The Red Sox have several options behind Henry Owens in the system. (Jillian Souza/Pawtucket Red Sox)
1. Last Friday night when the Red Sox hosted the Indians, nine out of the 10 players in the starting lineup, including pitcher Clay Buchholz were homegrown players — something almost unheard of in today’s game.
Over the years the Red Sox have had great success in developing positional players, but when it comes to pitching, it hasn’t been there. Per Bill Ballou of the Worcester Telegram, going back to 1997, only about 25 percent of Red Sox wins have come from homegrown pitchers and Jon Lester (110) and Clay Buchholz (75) have about half of them.
On the current 25-man roster, only Buchholz is a homegrown talent in the rotation. In the bullpen it’s just Junichi Tazawa and Matt Barnes. In contrast, seven of the 13 positional players are homegrown.
This doesn’t mean it’s harder to develop pitchers, it’s just something the Red Sox haven’t done as good of a job doing over the years.
“I don’t think in general it is,” Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett said. “I think every organization is different — pitchers and position players. I don’t think it’s by design harder to do.”
With new president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski coming aboard at the end of last season, one of the things he stressed was developing more power pitchers. Top-to-bottom, the organization looked to improve its pitching, which included the hiring of Brian Bannister as the director of pitching analytics.
“I think we spent a lot of time this offseason spending time evaluating our programs and making adjustments where we felt was needed,” Crockett said. “Bringing in new personnel with Brian Bannister on board now, there’s definitely been some smaller adjustments that we’ve made and some refinements in what we’re doing. We have a good crop of guys that are upcoming.”
There was some hope at this time last year Henry Owens and Brian Johnson would be homegrown stars the organization couldn’t find in recent years and while there’s still time for them to become stars, their brief stints in the majors weren’t all that encouraging.
Currently, there aren’t any star pitchers in waiting at the Triple-A level (besides Owens and Johnson), but there are some in the lower levels of the organization who could come up in the coming years as the Red Sox hope to have a number of homegrown players take to the mound at Fenway Park.
“I think we’ve got a good crop throughout the full season affiliates,” Crockett said. “We have some guys that have the profiles as starters in the big leagues and others who have a chance to profile as relievers. Obviously our goal no matter what the profile is is to maximize each guy and each guy’s ability and potential to try and put them in the best position possible to help Boston.”
Following are the top six players who could be the next top pitching prospect to make the majors from within the organization.
2. At just 18 years old, Anderson Espinoza is the top pitching prospect the Red Sox have. He dominated in his first professional season as between three teams (Dominican League, Florida Gulf Coast League and one start with Single-A Greenville), the right-hander had an ERA of 1.23 and recorded 65 strikeouts in just 58 1/3 innings. He was limited to just four inning stints as the Red Sox monitored his pitch load, which they are continuing to do this season.
“It’s definitely a benefit [to getting a player signed so young], Crockett said. “We’re lucky to have that with any International player that signs at 17. That is a challenge and something we feel good about the way we’ve kept our pitchers who have come up through the system fairly healthy. That is something we pride ourselves on.”
Espinoza pitched a full six innings for the first time in his professional career Wednesday not allowing a run on just two hits. He hasn’t been as dominant this year as he was last year — 3-4 with a 3.86 ERA in nine starts with Single-A Greenville — but being challenged as a prospect is never a bad thing and Espinoza has been able to bounce back nicely after down starts.
“We want our guys to go out and have as much success as they can, but I think naturally guys are often challenged throughout the minor leagues and that is a good thing,” said Crockett.
3. Although he may not have the most impressive numbers, Teddy Stankiewicz is emerging as one of the top Red Sox pitchers in the minors. He’s steadily progressed each year and is currently performing well with Double-A Portland.
The 2013 second-round pick currently has a 1-3 record with a 3.28 ERA, but in his eight starts he’s gone at least six innings and allowed two runs or less in seven of them.
“He’s been really consistent throughout the year,” Crockett said. “He’s done a nice job with that. He pounds the strike zone. He has a nice mix that he’s improved the power and quality of his breaking ball and his slider this year. I think that having the four-pitch mix that he does, he’s been able to show some things. There’s always ebbs and flows in every season. Guys are going to have shorter outings and longer outings and not always have their best stuff, but certainly the more often you’re consistent and keep your team in the game the better off you’re going to be.”
4. Patience is starting to pay off with Trey Ball. The No. 7 overall pick in the 2013 draft was unimpressive in his first two full seasons in the organization, especially last season when he finished 9-13 with a 4.73 ERA with High-A Salem.
But, some often forget Ball was a two-way player out of high school in New Castle, Indiana and didn’t start strictly pitching until he was drafted. The tall, lanky left-hander could have played center field as well. Now, 21 years old, Ball has discovered how to pitch and use all of his pitches effectively.
“You’re always trying to be as patient as you can understanding a guys age and what his experience is,” Crockett said. “Trey coming out high school — at least a lot of high school pitchers were two-way guys at that time. Trey was more of a prospect in both areas, but other guys were probably coming from a warmer climate as well. It limited his reps and exposure to being solely focused on pitching. He’s definitely done a nice job and we’re going to be as patient as we can while at the same time with all our guys look to progress each year.”
