Not all losing seasons are created equal. If a team struggles to string wins together and is playing essentially meaningless baseball in August and September (or earlier), things have obviously gone wrong. But some teams in those situations can still be fun to watch, while others can be absolute misery. Losing teams can be relatively enjoyable for a couple reasons. One is being so inept that it becomes hilarious. The other is by having reasons to be hopeful about the future, which usually manifests itself by way of top prospects getting a chance to get reps at the MLB level.
The Red Sox 2022 season wasn’t exactly a fun one, but two young players helped keep the last month and a half or so of the campaign from devolving into a complete slog. I mean, it was still a slog, but without these two guys, things would have been much more miserable. I’m talking, of course, about Brayan Bello and Triston Casas, two top 100 prospects who breathed new life into the Red Sox at the end of the campaign.
Let’s start with Bello. After all, he got up to the big leagues earlier in the year and, ultimately, the success of his development may be more important than Casas’ given the Red Sox struggles with starting pitching this past year and recent lack of success in developing homegrown starters.
After amassing quite a bit of hype and making a sudden and ascendent run in some national prospect rankings earlier this year, Bello, who was last ranked No. 4 among Red Sox prospects by FanGraphs, first threw a pitch at the MLB level in early July. After struggling through his first few outings and a brief demotion to the bullpen, the 23-year-old right-hander started to figure things out down the stretch. In fact, in his last eight starts of the year, he logged 40 ⅓ innings and posted a 3.12 ERA and 2.64 FIP while striking out nearly a batter per inning. Among those starts were a pair of sparkling outings against the Yankees, as he threw five shutout innings on Sept. 14 and six innings of one-run ball on Sept. 25.
All told, Bello finished with a 4.71 ERA and only a 20.5 percent strikeout rate compared with a ghastly 10.1 percent walk rate in 57 ⅓ total innings, but the strides he made as the summer waned into fall really spoke to his potential, especially when you consider his peripheral numbers, which were much more favorable (2.94 FIP and 74 FIP-).
While Bello was finding his footing on the mound, Casas seemed like he was destined to miss out on a chance to debut this year, but on Sept. 4, the Red Sox’s No. 1 or No. 2 prospect (depending on whom you ask) played in his first big league game. It wasn’t anything to write home about, unfortunately, with the 22-year-old first baseman going 1-for-4, but it was a momentous occasion for both Casas and the Red Sox as an organization.
Over the month that followed his debut, Casas displayed many of the skills that have made him such a promising prospect, particularly his patience and discipline at the plate and the electric power in his bat. Despite batting .197 in 95 MLB plate appearances in September and bits of October, Casas, a left-handed slugger picked in the first round of the 2018 draft, posted a 120 wRC+ by walking at a 20 percent rate and bashing five home runs with a .211 ISO. For context, the average walk rate this season was 8.2 percent across all of MLB and the average mark in ISO was .152.
While we saw even more impressive power numbers from Bobby Dalbec during his meteoric September in 2020, Bobby D didn’t have the all around success at the plate that Casas displayed this year, striking out more than 40 percent of the time and walking nearly half as often. So, even though caution is called for when projecting anyone after ~100 plate appearances, the thinking is that Casas’ approach will allow him to consistently succeed at the big league level.
Anyway, given their limited playing time in the context of an entire season, plus the fact that it’s difficult for any one (or two) players to change the fortunes of an entire team, Bello and Casas couldn’t right the ship for the Red Sox on their own in 2022. However, they proved that they could cut it at the MLB level, albeit briefly, and that they have the skills to address two important deficiencies the Red Sox faced in 2022: starting pitching talent/depth and power. With a full season to work with next year, assuming they aren’t sent back down to the minors to open 2023, Bello and Casas should both be big parts of helping the Red Sox bounce back, with Bello adding stability in the rotation and Casas serving as a middle of the order hitter the Red Sox could really use after a year when their power was sapped.
Bello and Casas’ relative success this year can also be seen as a positive indication of how much the Red Sox farm system is improving. While both Bello and Casas came to the organization before Chaim Bloom took over, they have largely developed during Bloom’s tenure at the helm. During that time, Bloom has clearly made improving the team’s ability to develop a sustainable talent pipeline a priority (and he’s said as such). He’s also made plenty of moves to bolster the Red Sox pool of prospects, such as drafting highly touted shortstop Marcelo Mayer in the 2021 draft and bringing on 18-year-old international free agent Miguel Bleis earlier that year. Both Mayer (No. 19) and Bleis (No. 59) are top 100 prospects, according to FanGraphs, as is second baseman Nick Yorke (No. 90), and then there are other exciting players like Ceddanne Rafaela and Wikelman Gonzalez. With all that talent, the Red Sox have the ninth best farm system in MLB, according to FanGraphs, which is quite a jump for an organization that was dead last as recently as 2019.
Having a highly ranked farm system doesn’t win MLB games, unfortunately. You can’t strike someone out with a prospect list or hit a home run with a brilliant scouting report. That showed this past season, as the Red Sox weren’t all that good at winning, but Bello and Casas showed that there are talented homegrown reinforcements on the way. The hope is that they’re just the start.