In recent seasons, the announcement of the list of players slated to take part in the Rookie Development Program featured the sort of blue-chip names that brought the immediate future of the Red Sox into view. In many instances, the Sox featured players who had advanced to the high minors and whose readiness to make a major league impact in the coming year was obvious.
A brief review of the last few years of the program reveals an astonishing group of prospects:
In 2010, the Rookie Development Program brought Ryan Kalish to Boston, while also unveiling heralded prospects Casey Kelly and Jose Iglesias.
In 2009, Daniel Bard, Lars Anderson and Josh Reddick were the headliners.
In 2008, Clay Buchholz, Justin Masterson and Jed Lowrie all participated, anticipating their significant roles in the coming year.
The 2007 edition featured Buchholz and Jacoby Ellsbury.
This year, the crop of players taking part in the Rookie Development Program -- which begins on Monday and will last for two weeks -- is different. For the most part, it’s a less-heralded group of players who comprise this year’s program, which engages players who are viewed as potential big league contributors in the next 12 to 18 months and familiarizes them with the Sox coaching staff, Fenway and Boston. Of the 11 invited players, nine have never spent a day above Double-A; four have never played above High-A ball.
That composition reflects a couple of things.
First, it offers a hint of the reshaped Sox farm system in the aftermath of the trade for Adrian Gonzalez. Anthony Rizzo, who was the top power-hitting prospect in the system, would have been invited to take part in the program had he not been sent to San Diego. (Indeed, word emerged yesterday that Rizzo and Kelly would receive invitations to big league camp in spring training with the Padres.)
Secondly, this year’s class of players suggests that the team has already brought many of its top players into the program. Kalish, Anderson, Reddick, Felix Doubront, Yamaico Navarro, Luis Exposito and Kyle Weiland are all players who could impact the major league roster in the coming year; all of them have already spent at least one year in the Rookie Development Program.
The current list of participants in the Rookie Development Program skews young. While there are some legitimate prospects in the group, as a whole, the players are further away from the majors than have been past groups to take part in the Rookie Development Program.
However, there are still several players taking part in this year’s program who could end up making an impact in Boston, both this year and in the seasons to come. Here is a closer look at the group:
Though Pimentel had the highest ERA (4.02) and lowest strikeout rate (7.1 per nine innings) of his minor league career as a 20-year-old in High-A Salem last year, he remains one of the Sox’ top starting pitching prospects.
His fastball was hitting 92-94 mph last year, and his changeup projects as a swing-and-miss pitch at the big league level. He made strides with his curveball, and so while there is still plenty of development left ahead of him, he represents one of the best bets to emerge as a future big league starter in the Sox’ system.
“He has a major league changeup right now. His breaking ball is getting better all the time. He’s going to be a good one. He has all the ingredients to be a major league starting pitcher if his development continues at the rate it’s been going the last four years,” GM Theo Epstein said at the Futures Game, where Pimentel was representing the Red Sox. “His progress in the system has been steady and methodical. For a guy who signed four years ago at 16, to move through and have success at every level like he has, it’s been impressive.”
Fife, whose prospect stock rose dramatically thanks to a tremendous pitcher’s duel with Stephen Strasburg in college, is looking to bounce back from a tough 2010 campaign. The good news for the right-hander was that – after being held back due to shoulder fatigue at the start of spring training in 2009 – he was healthy for a full year at Double-A, where he made 26 starts and pitched 136 innings.
But after posting an outstanding 51-10 strikeout to walk ratio in 50 innings for High-A Salem in 2009, he punched out just 5.4 batters per nine innings for Portland, and his previously excellent groundball rates also dipped.
Still, he has shown a good sinking fastball and a swing-and-miss curveball as well as an improving changeup in the past. He has a sturdy starter’s frame, and the 24-year-old has a best-case scenario of either being a back-of-the-rotation major league starter or a reliever who could be a useful weapon with runners on base given his ability to sink his two-seam fastball.
He is expected to open the year in the PawSox rotation.
Wilson, whom the Sox tabbed in the second round of the 2009 draft, burst out of the gate in 2010 with a terrific performance for Salem. He had a 3.40 ERA while striking out 50 and walking 15 in 55 2/3 innings, but then got hit hard following his promotion to Double-A. He had a 6.66 ERA, and his strikeouts (6.4) and walks (3.9) per nine innings suffered.
