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August 21, 2012 at 7:30 AM

The Book: Positioned in the upper levels

I recently touched on the pitching depth within the organization. While there has been progress with seeing the development of some arms that can make an impact at the major league level down the line, the overall theme is that the organization still has some ways to go. The Red Sox minor league system is far deeper when it comes to position player prospects. In recent seasons, there has been a crop of talent emerging within the ranks. This year third baseman Will Middlebrooks made the jump to the big leagues and before his season ending wrist injury was showing he can handle the transition to being a major league regular. Let’s take a look at how things have shaped up in the upper minors as the minor league season winds down.

Impact potential

Level: Double-A
Age: 19

Assessment: I’ve been able to scout Bogaerts since 2010 when I first saw him down at the Fall Instructional League, and he has continued to show impressive progression for a player his age. His raw power and ability to impact the baseball jumped out when first seeing him, but I needed more of a handle on his hit tool initially. Bogaerts showed the early clues of being able to stay inside the baseball to go the other way, along with keeping his hands back on his body when attacking breaking balls. These were promising signs for a young hitter. The goal entering this season on a scouting level was to continue to evaluate his consistency within these areas. Spring training gave a good initial glimpse as Bogaerts was focused on staying back to use his quick wrists, lining one particularly impressive home run out to right field.
The trend continued when I was down in Salem scouting in early June. While Bogaerts can get too far out in front of breaking balls, he showed a firm understanding of how to use his hands when hitting. He drives fastballs with backspin to all fields and shows very easy power. I see the potential for him to hit .285, with 30 home runs or more, during peak seasons. Bogaerts’ future position has been much discussed this season. My view is that over the long-term he is likely to move off the shortstop position, either to third base or the outfield. The latter would be more as a move to get his bat in the lineup when it is major league ready, and not a comment on his his ability to handle third base. I feel he can stick in the infield over the long haul. Bogaerts is bound to see some resistance in the upper minors, but his talent and ability to adjust put him on track to begin entering the equation for Boston in late 2013 or 2014. He is both the clear-cut top position player and prospect within the system, with the potential to be a perennial All-Star, who hits in the middle of the order.

Level: Double-A
Age: 22

Assessment: Bradley’s been an interesting player for me to scout since signing with the organization. The defense was apparent when first seeing him and that has carried with him in every scouting opportunity. Although not a burner, his instincts and ability to read balls off the bat more than make up for it. With range that grades as above-average and good closing speed when he gets moving, Bradley glides after balls and rarely has to leave his feet due to his precise routes. Throw in a plus-to-better arm, and the defensive package adds up to an above-average centerfielder, one I see as being capable of stacking up with the best in the majors. Bradley showed a longer swing when I first saw him at Lowell during the tail-end of last season, but I began to get a better handle on him as a hitter at the 2011 Fall Instructional League. Looking more comfortable in the box, he used his hands to hit much better and that carried over into spring training, where he looked like a different hitter than after initially signing. His grinding approach and understanding of his strike zone has shown throughout the season. However, there are a couple of holes that he will need to iron out in the upper minors. Bradley tends to reach across the plate for fastballs on the outer third, leading him to roll over them, while also having some trouble with fastballs inside as his swing can get over-extended. Given the type of makeup Bradley possesses, I see him being able to make the necessary adjustments during next season. He has also looked a bit worn down recently, which is to be expected during his first full season as a professional. Bradley projects as a top-of-the-order hitter, who can make a lot of contact, take his fair share of walks, and show “sneaky” power. He hits balls hard into both gaps and will muscle up on fastballs when pitchers leave them middle-in at the thighs. I see him capable of hitting .290-.300 during the prime of his career, with doubles power and the ability to top out around 10-12 home runs. Add in his defense, and the ability to become an above-average major league regular is within reach. Expect him to return to Double-A to start 2013, with a strong chance at a promotion by mid-season and the potential to get a major league call-up during the summer should the need arise.

Questions to be answered

Level: MLB
Age: 25

Assessment: The question since Lavarnway signed with the organization stems around whether he can catch. It has been a frequently asked question to me from readers and followers. From 2008-2010, it was murky at best. Lavarnway was initially very rough behind the plate, with limited mobility and stiff reactions. When he arrived in Double-A mid-way through 2010, there was progress with his catch and release technique, but he was still very rough overall. The view here has long been that Lavarnway is capable of catching on a part-time basis at the major league level. He’s made progress behind the plate, especially in recent seasons. There has been a lot of dedication to his craft, driven by a strong work ethic and baseball makeup. While he has still gotten tangled with his feet this year and at times fights things back there, he has improved with keeping his body square to the ball to handle pitches in the dirt better. Lavarnway’s become softer receiving the ball, but can stab and drift with his target. Offensively, the scouting looks have been mixed in 2012 however. His swing was on the long side early in the season and when he shortened it up the pull power he previously showed became inconsistent. Whether it was a combination of him feeling the effects from catching regularly, being pitched to differently, or some boredom, he’s been a bit different in 2012. I currently see areas that Lavarnway can be pitched to at the major league level. There is some maintenance in his swing, but when he is going well he has a quick load and the ability to make opposing pitchers pay for their mistakes. I expect him to be a streaky hitter. He is at the point where he is going to learn at the major league level, both offensively and defensively. I don’t see Lavarnway as a front-line catcher who will anchor the position for 125-130 games a season. Catchers like that are few and far between in baseball. Used in a rotation and kept fresh over the course of the season, he is a player who can contribute offensively in the sixth slot in a lineup and show to be fringe average-to-average defensively at the position over the course of the next handful of seasons.

