There’s a very good chance that the Red Sox remain relatively quiet at the trade deadline, that they pass on the high-end, impact big leaguers in a season where the team’s realistic chances of a playoff run are slim.
Still, even if the Sox don’t make such a move now, the team will explore the market for such players in an effort to gauge the market, both to figure out the cost of acquisition and to determine the worth of their own players for potential future deals.
While the Red Sox feature a number of prospects who possess considerable value in a potential deal, for obvious reasons, the team will want to preserve and build around the best of them. That being the case, it is worth wondering whether a surprising name might be the most untouchable of Red Sox prospects right now.
Henry Owens, a lanky, 6-foot-7 left-hander, has been one of the most fascinating performers of the year in the Red Sox minor league system. He’s 9-4 with a 5.30 ERA for Single-A Greenville, numbers that fail to represent what an interesting prospect he is.
Start with the fact that he is punching out 12.9 batters per nine innings (107 punchouts in 74 2/3 innings), the highest strikeout rate in all of minor league baseball.
Then consider that he has been among the youngest starting pitchers in the South Atlantic League all season, typically facing older and more experienced opposing hitters.
Then consider that he is in his first year of professional baseball after the Red Sox drafted him in the supplemental first round (No. 36 overall) of last year’s draft.
Then consider that he has a very impressive three-pitch arsenal, which right now features a 90-92 mph fastball that he can bump up to 94 mph, a devastating changeup that may be his best swing-and-miss weapon and a curveball that he can spin well, albeit with still-inconsistent location.
Then consider that he has a precocious understanding for the craft of pitching, an understanding of what it means to set up pitches and counts and to change the eye levels of hitters with an elevated 94 mph fastball before coming back with a 90 mph heater at the knees.
The net result?
“Henry Owens may be the best prospect in our entire system right now,” one Sox official recently mused.
That’s no small feat, given that he is in a system that features some high-end talent in the form of Xander Bogaerts, Matt Barnes and Jackie Bradley Jr. But even if one makes the case that any of those three has a brighter big league future than Owens -- and compelling cases can be made for all of them as the top prospect in the Sox system -- Owens might be the most untradeable.
That doesn’t simply reflect his future value or ceiling. Instead, it reflects the fact that he will be the most difficult player for whom the Red Sox may find what they might consider equivalent value.
There is relative industry consensus on Barnes, Bogaerts and Bradley, all of whom are considered top prospects. Barnes represents a legitimate mid- to front-of-the-rotation starting pitching prospect thanks to his mid-90s fastball and the makings of a solid curveball and changeup. Bogaerts represents a monster hitting prospect, regardless of whether he stays at shortstop or moves to third or the outfield. Bradley is a lock to be an everyday center fielder, a dazzling defender with the on-base skills to be at the top of the order.
All three have showcased their talents over longer samples, whether in college and now the pros in the cases of Barnes and Bradley or multiple levels of professional baseball in the case of Bogaerts. It’s not hard to have industry consensus about what their values might be in a trade.
Owens is a bit different. He’s the embodiment of projection, a pitcher whose high ERA will be dismissed by his supporters (particularly in the Sox organization) as the typical learning process of a young pitcher but whose high strikeout totals will be downplayed by critics (chiefly, scouts of other organizations) as the byproduct of the level where he’s pitching and the fact that his opponents have rarely seen anyone like Owens -- very tall and gangly and left-handed and with a legitimate breaking ball and changeup -- on the mound.
Critics will see promise in Owens but will want to see that promise take greater definition in more advanced professional levels. The Sox, meanwhile, have more of a history with him, and so they see a remarkable player, pitcher and person who represents a future front-of-the-rotation pitcher. (A side note: A case can be made that no one in the system has more passion for baseball than Owens, whose incredible enthusiasm and rooting interest -- as well as attentiveness -- in his Greenville Drive team while sitting in the stands and charting games has become subject to organizational folklore.)
That, in turn, is likely to create asymmetrical value for the pitcher. The Sox’ view of him simply may not align with that of other teams, something that would make it almost impossible to consider a deal involving hm.
There is no such thing as an untouchable player in the Red Sox system, but there are players whom the organization values incredibly highly. Owens may be at the top of the list, as team officials suggest that it would take a remarkable talent to part with him.
A rental player, no matter how good, wouldn’t be enough of a return to consider dealing the young left-hander. For that matter, even players who are under team control for both this year and next -- think Matt Garza -- would not likely sway the Sox to deal him. In all likelihood, the Sox would need to get an established star-caliber big leaguer who would remain under team control for years in order to even contemplate the idea of trading the pitcher (who turned 20 a few days ago).
There are instances where players represent trading chips. If a player is blocked or, in some ways, redundant, his primary value to an organization is in his ability to help the team address an actual need. The team’s glut of outfielders comes to mind.
Owens does not. There’s no one like him in the Red Sox system, and there are few like him in all of professional baseball. What that means for his future is a bit unclear -- good luck looking at a pitcher who was drafted out of high school and is now in his first year of pro ball and saying with any certainty what his career path will be -- but all indications are that the Sox will keep him around to find out.