That said, Wilson was pushed aggressively, becoming the first Sox pitching prospect since Masterson to land in Double-A in his first full pro season. As a starter, he had consistent 90-94 mph velocity with a biting slider and a changeup that farm director Mike Hazen described during the season as improving.
While Wilson is in the rotation now, and has at least a chance of remaining a starter (especially if his changeup continues to develop), he is viewed as a solid bet to be at least a solid reliever, with the potential for mid-90s fastball velocity and a wipeout slider. That said, the Sox will allow him to continue his development as a starter.
Coello, another of the Sox’ finds from the independent Golden Baseball League, is the lone player with big league experience in the group. Converted from a catcher to a pitcher three years ago, he spent 2008 in the GBL before having his contract purchased by the Sox.
He struck out nearly 11 batters per nine innings and had a 3.86 ERA with Portland and Pawtucket last year before making six big league appearances in Sept., where he had a 4.76 ERA while walking five and striking out five in 5 2/3 innings.
Coello represents potential bullpen depth for the season.
Rice is a right-handed reliever with a power arsenal. The 24-year-old, whom the Sox plucked from the White Sox system after the 2008 season in the minor league Rule 5 draft, pours mid-90s gas out of the bullpen, and has been clocked as high as 98 mph. In the last two years, working out of the bullpens of High-A Salem and Double-A Portland, he has 165 strikeouts in 130 innings.
He has command issues (71 walks in that time), but the ability to get swings and misses is intriguing. He will likely open the year in the Pawtucket bullpen.
Santeliz, signed by the Sox to a minor league contract this winter, had a 0.96 ERA for the White Sox in Double-A in 2009, but then saw that balloon to a 4.67 mark in Triple-A last season. However, his strikeout rate (8.7 per nine), walk rate (5.7 per nine), hit rate (6.7 per nine) and WHIP (1.37) were almost identical in 2009 and 2010. The biggest difference was a huge spike in his home run rate, which went up from 0.3 to 1.5 per nine innings.
He’s a 24-year-old power arm with control issues. He falls into the category of a bullpen depth option.
Federowicz is widely considered the best defensive catcher in the Red Sox system, a backstop who is skilled as a receiver, does a great job of controlling the running game and who pitchers love working with.
“Tim Federowicz is as consistent as they come when it comes to behind the plate defensively. He’s a plus catch-and-throw guy, a plus defender. There’s some life in that bat,” said Sox roving catching instructor Chad Epperson. “He had a very, very consistent season.”
In 2010, he spent the full year in High-A Salem, putting up modest offensive totals (.253/.324/.371/.695). He was bypassed by Ryan Lavarnway, whose defensive improvements and tremendous offensive performance allowed him to advance to Double-A. That said, there are still those who believe that Federowicz’ excellence behind the plate makes him the most likely product of the Sox farm system to emerge as a starting big league catcher.
“I think he’ll hit,” said Epperson. “He learns from [struggles] quickly. He’s got such a good idea up there at the plate, he’ll figure it out. His swing path is as good as any catcher we have as far as going through the hitting zone.”
A sixth-round pick in 2008 out of Yale, Lavarnway has shown consistent production throughout his minor league career. In his first full pro year in 2009, he hit .285/.367/.540/.907 with 21 homers and 87 RBI for Single-A Greenville.
He started 2010 in High-A Salem, hitting .289/.392/.487/.879 before a mid-year promotion to Double-A Portland, where he hit .285/.395/.494/.888. Between the two levels, he hit 22 homers and 102 RBI in 126 games.
If he’s a catcher, then his offense projects as being well above average. In 2009, however, there was widespread skepticism about whether he could stick behind the plate. In 2010, while some still have their doubts about his ability to remain a catcher as he progresses to the majors, the Sox, at least, felt that he made huge strides in his work as a signal-caller.
He improved his setup and stance, thus making him somewhat more fluid behind the plate. (Some, however, still describe his actions as being too unathletic for a catcher.) His catch-and-throw times to second dropped from the 2.2 range in 2009 to what Epperson suggested were times around 1.95 or 1.98 in games. The progress he made in one year – and his desire to learn and take instruction – have led some in the Sox organization to conclude that he can develop into a big league catcher.
