of work. That’s absurd. McGrath is probably nothing more than very fringy emergency depth for the major-league level, but a season like 2019 will buy him at least a couple extra pro seasons if he wants them. He’ll likely be part of Pawtucket’s rotation to start next season.
Starting Pitcher (4)
I don’t think there’s any question Song is the most interesting starter on this list, and perhaps among (if not number one) the most interesting prospects in all of baseball. Based on talent and performance alone, the Naval Academy standout should have been a first or maybe second round pick in this past summer’s draft, but instead fell to Boston in round four. This was not due to signability issues like most prospects who fall, but rather his military commitment. Unless something changes in the next month or so, Song will report to flight school and be away from the Red Sox for the next two years. Everything he showed in his pro debut this summer with Lowell — a 1.06 ERA with 19 strikeouts and five walks in 17 innings with legit stuff to go with it — showed the potential for a bona fide starter down the line. That he’ll likely be missing two years of development makes him a total wildcard in the organization for the future. For 2019, though, he was clearly one of the best and most exciting pitchers despite the small sample.
Starting Pitcher (5)
The final starting pitching spot came down to a pair of lefties, one overshadowed by Song, the other a low-ceiling, high-minors pitcher. I’m going with the former, who could take some of the sting away from (likely) losing Song for a couple of years. Murphy doesn’t have the same kind of upside, but he showed a ton of polish and poise in his pro debut this summer. Over 33 1⁄3 innings with Lowell he pitched to a 1.08 ERA with 34 strikeouts and only seven walks. His command is an issue moving forward and it could hold him out of the rotation, but he has the repertoire to make it work in this role and he built a solid foundation in 2019 with which the development team can work moving forward. Expect Murphy to be part of Greenville’s rotation to start 2020.
Right-Handed Relief Pitcher
To anyone who only watched the major-league team this year and didn’t follow the minors too closely, this one may come as a shock. Kelley was decidedly unimpressive during the stints he got in Boston. He earned this promotions, though, because the sidearmer was utterly dominant in Pawtucket. Over 52 outings and 65 1⁄3 innings he pitched to a 1.79 ERA with almost a strikeout per inning and a barrage of weak contact. With options remaining the former 36th round pick is no sure thing to be in the majors next year, and I’d bet against it on Opening Day. He’ll get more chances, though, and while I don’t really expect him to stick around at the highest level long-term, I also wouldn’t have expected him to pitch so well in Triple-A with the juiced ball. As Kevin Garnett taught us, anything is possible.
Honorable Mention: Eduard Bazardo
Bazardo is my early pick for the reliever who comes out of nowhere to get a major-league call up next summer. He’s on the small side, but he broke through after moving to the bullpen in 2019 and could be pushed up to Pawtucket as early as Opening Day in 2020.
Left-Handed Relief Pitcher
Anyone who followed along with Minor Lines all year knew this was coming, right? Browning became a sort of fascination of mine this year as a guy about whom I never heard anything but who was just putting up dominant numbers. That in and of itself isn’t all that surprising for a recent college draft pick who had pitched in the SEC the year before, but once he was left out of the first round of promotions I was legitimate confused. In Greenville, Browning ended up pitching to a 2.04 ERA with 75 strikeouts and only 11 walks over 57 1⁄3 innings. The strikeout-to-walk ratio was much less impressive in a small sample in Salem to end the year, but the numbers were eye-popping pretty much all year. I still haven’t talked to anyone who’s as excited about him as the numbers tell me someone should be, so for now I have to go with the scouts. But I’ll secretly be scouting the statline next year too and just waiting for someone to give me the go ahead to believe.
Honorable Mention: Yoan Aybar
Aybar is probably the most interesting Rule 5 candidate for the Red Sox this winter. The former outfield prospect has taken pretty well to pitching given his lack of experience, though there is a lot of growth yet to be made. The stuff is there, and if the command catches up he’ll be a legitimate weapon in relatively short order.