Level: Double-A
Age: 23

Assessment: The theme of this section is questions, and the first question that typically gets asked in regards to Brentz is his plate discipline. Brentz is both an interesting and tough player to scout, especially when it comes to his future projection. I’ve seen him at various stages over the course of this season. Early on, he could not lay off any pitch and was pretty much just swinging from his heels. As Brentz began to adjust and stay back on the ball, he showed his ability to drive fastballs to all fields with power. He has been inconsistent though, mainly with proving he can handle secondary offerings. At times, he does not see them well out of opposing pitchers’ hands, and when compounded with his over-aggressive nature in chasing high fastballs it leads to an easier time of getting him out. The hitting talent is there for Brentz. He checks in with plus power, driving the ball easily with backspin when he gets a hold of it, and can hit 20 to 25 home runs at the major league level. Will he be able to make enough contact to do so and hold down a spot as a regular? The jury is still out. For Brentz to do so, he is going to have to continue to learn to be more selective at the plate and drill home the importance of staying back on the ball, while the level of competition rises. I see the understanding from him via his body language that he needs improvement and also like the way he can go the other way with authority. Brentz is not a dead pull hitter. It is a tough read because his body is not always following his mind and he needs to break the habit of consistently opening his hips up early. Pitchers will feed him breaking balls early in sequences and then climb up the ladder on him if he can’t resist the urge to constantly swing. I feel he can end up about an average major leaguer, capable of starting during some future seasons, although it may come with a different organization on a smaller market club.

Level: Triple-A
Age: 22

Assessment: The drill with Iglesias has really become quite simple. Outstanding glove at shortstop, but will he hit at the major league level? Last season when scouting him, he was clearly over-matched in Triple-A and well behind the speed of the game offensively. The instances of him squaring the ball up consistently were few and far between. Iglesias’ swing was hindered by his inability to keep his hands back, and breaking balls fooled him considerably. A positive from the season showed with him cutting down his strike zone. He did become more selective, although his well below-average pitch recognition made it tough for him to build momentum on top of that progress. Iglesias has made strides this season, but still does repeat some of his mistakes. Breaking balls away from him are a challenge. He lunges at them or gets fooled because he still tends to guess in counts. Iglesias mostly makes weak contact against these offerings. I’ve always been high on his batspeed and quick hands. When he stays back on the ball and works into fastball counts, he can clear fastballs out quickly on a line. He doesn’t hit the other way all that well though and it is an area I have been zoning in on this season to see if there will be progression. Iglesias’ defense is well documented. He can solidify the shortstop position long-term, while providing an elite level of defense. Another positive for Iglesias is that he shows the ability to separate his offense from his defense, something not all young players can do. Throughout his times of struggle, his defensive focus never waivers and that bodes well should he struggle offensively in his early career as a big leaguer, which I see as all but inevitable. Eventually, I feel Iglesias can hit between .270-.280 as a major leaguer, but that will require a commitment from the organization or another club to take the initial offensive lumps, which may last multiple seasons as he learns.

On the Radar

Level: Double-A
Age: 22

Assessment: Shaw’s an interesting player who showed to be advanced past the lower minors in his first full professional season. There was some talk earlier in the year about him possibly being able to play third base, but he has a bigger body and does not have the athleticism or foot speed to play the position. After scouting him again recently in Double-A, it was apparent that he has the type of body that he is going to have to maintain as he gets into his mid-to-late twenties, and off-season conditioning will be important in doing so. Shaw can do some things well offensively. He is a gap-to-gap hitter, who lets the ball get deep on him and also has a strong understanding of the strike zone. He’s expanded his zone somewhat in the early going in Double-A, but I expect as he settles that will normalize. Shaw is what I call a “wait-and-see guy,” mainly because I want to see how his skill set translates against better competition. He doesn’t have the best of batspeed or tools that jump off the page, but knows himself and displays a mental understanding of the game. First base is a tough position because the prospects there have to project to consistently hit, and hit a lot, to profile as starters. The organization also has a first baseman locked up at the major league level that is likely not going anywhere for the foreseeable future. Shaw’s eventual contribution is likely as a trade chip, should he show to be capable of adjusting to the advanced competition. In the early going that adjustment has been in the form of quickening up against fastballs on the inner third.

Level: Double-A
Age: 21

Assessment: Vazquez is a good example of how prospects can evolve physically and the steps their game can take because of it. As an 18-year-old at Lowell, he was a pudgy teenager and did not scout well at all. His bat dragged, he was beaten by mediocre fastballs, and his mobility behind the plate was severely limited. I remember marking him as possibly an organizational player and honestly did not expect him to progress into Double-A. A lot of scouting is about timing and during my swing through Greenville last season Vazquez happened to get tossed in the first inning of my first game there and was subsequently suspended. Opportunity lost. A veteran scout, who also saw Vazquez at Lowell, mentioned towards the tail-end of the season that he looked like a different player than early in his career. I made it a point to zone in on him during this past spring training. The body is still on the softer side, but a vast improvement from what it was and the defense has made strong strides. Vazquez receives the ball well and has a much easier time moving behind the plate to smother balls or react quickly to ones off target. I see a light bat, but given the nature of the position within baseball, his glove is becoming attractive. Now in Double-A, Vazquez is going to have to prove he can handle the finer points of the position. I saw some positive signs when scouting him in Salem, which included more of a “take charge” mentality during game action and the understanding of how to control the game. He may ceiling-out as a Triple-A depth catcher, but the potential as a major league back-up is there and 2013 will be an opportunity to continue to scout the progress in a full season at Double-A.

Photo Credits: Xander Bogaerts, Bryce Brentz, and Travis Shaw by Dave Letizi

Chris Mellen is Director of Scouting for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisMellen