The minor league regular season came to its conclusion on Monday, and on the surface, 2010 seemed to represent a disappointment for the Red Sox farm system. For the most part, the players who were deemed the organization’s top prospects entering the season either had health issues or posted numbers that did not leap off the page.
Here’s the snapshot view of the players whom Baseball America identified as the top 10 prospects in the Red Sox system entering this year, and the minor league numbers they amassed in 2010:
1) Ryan Westmoreland (age 20 season): missed the year after brain surgery in March
2) Casey Kelly (20): 3-5, 5.31 ERA, 81 strikeouts, 35 walks, 95 innings in Double-A
3) Josh Reddick (23): .266/.301/.466/.767, 18 HR, 65 RBI in Triple-A
4) Lars Anderson (22): .274/.349/.461/.810, 15 HR, 69 RBI in Double-A and Triple-A
5) Ryan Kalish (22): .294/.382/.502/.884, 13 HR, 47 RBI in Double-A and Triple-A
6) Junichi Tazawa (24): missed the year after Tommy John surgery in March
7) Reymond Fuentes (19): .270/.328/.377/.705, 5 HR, 41 RBI in Low-A
8) Anthony Rizzo (20): .263/.334/.480/.814, 25 HR, 100 RBI in Hi-A and Double-A
9) Jose Iglesias (20): .295/.339/.379/.719, 0 HR, 20 RBI in Short-Season and Double-A
10) Derrik Gibson (20): .230/.321/.300/.621, 2 HR, 40 RBI in Low-A
To be sure, a look at the players considered the top Sox prospects entering the year gives an incomplete portrait of the state of the farm system. Several standout performances this year came from players (such as Ryan Lavarnway, Will Middlebrooks, Drake Britton and Oscar Tejeda) who were not viewed as top organizational prospects entering the year.
Nonetheless, many of the assessments of the Sox system are based on the so-called top prospects. And so, looking purely at the numbers of the above group, it would be easy to characterize the season as a mediocre one for the Sox’ player development system. Aside from Kalish, Rizzo and perhaps Anderson and/or Iglesias, few players had numbers that stand out.
Yet a closer inspection reveals a couple of striking similarities among this group that should influence the perspective on them.
First, it is a group that is extremely young, with six players 20 and under, and all but one player under the age of 24. All of the players were younger than league average for their levels, some by several years.
Secondly, not one of those players went to a four-year college in the U.S. Seven (Westmoreland, Kelly, Anderson, Kalish, Fuentes, Rizzo, Gibson) were drafted out of high school. One (Reddick) was signed after one year of junior college. Two (Tazawa, Iglesias) were signed as international amateurs.
Those facts offer a reminder that context is crucial in examining player development. Unlike the major leagues, where numbers tell a fairly complete story about player performance, there are different elements to consider that suggest that the notion of a bad year in player development for the Red Sox might be an oversimplification.
“Player development isn’t some big monolithic being that you view as one big package or a group,” said Sox farm director Mike Hazen. “Everything is tied to the individual.
“What were the expectations for this player coming into the season, what were the areas we wanted him to improve upon and did he do it or not? If not, what do we need to do differently or better next year? And if he did, what do we need to do o help him take that next step?
“It’s about building blocks, being on a ladder, climbing a rung and accomplishing each successive task to the best of their abilities. That’s how we evaluate it.”
PUSHING AN AGE-OLD ISSUE
The average age of a position player in the Triple-A International League this year was 27. At 22, Lars Anderson – after being promoted early this year from Double-A – was the eighth youngest player to have at least 100 at-bats in the league, and Ryan Kalish was the seventh youngest following his early-season move from Portland.
The average Eastern League player was 24. Casey Kelly was the second-youngest player to pitch at least 20 innings in the Double-A league. Jose Iglesias was the youngest position player to collect at least 100 plate appearances; Anthony Rizzo was the fourth youngest.
Those players attest to an organizational approach that has evolved as the Sox have filled their system with talented young players who possess high upside. The Sox believe in pushing their players to more advanced levels at an aggressive pace.
The team would rather have its prospects adjust to challenges rather than achieve comfortable dominance. The result, the Sox believe, is the placement of players in situations that are optimal for their development, even if not for their performance.
“Playing in Boston represents a little bit of a unique challenge from a personality and makeup standpoint. We kind of like to see what these guys are all about when they do get challenged,” said Hazen. “When we look at our overall philosophy and are talking about pushing guys to certain levels, we’re talking about wanting to challenge players and push them beyond their comfort zones.
