Welcome to the 2021 positional preview series. Over the next seven days, we will be looking at each position group — catcher, corner infield, middle infield, corner outfield, center field, starting pitchers, and relief pitchers — throughout the organization. For each installment we will take a look at the projected starter(s), the options to come off the bench, the depth pieces who will be waiting at the Alternate Site/at Triple-A, the top prospect, the sleeper prospect, and all the rest of the prospects for each position. Today we look at the minor-league starting pitchers, after looking at the big leagues earlier this morning.
The first tough break of the season for the Red Sox came on the prospect side of things, as Bryan Mata went down with an arm injury that was eventually discovered to be a slight tear in the UCL. Before we get to that, though, let’s start with the positives and the reason he takes this mantle anyway. Mata has the stuff to be an outstanding pitcher in this league, boasting a big fastball that can get up into the upper 90s as well as a slider that could be a plus out pitch. Throw in a solid curveball and changeup on top of that, and it’s the kind of arsenal that can certainly stick in a major-league rotation.
Unfortunately, there have long been questions about whether he’d have to move to the bullpen, and they won’t get any quieter after this latest injury. Mata isn’t small by any means, but his delivery has always drawn some questions and he’s just been unable to stay on the mound. It’s been different kinds of injuries — he’s dealt with a groin issue, a shoulder problem, a hamstring issue last year, and now the elbow — but he’s constantly had to miss time. The Red Sox aren’t going to move him off the rotation now, but it’s something to keep in mind as he progresses in his development.
As for where we stand now, they still haven’t decided if they will undergo Tommy John surgery, but he’ll miss a significant amount of time regardless, which likely puts the chances of a 2021 debut into the unlikely category. Depending on the trajectory of this injury and the performances of some of the guys behind him, Mata may not be number one on this list by midseason, but for now we’ll stick with him.
The Red Sox have a well-deserved reputation for not being able to develop pitchers (although I think there’s a really interesting conversation to be had about whether the problem is development or talent identification), but they are turning a corner the last few years. They still don’t have any aces in the system, granted, but they suddenly have a handful of pitchers who have realistic paths to a major-league rotation. Obviously a good number of them will fall short of that, because that’s how this works, but there are enough that some naturally fall through the cracks, which didn’t happen much last decade.
An example of that in the current group of prospects could be Jorge Rodriguez. He signed out of Mexico to a small bonus back in 2017, and really hopped on the radar in 2019. He spent most of that summer on the complex, pitching to a fantastic 1.91 ERA with over 11 strikeouts per nine innings. The stuff isn’t as good as those numbers indicate, but the southpaw has outstanding command with his secondaries and a feel for pitching beyond his 20 years of age. A lack of fastball velocity probably limits the ceiling some, but I can very much see Rodriguez having an Aldo Ramirez-like rise this season, which will likely start with him at Low-A Salem.
- Thad Ward is going to be one of the most interesting players in the system this year. He was just a bit too far off to be at the Alternate Site last summer, but he was a huge breakout in 2019 and if the success of his cutter carries over to this year it’s not totally unreasonable to think he could wind up being the best starting pitcher in this whole farm system, even if he’s not ranked there right now. He should start the year in Portland.
- Speaking of potentially being the best starter in the system, enter Noah Song. Regular readers know I’m super high on the righty, who is currently in flight school for the Navy and could return as early as this May, but could also have to remain there for the entire season. That uncertainty knocks him down rankings, as well it should, but in terms of pure talent I honestly don’t believe there’s another pitcher in the system close to him, at least based on what he did in 2019.
- Aldo Ramirez was mentioned above as he has experienced some helium over the last couple of years. Another low bonus signing out of Mexico, the righty doesn’t have the feel that Rodriguez does, but he commands the ball well and has better stuff. He’ll also be in Salem to start the season.
- Jay Groome feels like he’s going to move a lot in one direction or the other this year. The talent is still there for him to actually be the best pitcher in the system, but it’s been so long since he’s actually gotten to pitch. The key for him will be to stay fit all summer and keep the mechanics consistent so the stuff can shine through. I’m still holding out hope, but it’s kind of a prove it or move out of the way kind of season for the lefty.
- Chris Murphy was another breakout from that 2019 season that didn’t get a chance to build off that momentum last year. The lefty can certainly miss bats, but control was an issue coming out of college. He shored that up in 2019 and it led to big results. Look for him to spend the year in High-A Greenville.
- Brayan Bello is a personal favorite of mine and some readers of the site. He’s struggled with consistency as a pro, but he’s shown sustained flashes of an ability to not just get by, but dominate lineups. He should also be in Greenville this year, and we’ll be looking for him to avoid months where he just doesn’t have anything.
- Ryan Zeferjahn has some of the most intriguing stuff in the system after being drafted in 2019, but there is still an assumption that he’ll end up in the bullpen. They’ll certainly give him a chance to keep starting this year, probably in Greenville, but I’m expecting him to be an intriguing relief prospect by the start of the 2022 season.
- Josh Winckowski was part of the Andrew Benintendi trade, and was traded twice over the course of this past offseason. The righty saw his stuff tick up last Fall, leading to him being another sleeper candidate this summer. He’ll be in Portland.
- Frank German was another trade acquisition, coming over with Adam Ottavino from the Yankee. German is another guy who will likely end up in the bullpen and he could do well there as a fastball/changeup guy, but he should start the year in Portland’s rotation.
- A.J. Politi is a guy who has been getting some sneaky helium of late, and he’ll be another member in Portland’s rotation. The righty has a good fastball/changeup combination and is looking for some development in the changeup.
- Shane Drohan was part of last summer’s draft class, and he has some sneaky upside as a college pitcher who wasn’t really focused entirely on baseball until college. He’s still raw, but he’ll be an interesting one to watch this year. Look for him in Salem’s rotation.
- Jeremy Wu-Yelland was also part of that 2020 class. He doesn’t have the same kind of ceiling as Drohan, and he’s probably better suited for a relief role, but he has a chance to make a real impact in that role. He’ll also be in Salem.
- Chih-Jung Lui was a relatively big international signing in the winter following the 2019 season, but he’s yet to show his potential. A former two-way star, he’ll focus on pitching for now, likely starting the year in Salem.
- Luis Perales is another guy who was riding some hype before 2020 came to a crashing halt. He added big velocity heading into camp last spring, and could be a surprise for many on the complex this summer.
- Bradley Blalock is another helium name to watch in the GCL this year, as his fastball/slider combination creates intrigue.