“You look at this kid and you get a very limited look, I’m talking a series where he maybe catches three out of four games or two out of four games, he’s not going to overwhelm you with upside or talent [behind the plate. He’s just a grinder,” said Epperson. “I do think this guy is going to play in the big leagues and he’s going to catch in the big leagues. I’m just going off of the improvements he’s made in the last couple of years.
“Obviously his bat is a huge asset for him. If we can get that catching somewhere up there, we’re talking about a very special player. He’s definitely on his way of showing he can get this catching done.
“I had Kevin Youkilis back in the day. He was a kid who really didn’t hit for power, the question marks were there for power, is he going to be able to play third base, if you move him to first is he going to be able to hit enough…[Lavarnway] is kind of in that same class for me.”
At the end of the year, the stats suggested only an incremental improvement for 2007 fifth-rounder Will Middlebrooks. He spent the entire 2010 season in High-A Salem, hitting .276/.331/.439/.770 in his age 21 season.
But there were several indications of progress. First, his power numbers improved, as he went from 35 to 45 extra-base hits, despite going from an extremely favorable hitting environment for right-handers in Greenville to a less-favorable one in Salem, while facing more advanced pitching.
Moreover, the Sox felt he made significant strides in his approach that could represent a building block for the 6-foot-4 Middlebrooks – who shows significant raw power in batting practice – to emerge as a hitter who impacts the ball. That was most apparent during a July stretch in which he swatted six homers.
“He just started to loft the ball a little bit better during that period. It was good to see some of the power that we’ve seen a lot in batting practice translate to the game. As players get older, hopefully in Will’s case as he gets older, a little bit more mature, a little bit better understanding of his swing, hopefully we’ll see that more,” said farm director Mike Hazen. “His ability to impact the ball off the bat is among the best in the organization. That hasn’t translated into true power numbers yet.”
Right now, Middlebrooks’ swing is geared for line drives, rather than the loft needed to clear the fences. But the Sox saw lots of enough balls reach the gaps that the 22-year-old is regarded as the type of hitter who will grow into more homers. Certainly, the July stretch of longballs whet Middlebrooks’ appetite for more.
“People say there’s no feeling like hitting a home run. They’re right. It’s awesome when everything comes together with perfect timing, perfect location, perfect pitch,” said Middlebrooks. “I need to become a better hitter first and the power will come. It will come. It’s not a worry. It’s there. I’m just worried about becoming a better hitter right now.”
After two years of minimal production as a very young player in Low-A Greenville, Oscar Tejeda re-established his prospect credentials in 2010. As a 20-year-old with Salem in the Carolina League, he showed the ability to translate tools into performance against older competition.
He ended up with an impressive line of .307/.344/.454/.798 with 11 homers and 48 extra-base hits. After a couple seasons in which he endured health problems and injuries, his physical maturation allowed his terrific bat speed to play up into a consistent ability to impact the baseball.
“This is a lively bat. He has exciting hand speed when it goes through the zone. If you watch him take batting practice and watch him go through his work, it is impressive,” Kevin Boles, now the manager of Double-A Portland after serving in the same capacity with Salem in 2010, said during the year. “It stands out.”
Tejeda was named the No. 8 prospect in the Carolina League as a middle infielder with a chance to have 15-20 homer power. He was added to the 40-man roster by the Sox this offseason.
Juan Carlos Linares
Little was made of Juan Carlos Linares when he was sent to the Arizona Fall League to play a couple times a week as a taxi squad member. But even though he played in just 17 games, the 26-year-old’s performance was eye-opening, as he hit .397/.423/.662/1.084.
The Sox signed the defector from Cuba this past summer, and he played just 17 minor league games before heading out to Arizona. So he has age and minor league experience working against him (even though he competed at a high level in Cuba).
Still, he showed enough in the AFL to emerge as an intriguing player.
“He might not have that timeline of being able to develop as much, but being an older player, hopefully he is developed in his skills where he might move quickly,” said Mike Sarbaugh, who managed Linares for Peoria in the AFL. “He really swung the bat well, a really good fastball hitter. Any good big league hitter has to be able to hit the fastball, and he put some good swings on some fastballs.”
He primarily played the outfield corners, but also spent some time in center field. He took good routes even though he had somewhat limited range, according to Sarbaugh.