“We’ll deal with the negative effects of pushing them beyond their comfort zones, which means maybe a little bit of a loss of confidence, a little bit of a loss of coming to the park everyday and feeling like you’re King Kong, which is what maybe they felt like in high school, as opposed to leaving them where they are and maybe letting them dominate and never really find out about them.
“The quicker they get used to feeling uncomfortable, we feel like the quicker they’re going to learn. We try to put the support staff in place to support those guys when they struggle.”
After his challenging 2009 season, the Red Sox had Lars Anderson return to Double-A Portland for the second straight season. Coming off a year in which he hit .233 with a dreadful .673 OPS (in his age 21 season), Anderson once again started looking like King Kong in Portland in 2010.
He was hitting .355 while leading the Eastern League with a 1.086 OPS. After just 17 games, the Sox decided that it was time for him to move on, even before the end of April.
That performance was in some ways a footnote once Anderson reached Pawtucket, especially given that his numbers there (a .262 average and .768 OPS) seemed modest by comparison.
Even so, Anderson was able to impress Sox officials while adapting to a higher level of play in Triple-A. After a first-half struggle with the PawSox (.233, .717 OPS), he hit .296 with an .829 OPS in the second half. That adaptation, in turn, positioned Anderson for his latest development experience, a call-up on Monday.
“When we moved him up from Double-A, the guy was leading the league in OPS,” noted Hazen. “We very well could have left him there, and maybe he’s leading the league in OPS at 22 years old. What would we be talking about at that point?”
Such an inquiry offers a reminder. It is one thing to look at a statistical line and draw a conclusion about a minor leaguer. But to do so without accounting for the player’s age and level would be nearly pointless.
Take Anthony Rizzo, one of the standout performers in the Red Sox system this year. He hit .263/.334/.480/.814 with 25 homers and 100 RBI while splitting his season between Hi-A Salem (for whom he hit .248/.333/.479/.812 with five homers in 29 games) and Double-A Portland (.263/.334/.481/.815 with 20 homers in 107 games).
That all looks fairly impressive. Yet the performance stands out even more when accounting for the fact that Rizzo (who turned 21 on Aug. 8) was in his age 20 season. Since 2000, no other player has hit 20 or more homers in his age 20 campaign in the Double-A Eastern League. When Padres star Adrian Gonzalez was with Portland (then a Marlins affiliate) in 2002, his line looked much like Rizzo’s, as he hit .266/.344/.437/.781 with 17 homers.
Yet for a while this season, it appeared that Rizzo might be overmatched in Double-A following an aggressive decision to promote him from Salem in May. He hit just .248 with a .735 OPS in the first half. But like Anderson, he made a leap forward as a middle-of-the-order hitter in the second half, hitting .281 with a .908 OPS. By the end of the year, he looked like one of the top power hitting prospects in the Sox system.
The Red Sox want to present their young players with challenges to see how they respond. Given the intensity of jumping from the minors to the big leagues in Boston – once compared by a Sox official to trying to drink water from a fire hose – the organization would rather subject its prospects to adversity and to see them adjust than to wait for minor leaguers to become overripe while awaiting a promotion.
GETTING SCHOOLED IN PROFESSIONAL BALL
The Red Sox drafted Jonathan Papelbon out of Mississippi State in 2003, and he had a 6.34 ERA in Short-Season Lowell that year. But then, he forged sub-3.00 ERAs in Hi-A in 2004 and in Double-A, Triple-A and the majors in 2005.
Dustin Pedroia, after leaving Arizona State University, shot through the minors in just over two years after being drafted in the second round of the 2004 draft. He was in the majors for good shortly after he turned 23.
Oregon State star Jacoby Ellsbury made his progression through the minors look almost effortless, as he hit no worse than .298 at any level during his brisk march to the majors within two years of his having been drafted.
Those were the players who, in many respects, built the expectations among Red Sox followers about what to expect from a developmental progression. A prospect could hit the ground running after turning pro, rampaging over inferior minor league competition on a fast track to the majors.
Yet that is not the only path to the majors for a prospect. Sox GM Theo Epstein notes that there is a “misconception that every player's development is linear. If a player has a tough half-season or season, it doesn't mean he is no longer a prospect.”
That may be particularly true in the case of the players viewed as the top prospects in the system. After a couple years of college-heavy drafts under Epstein, the organization began to select younger players with greater upside in 2005 and especially in 2006.
The Sox started to select high school players more aggressively. That strategy appears to be paying dividends. Lars Anderson joined Ryan Kalish in the majors on Monday. Most of the consensus top prospects in the Sox system were taken out of high school.
Even so, it seemed almost inevitable that those younger players would face greater adjustments – and hence, greater inconsistency – once they turned pro.
“Each player’s path is unique, but the less baseball and personal maturity is in place the more peaks and valleys there are likely to be. A player who has had success at a major college program typically has a more mature game and is more mature off the field,” explained Sox Assistant GM Ben Cherington. “The less mature a player’s game and the less organized he is off the field, the more likely there will be periods of lesser performance in the minor leagues as he figures things out.”
Whereas Papelbon (SEC), Pedroia (Pac-10) and Ellsbury (Pac-10) had been products of the country’s elite college conferences, the new wave of Sox draftees -- players like Kelly, Kalish, Anderson, 2006 first-rounder Jason Place and others -- did not have the same set of experiences to guide them as professionals.
Unsurprisingly, their developmental paths have been subject to greater volatility than those of the players who entered the system with more experience.
“We have to remind ourselves of that all the time,” said Hazen. “This group of high school players that has come in over the last couple years is suffering from Pedroia, Ellsbury, Papelbon and that group. Those guys came in right above them and blew through the system so quickly, became big leaguers in a heartbeat, in large part, in my opinion, because of what they had from a pedigree standpoint.”
THE LIMITS OF STATISTICS
Results are always meaningful. That said, whereas results typically define success and failure for major league players, that is not always the case for minor leaguers.
“Performance matters in the minor leagues but far less than in the major leagues,” said Cherington. “There are things we do every year to get in the way of a player putting up monster numbers.”Ã¢ÂÂ¨
On given days, the Sox might be more interested in challenging their players than seeing them dominate. Sometimes, that will mean that they don’t let a pitcher use a weapon in order to make him focus on developing other aspects of his game.
If a pitcher has a dominant, swing-and-miss curveball that can overpower lineups in the lower rungs of the minors, the Sox might not let him use it, making him emphasize work on his other, weaker pitches.
That approach (a common one among minor league organizations) underlies a principle. In many respects, the Sox are more interested in developing tools and skills in their minor leaguers than they are in seeing them beat up on a minor league level. As such, success in a given year can be assessed separately from the statistical performance.
Casey Kelly’s 2010 season with the Portland Sea Dogs – which came to a conclusion in early August due to a strained lat – provides one example.
“In the case of Casey Kelly, I know people are going to look at stats and say, ‘This guy didn’t have that good of a season,’” said Hazen. “We beg to differ on that. We feel that he’s had a really good season.”
In 2009, Kelly achieved startling success in his pro pitching debut, forging a 2.08 ERA while splitting his year between Low-A Greenville and Hi-A Salem. This year, in Double-A Portland, he had a 5.31 ERA.
Yet the Sox were thrilled by what they considered to be significant development that has, in their eyes, made him an even more promising prospect than he was entering the year.
He took to his full-time pitching program seamlessly. Kelly added a solid 15-20 pounds of muscle to his frame. That resulted in a velocity bump of a few miles an hour on his fastball, and a curveball that is now a more powerful swing-and-miss pitch than had been the case in 2009.
His fastball command was not as pinpoint as it was a year ago, and yet that could be at least partially attributable to his adjustment to his added strength. At this stage, the Sox are evaluating Kelly’s tools and skills rather than his statistics. From that standpoint, the team has been more than happy with his 2010 season.
“The expectations for performing night-in, night-out, those don’t come until they get to the big leagues. Before that, it’s about improving on their skills,” said Hazen. “Do you look at the statistics? Absolutely. They’re certainly one measuring point. But we look at the statistics in the context of, ‘What are we asking this player to do to achieve those statistics?’”
THE EYE TEST
Ultimately, the numbers will tell an incomplete story about a player and a player development system. While box scores and statistics will play a prominent role in public perception of a farm system – particularly given the limited opportunities to watch minor leaguers play in person – the reality of a year in player development is often measured elsewhere.
An organization sees value in struggle, and in the adjustment to a level. Progress is seen not so much in numbers as in more refined approaches, increased strength and improving skill sets. Ironically, as players work to reach a level where numbers are arguably the definitive measure of their talent, they must first pass through a minor league apprenticeship in which the opposite is sometimes true.
That is not a justification for poor performance. At the same time, it is an argument, the Sox suggest, as to why the performance of some of their top prospects may not be accurately reflected simply by their numbers.
“Just watching the statistics, that’s where the perception comes in,” said Hazen. “Players are not allowed when they’re done with the season to say, ‘Well, I was only 20 years old, so this was all I was able to accomplish.’ Nobody really talks like that.
“But go watch the games. Go watch these kids play. Watch the stuff. If you watched Casey Kelly pitch, and watched all of the swinging and missing going on -- even though the strikeout numbers aren’t huge -- you’d have a hard time, if you know what you’re looking at, saying, ‘This guy [is a disappointment].’”