April 15, 2015 at 3:00 PM
Position at a glance: A change in focus away from polished college arms and toward high school athletes gives the Red Sox a far different look at Salem and Greenville than they have had in recent years. The approach may yield less on-field success in terms of wins and losses, but has a better chance to generate the frontline starter it has been searching for.
Will Trey Ball begin to live up to being the seventh overall pick?
As Jon Meoli wrote last week, Greenville pitching coach Paul Abbott believes so. After a very difficult first half in 2014, Ball (pictured, right) really began to straighten things out as the summer wore on. An improved changeup becae a legitimate second pitch to complement his fastball, and mechanical adjustments in how he threw his curveball showed promise as well. The results of those tweaks were visible in Ball’s stat line: After posting a 7.27 ERA through the end of June, he had just a 2.70 mark in his last 11 starts, along with improved strikeout and groundball rates.
The key in 2015 will be for Ball to sustain those gains against the more difficult competition of the Carolina League. He got off to a tough start in his 2015 debut last Friday, surrendering a pair of two-run homers in the second, but showed considerable poise in settling down and pitching into the sixth inning. Expectations for Ball have been significant due to his early selection in 2013, but his profile as a raw high school athlete has always meant he would be a long follow. A perfect-world scenario would see him breaking out this season, but based on looks from spring training, it is more likely that Ball will see some resistance from the more polished High A hitters as he posts incremental improvements.
Why does it seem like the pitchers are struggling more in A-ball than they used to?
For years, the Red Sox focused on drafting college arms who moved through the system relatively quickly. While that strategy yielded players who saw only token resistance in the mid-minors, it has produced mixed results at the major league level, with players like Jonathan Papelbon and Justin Masterson having relative success, but others like Nick Hagadone, Alex Wilson, Brandon Workman, Bryan Price, Kris Johnson, and Craig Hansen all became relievers or fungible depth in the big leagues. But presently, the notable prospects on the Salem and Greenville rosters are almost all high school or junior college draftees, or international signings. Even the top talents, Michael Kopech and Ball, are both still more projection and promise than polish, and they, like their younger compatriots, will have to learn through some struggles, and that will be by design.
Who to Watch
Top prospect #1a: Michael Kopech, Assignment: Greenville
He wowed in spring training with a fastball that touched the high 90s, but Kopech (pictured, left) is still very raw. He has the tall, projectable frame that the Red Sox have tended to focus on, but the organization is in the process of rebuilding the high-impact, herky-jerky delivery he used in high school into something more streamlined and repeatable. Progress for Kopech will be fragmented and inconsistent, and despite his high ceiling as perhaps a number two starter, there is with that a real risk that it never comes together. Still, earning a season-opening assignment for Kopech, who is on the young side for a 2014 draftee, is reason to be bullish.
Top prospect #1b: Trey Ball, Assignment: Salem
At 6-foot-6 with superior athleticism, Ball is tantalizing. Unlike Kopech, he uses a low-effort delivery to generate a fastball that touches 95 and a potentially devastating changeup. Improvement may continue to seem slow, but the Red Sox did not draft Ball to be a quick study. They expected and are prepared for a deliberate climb through the minor leagues, with an expected arrival date between late 2017 and 2018. Patience.
Stock Rising: Teddy Stankiewicz, Assignment: Salem
The 2013 second-round pick seemed something of a forgotten man last season. Stankiewicz had neither the flashy breakout to get himself on everyone’s radar, nor the struggles to make people question the wisdom of the pick. Instead, he spent 2014 simply pitching well. At the end of the year, he posted a 3.72 ERA in a team-high 140 1/3 innings, allowing only nine home runs and striking out more than three times as many batters as he walked. Stankiewicz does not have the raw talent of Ball and Kopech, but he is a plus athlete with a projectable build who impressed the organization with his strong makeup. If all goes right, his four-pitch mix would fit in nicely in the back end of a major league rotation.
Sleeper: Karsten Whitson, Projection: Greenville after stint in XST
After he famously turned down a $2.1 million offer from the Padres after being selected ninth overall out of high school, injuries helped lead to a disappointing college career for Whitson with Florida. Word this spring was that he finally felt healthy for the first time in years, but his full-season debut will need to wait. After having pitched just 33 1/3 innings in 2012, missing all of 2013, and pitching 44 1/3 innings last year, Whitson did not break camp with a full-season club, perhaps as a way to artificially keep his innings down as he builds arm strength. If he is indeed healthy, he has mid-rotation potential typically unseen as late as he was selected in last year’s draft.