OTHER PROSPECTS WHO ARE UNLIKELY TO GO ANYWHERE
- Is it even necessary to detail why the Sox are unlikely to part with Will Middlebrooks? Two simple ways of digesting the idea: 1) They traded a three-time All-Star to clear an everyday spot for him; and 2) They refused to include him in offseason conversations about players like Gio Gonzalez of the A’s, an All-Star left-hander who was still four years away from free agency.
- The Red Sox are well aware that the best way to build a successful rotation is to accumulate homegrown starters. Signing free agents like John Lackey to huge contracts does not represent a sustainable or successful model for building an organization. Teams are far better off drafting and developing front-end starters and benefiting from their services at the start of their careers, when they are most likely to be healthy with dominant stuff.
Toward that end, it’s almost impossible to imagine the team trading away Matt Barnes. Unlike Owens, Barnes’ value in the industry is more likely to align with the team’s view of him. Still, the Sox need to have pitchers like Barnes come up to impact their rotation; at a certain point, a team needs to hold on to its starting pitching prospects in order to ensure the long-term health of its pitching staff.
He’s a college pitcher with the sort of easy mid-90s fastball (and fastball command) that makes it easy to project him as a future big league starter. The development of his curveball (potentially an above-average pitch) and changeup will dictate where he slots, whether atop a rotation or more of a middle-of-the-rotation option.
Either way, it doesn’t require a big leap of faith to see Barnes as a viable big league starter in the near future, and increasingly, he seems like a player around whom the organization expects to build.
Though his numbers have come back to earth a bit, between Single-A Greenville and High-A Salem this year he is 7-3 with a 2.30 ERA, 113 strikeouts and 20 walks in 94 innings.
- With Jacoby Ellsbury eligible for free agency after the 2013 season, Jackie Bradley Jr. looms as the obvious successor should he go. In his first pro season, Bradley was arguably the best position player in the High-A Carolina League before his promotion to Double-A Portland.
Bradley’s line as a 22-year-old since his mid-year promotion: .304/.391/.478/.870. Ellsbury’s line as a 22-year-old in Portland following a mid-year promotion in 2006: .308/.387/.434/.821.
Bradley is a more advanced hitter than was Ellsbury at a comparable stage. He’s also a better defender. He doesn’t have the same impact on the bases, and he may never have a power display like the one Ellsbury put on in 2011, but then, Ellsbury has never had another power display like the one he put on in 2011.
One AL scout called Bradley an All-Star, Gold Glove leadoff hitter. Unless the Sox lock up Ellsbury (and there’s no evidence to suggest they will), the Sox need to keep Bradley.
- There is no hitter in the Red Sox system with the ceiling of shortstop Xander Bogaerts. He has tremendous power potential and a very good approach at the plate that suggests the possibility of steady and rapid advancement. Indeed, the fact that he has spent all year in High-A as a 19-year-old speaks volumes about his advanced talents.
Regardless of whether Bogaerts stays at short or moves to third, the outfield or even second base (an idea floated by one industry observer, who compared him to Robinson Cano), he represents a likely impact player, someone with superstar potential. As such, the Sox are unlikely to pass on his considerable potential unless they get a superstar in return. There’s no indication that such a player is available on the trade market.
- Catcher Blake Swihart is a lot like Owens: It’s tough to see his external value aligning with the view of him inside the Sox organization. The 20-year-old is hitting .266/.312/.412/.725 with six homers in Greenville, numbers that aren’t so far off from the league average (.259.337/.387/.723). At 20, in his first pro season, he’s young but not really young, and there have been stretches when opposing scouts have seen no more than modest offensive impact.
But while Swihart has made the transition to pro ball and caught every day for the first time in his life, the Sox have seen a highly regarded prospect -- a 2011 first-rounder who received a $2.5 million signing bonus -- who has posted numbers that have progressively improved as the season has continued.
For years, the Sox bemoaned their inability to get a crack at a Matt Wieters or Buster Posey type of player in the draft, someone who would be off the board long before the team would pick. In Swihart, the team has its best crack at such a player, someone with impressive tools and skills behind the plate (despite his relative inexperience there) and whose offensive numbers have gotten better every month.
One caveat: There is the potential for some redundancy here. Jarrod Saltalamacchia was nearly good enough to make the All-Star team this year; he leads all big league catchers with 19 homers. The Sox remain convinced that Ryan Lavarnway is a future everyday catcher who is on the cusp of the big leagues.
If the team feels strongly about how it is situated for the next several years at catcher with Saltalamacchia and Lavarnway (not to mention Christian Vazquez, who is having a very strong stretch in High-A Salem), then it’s possible that Swihart could be expendable at some point.
But again, that’s a move more easily made when the Sox’ very high regard for the player would match that of another organization. That might be hard to accomplish, particularly given the reality that catcher is a position of great vulnerability, where surplus is a far better status than shortage.
SO WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE THE SOX?
Given that group of prospects, which would give the Sox tremendous pause, there is a surprising wealth of prospects that could make attractive targets in a potential deal. In particular, the Sox possess outfield depth from the majors all the way down to the Dominican to create a number of interesting players who could be dealt.
Among the impressive (and attractive) group of outfielders in the system:
- Daniel Nava: He’s come back to earth, but he still has a .373 OBP and he’s made considerable defensive strides to the point where he’s adequate in left and even had a start in right field at Fenway.
- Ryan Kalish: A player with the ceiling of an everyday center fielder, capable of above-average power, speed, defense and plate approach. His injury history will create questions about his value, but he’s still close to the big leagues with the potential to be a valuable everyday contributor.
- Juan Carlos Linares: He probably projects as a very good fourth outfielder (and occasional starter) who will pulverize left-handed pitching (though he’s been successful this year against lefties and righties). Such a player would have value for the Sox but not to the point where he wouldn’t be tradeable.
- Bryce Brentz: He has big power potential, as demonstrated by the 30 homers he hit in just 115 games in two levels of A-ball in 2011, but he hasn’t backed up that big display while adjusting to Double-A. He’s had some tremendous stretches, but he’s hitting .275/.342/.444/.786 with 12 homers and 35 extra-base hits in 96 games. His ceiling remains that of a player whose power could still emerge as an everyday corner outfielder, but even though he was an Eastern League All-Star, the 23-year-old’s projection is certainly more modest now than it was a year ago.
- Brandon Jacobs: Playing in High-A Salem, Jacobs may be the most useful trade chip in the Sox system right now. He’s performing well as a 21-year-old in the power-suppressing Caorlina League, hitting .284/.337/.439/.776 with nine homers and 13 steals, numbers that are comparable to those put up by another high school two-sport star -- Will Middlebrooks -- at the same age when he was in the Carolina League. He’s having a big July (.310/.368/.483/.851 in 21 games), at a time when scouting attention is intensified.
- Keury De La Cruz: The 20-year-old outfielder has enjoyed impressive consistency this year with Greenville. He’s hitting .311/.356/.531/.886 with 14 homers and 45 extra-base hits in 86 games. He’s spent the year in left field, though the Sox believe that De La Cruz (who had been a center fielder prior to this season) can be an impact player at the position, and his potential for power with some speed combined with an aggressive, hard-nosed approach stands out for scouts.
OTHER AREAS OF DEPTH
- Catcher: In Ryan Lavarnway, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach, the Red Sox have three catchers who would represent above-average big league catching options right now. Shoppach, who is eligible for free agency, is the natural candidate to be dealt, though for the right return the Sox would have to consider Lavarnway or Saltalamacchia as well. Another name to note: Christian Vazquez, a catcher with excellent defensive tools who hit well in Greenville last year, got off to a horrendous start in Salem but then came on with a big performance to start the second half.
- Shortstop: Given the proverbial (and well-documented!) revolving door at shortstop, it’s surprising that the Sox would have anyone on this list, but their lower minors are loaded with toolsy shortstops. At the upper levels, Jose Iglesias is showing incremental improvements in his offensive numbers this year while still demonstrating electrifying defensive skills. But the real depth of the system at this position is further down, where Bogaerts (who most in the industry project to move off the position), first-round pick Deven Marrero (who can’t be traded this summer), Tzu-Wei Lin (who just signed out of Taiwan and is in the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League), intriguing Cleuluis Rondon (also in the GCL) and particularly Greenville’s Jose Vinicio are all intriguing given that all except arguably Bogaerts show the defensive ability to stay at the position. Vinicio, in particular, has attracted the notice of scouts given the switch-hitter’s surprising pop given his miniscule frame and the fact that he has standout defensive tools.
- Third base: With Middlebrooks likely locking down the position for some time to come, a player like Garin Cecchini -- taken in the fourth round of the 2010 draft but signed for first-round money -- will inevitably garner attention. He has one of the most advanced offensive approaches in the system that suggests the potential to transform some of his current doubles power into home runs down the road. He also has incredible baseball instincts, helping him to steal 35 bases in 38 attempts this year. At this point, other prospects who entered the system with considerable fanfare (Kolbrin Vitek, Michael Almanzar) but whose career paths haven’t been as anticipated could be moved, but neither would carry tremendous value.
- First base: The Red Sox had a deal in place last year to send Lars Anderson to the Athletics, but it fell apart over Rich Harden’s medicals. With Adrian Gonzalez stationed at the position for the next six-plus years in the majors, Anderson represents an obvious candidate to be dealt. Travis Shaw is having one of the best seasons in the Red Sox system, with a great approach and an ability to drive the ball to left-center that would play well at Fenway, but again, given Gonzalez’s presence, the Sox certainly could consider moving him as a secondary chip. Right now, some view Shaw as the prospect with the greatest likelihood of being a big league everyday first baseman in the system.