Following knee surgery in early February, Ball missed the majority of spring training and joined Salem about a month into the year, but he hasn’t missed a beat. In five starts, Ball is 2-0 with a 1.86 ERA and most recently has allowed just one run over his last 13 innings.
“He’s done a very nice job so far. He really has,” Crockett said. “He worked hard in extending spring training and made a few adjustments during that time that he was building back up on the mound. Certainly it has paid dividends so far. It’s been a short sample, but we are very pleased with the progress he’s made thus far. The refinement of that cutter has certainly been a benefit to him. I think it has enhanced his whole mix. It has made his fastball and changeup that much [better of a pitch.]”
5. Based on pure stuff, Michael Kopech may have the best stuff in the system. The right-hander’s fastball tops out in the high-90s, but he’s had some off-field stuff get in the way of his development.
The 2014 first-rounder missed the entire second half of the season last year with Single-A Greenville after being suspended 50 games for using a performing-enhancing drug. Then, during spring training this year he got in an altercation with one of his teammates and broke his hand.
Currently, Kopech is in Fort Myers working his way back and has begun throwing live batting practice. By all accounts he is working hard to come back and put what happened in the past. No set timetable has been set, but it would seem by early June he would be ready to join an affiliate. The Red Sox still believe he has what it takes to make a long lasting impact.
6. One pitcher not well-known outside the organization is Travis Lakins after was selected in the sixth round last year out of Ohio State. The organization monitored his workload after he tossed a lot of innings with the Buckeyes and only appeared in one game, throwing two innings last season with short-season, Single-A Lowell.
This year, Lakins skipped Greenville and went right to High-A Salem. For the most part, he’s proved the organization right. The 6-foot-1 right-hander is 5-2 with a 4.63 ERA, but over his first five starts he allowed a total of six runs. After three poor outings, he rebounded by allowing one run over six innings his last time out. Lakins has the stuff to one day contribute in the big leagues.
7. It was a late start to his career with the Red Sox, but Aaron Wilkerson has made the most of it. As a 25-year-old, the right-hander was playing Indy Ball where the Red Sox discovered him, signing him to a minor league contract.
He made a good first impression as in eight games he went 5-1 with a 1.62 ERA with short-season, Single-A Lowell in 2014. Wilkerson continued his strong showing last season as in 29 games between Greenville, Salem and Portland, he went 11-3 with a 3.10 ERA. Now, 27 years old, the right-hander is 2-1 with a 1.83 ERA in eight starts with Portland. He was given a start with Triple-A Pawtucket earlier in the year and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him promoted for good as the Red Sox might need to be more aggressive with him than any other prospect given his age.
8. Johnson was placed on the temporary inactive list last weekend so he can seek help for anxiety. The left-handed pitcher was having an uncharacteristic start to the season as with Triple-A Pawtucket he was 2-3 with a 4.64 ERA, but had 22 walks in 33 innings.
This comes after last year when he had just 32 walks in 96 innings. The 2012 first-round pick hasn’t had the easiest of careers as he was hit in the face by a line drive later that summer during a Futures at Fenway game when he was with Lowell and took significant time making a full recovery.
The left-hander is in Fort Myers receiving treatment and the entire organization wishes him well in getting back to the mound and back to his normal self.
“He’s a great kid and we really support him,” Crockett said. “We want to get him back to where he needs to be.”
9. After center fielder Andrew Benintendi was promoted to Double-A Portland, it wasn’t like he picked up right where he left off with High-A Salem. In his first five games, the left-handed hitter went 2-for–19 with six strikeouts. This came after he hit .341 with nine strikeouts in 34 games with Salem.
Being challenged isn’t necessarily a bad thing as he wasn’t being challenged in Salem, thus one of the reasons for his promotion.
“I think any time you’re promoting a guy up due to performance it’s part of it,” Crockett said. “There is a reason for doing it — increasing a level of challenge and pushing that player’s limits. Absolutely that played into it. It’s just a few games in so far. He’s shown some improvements and hit some balls hard that he hasn’t been rewarded for. Ultimately, I think he’s in the right place in Portland.”
Now, seven games in with Portland, he’s 4-for-25.
10. With reliever Carson Smith needing Tommy John surgery this week, it’s worth looking at a few relievers in the system who could potentially make it to the big leagues within the next year.
Pat Light leads the way as his fastball hit 101 mph recently, but the issue with him has been his control. The right-hander, who had a stint in the majors earlier this year, has a 3.24 ERA, but 10 walks in 16 2/3 innings with Pawtucket. Light has major league stuff, he just needs to work on his command.
Another name to keep an eye on is Chandler Shepherd. A 13th round pick in 2014, hasn’t allowed a run in seven of his last eight outings with Portland. The righty has 29 strikeouts in just 22 2/3 innings and could be seeing a promotion to Pawtucket in the near future.