Ty Buttrey, Assignment: Greenville
Buttrey (pictured, right) fills this space for a second consecutive season, as he continued to show the talent and stuff that made him so highly regarded when he was drafted in 2012 with frustratingly disappointing results. Given an over-slot $1.3 million bonus after being taken in the fourth round, he struggled to miss bats with Lowell in 2013, then was placed on the disabled list with a broken hand after 11 innings last season. After returning, he posted an ugly 6.85 ERA in 11 starts. However, Buttrey came to Fort Myers this spring in excellent shape, turning heads with a low-90s fastball that showed sink. Back in Greenville, the Red Sox will give Buttrey plenty of opportunity to earn his bonus, but he must start delivering results that match his promise.
On the radar:
Kevin McAvoy, Assignment: Salem – The most polished pitcher Boston has in the mid-minors, McAvoy generated a ton of groundballs in his pro debut at Lowell. The former Bryant Bulldog had a 1.91 ERA with 23 strikeouts against only three walks, and earned a challenge with a placement in High A. Success for McAvoy will involve keeping his groundball rates high as he climbs the ladder.
Jacob Dahlstrand, Assignment: Salem – Having been in the conversation for the “sleeper” designation, Dahlstrand opened 2015 with six no-hit innings. A project when taken in the 10th round of the 2010 draft, the 6-foot-5 righty seemed to turn a corner in 2014 and bears watching. The organization is higher on him than his career numbers would seem to merit.
Daniel McGrath, Assignment: Salem – A 6-foot-3 lefty signed out of Australia in 2012, McGrath showed improved conditioning in 2014, but struggled with his control. Only 20, he is still very raw, although with underwhelming stuff, he has little margin for error.
Joe Gunkel, Assignment: Salem – Gunkel (pictured, left) was unhittable at Lowell in 2013, and then in Greenville last year, as a reliever. In June, the organization started using him in the rotation and eventually challenged him with a promotion to Salem. While his 4.64 ERA did not show it, Gunkel continued to post very strong peripheral numbers with an impressive fastball/slider combo. Still with Salem in a piggyback role, Gunkel and his fastball-slider combo project to fit best in the bullpen down the road.
German Taveras, Assignment: Salem – A 2011 signee out of the Dominican, Taveras uses a high-effort delivery to get his fastball up to 97 mph. He is still a project, but his fastball gives him some upside.
Jorge Marban, Assignment: Salem – Originally signed by the Rangers in 2010 as an undrafted free agent, Marban was pitching in the Australian Baseball League this winter as the closer for the Perth Heat and impressed his coach, Red Sox scout Jon Fish. Marban features a plus splitter, but has control issues he needs to harness to be effective. At 26 years old, the Red Sox likely will not hesitate to promote him quickly if he impresses.
Jamie Callahan, Assignment: Greenville – Callahan had a disappointing 2014 campaign after an impressive showing in minor league camp last spring. He touches 96 with an extreme over-the-top delivery. Despite being drafted back in 2012, he does not turn 21 until late August.
Jalen Beeks, Assignment: Greenville – Potentially a high draft pick heading into the 2014 college season, Beeks dropped because of elbow concerns. He impressed in camp with a four-seam fastball that touched 95 and a two-seam version that ran in the 87-89 range. Beeks also has a funky high-effort delivery that creates deception but also could put continued stress on his elbow.
Jeffry Fernandez, Assignment: Greenville – The 22-year-old Dominican had mixed results with Lowell and the GCL last season but opened some eyes at Fall Instructs. Fernandez has a fastball that reaches 93 and his changeup flashes plus potential.
Reed Reilly, Assignment: Greenville – The closer for Cal Poly, Reilly pitched out of the Lowell rotation after Boston took him in the seventh round. Possibly the most polished arm at Greenville, Reilly has the potential to move quickly.
Chandler Shepherd, Assignment: Greenville – Shepherd impressed in the Cape Cod League in 2013 and started to generate buzz as a possible top-100 pick. Instead, a laceration on his pitching arm last spring put him out for three weeks and forced him back into the Kentucky bullpen. He could prove to be a steal as a 13th-round pick.
Williams Jerez, Assignment: Greenville – A second-round pick in 2011 as an outfielder, Jerez never hit, but showed a plus throwing arm. A pitcher while growing up in the Dominican Republic, he transitioned to the mound before last season and showed surprisingly smooth mechanics and a better feel for pitching than most converted position players tend to possess.
Photo Credits: Trey Ball, Michael Kopech, Ty Buttrey, Joe Gunkel by Kelly O'Connor
James Dunne is a Senior Staff Writer at SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesMDunne.