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April 25, 2017 at 8:00 AM

System Restart '17: Upper-level pitching

The SoxProspects.com writing staff presents the System Restart, our season-opening, position-by-position preview of the Boston Red Sox farm system for 2017. This is the fifth of seven parts, featuring the system’s high-minors pitching. 

Position at a Glance: In the high minors, the Red Sox lack potential starting pitching options but boast a bonanza of potential major league relief arms. The top options for spot starts in Boston are technically no longer prospects, and after that the drop off is steep, the departure of Michael Kopech in the Chris Sale trade leaving a hole on the depth chart. The current Portland rotation doesn’t boast any potential starting options unless Trey Ball can take a big step forward. Meanwhile, both levels feature pitchers in the rotation and bullpen who could contribute in a major league bullpen in the near future, the number perhaps approaching double digits. – Ian Cundall

Top Prospects
Henry Owens/Brian Johnson, Pawtucket (graduated)
Now in their sixth and fifth full seasons in the system, respectively, Owens and Johnson (pictured, above) need to prove that they can be relied upon to at least provide serviceable spot starts in order to provide value to the Red Sox, and they need to move forward from there if they want to have major league careers. Owens is overhauling his mechanics out of the wind-up, and so far, returns have been mixed: he has 20 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings over three starts, but has also walked 10 and given up a pair of home runs. Johnson got first crack at a spot start after two strong starts, getting through five innings that weren't great but could have been worse. With Spring Training darling Kyle Kendrick getting hit around in his first three starts—and, without options, in danger of being claimed by another team if called up for only a short-term fill-in role, the 2017 Red Sox probably need one of Owens or Johnson to figure things out in order to have success. – Chris Hatfield

Trey Ball, Portland (#17)
While Ball has shown flashes since being taken with the seventh-overall pick back in 2013, a disappointing 2016 while repeating Salem puts his career at something of a crossroads. While he lowered his ERA by nearly a run, his walk rate and opponents’ batting average both went backwards. The one major positive from Ball’s 2016 was a notable increase in his ground ball rate, coupled with a drop in his home runs allowed. The bottom line with Ball is the same as it has been since day one: his elite athleticism is going to allow him every opportunity to build on his successes. Ball pitched out of the bullpen in the Arizona Fall League in order to get extra innings. If he fails to take a step forward in the Portland rotation this year, it might be time for the Red Sox to decide whether to move Ball to the bullpen or, more drastically, perhaps try him in the outfield, where he was also seen as a first-round talent out of high school. – James Dunne

Jake Cosart, Portland (#15)
Once an outfielder for Duke, Cosart transferred to Seminole State to make the transition to the mound and ultimately winding up a third-round pick in 2014. He spent his first two minor league seasons as a starter before making his second transition, this time to the bullpen. In 2016, the 6-foot-2 righty spent 52 innings in Greenville before being promoted to Salem for 18 innings. The stats would certainly indicate that it was a successful transition—combined between the two levels, Cosart finished the year with a 1.78 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 104 strikeouts, and 36 walks over 70 2/3 innings. Despite the success, Cosart remains a high-risk prospect due to his high-effort, all-arm delivery that is tough to repeat, leading to command and control inconsistencies. It will be key for him to throw strikes and trust that his stuff is good enough to cover up any command issues as he faces more advanced competition. So far, in four appearances, he has 7 strikeouts in 4.2 innings but has also walked 10, showing both the good and the bad of the Jake Cosart experience. – Will Woodward

Ben Taylor, Pawtucket (#20)
Drafted as a senior sign in the seventh round, Taylor has exceeded expectations since he signed for $10,000 in 2015, an amount that was less than five percent of the $215,500 slot value associated with that pick. Suddenly at the top of the depth chart when the major league club needs a right-handed reliever, Taylor has shot through the system in a way nobody would have predicted a year and a half ago. He dominated in a brief appearance with Lowell in the summer of 2015 and was quickly moved up to Greenville. The Red Sox placed him in Salem to start 2016, and after pitching to a 2.60 ERA and striking out 56 batters in 45 innings, he got the bump up to Portland, where he recorded five saves while striking out 11.1 batters per nine innings. Taylor has shown that his fastball is a major league pitch, and will work on bringing his slider and changeup up to that level during his time in Pawtucket waiting for his next opportunity in Boston. – Jim Crowell

System Depth Chart (number in parentheses = SoxProspects.com ranking; italics = LHP)

BostonThe staff—and perhaps the team—turns on Sale, especially while Price is out. The bullpen could really use both Thornburg and Smith, and after Kimbrel it presently consists of guys you wish were working in the role beneath the one they're currently filling. It's unclear at this point what Abad is doing here until you realize that there's zero LH bullpen help in Pawtucket.
Starters: Chris Sale, Rick Porcello, Drew Pomeranz, Steven Wright, Eduardo Rodriguez
Relievers: Craig Kimbrel, Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree, Robbie Ross Jr., Robby Scott (#27) (pictured, left), Joe Kelly, Fernando Abad
Injured: David Price, Tyler Thornburg, Carson Smith, Roenis Elias

PawtucketIt's a deep bullpen, with a number of arms who could be up in Boston at any point this year. But the rotation—missing Elias due to injury—could either be frighteningly thin or comfortably deep, depending on whether Kendrick's unreal spring training—and not his awful first few starts—was for real, Johnson settles in after a lost 2016, Owens can succeed with revamped mechanics, and Velazquez adjusts to the U.S. after coming over from Mexico.
Starters: Kyle Kendrick, Brian Johnson (#13), Henry Owens, Hector Velazquez, Shawn Haviland
Relievers: Ben Taylor (#20), Chandler Shepherd (#24), Kyle Martin (#25), Noe Ramirez, Brandon Workman, Edgar Olmos (#35), Marcus Walden, Erik Cordier, Blaine Boyer

PortlandAlmost every arm in this pitching staff projects as a future major leaguer, except that for all—even the starters—that's in a bullpen role. Callahan has carried over his breakout from the Arizona Fall League and major league spring training into the regular season, and Buttrey looks like he may finally be growing into the bullpen role he shifted into mid-2016.
Starters: Trey Ball (#17), Jalen Beeks (#23), Teddy Stankiewicz (#43), Jacob Dahlstrand, Kevin McAvoy
Relievers: Jake Cosart (#15), Luis Ysla (#18), Jamie Callahan (#33) (pictured, right), Austin Maddox (#40), Williams Jerez (#42), Ty Buttrey, Josh Smith, Taylor Grover
Injured: Harrison Cooney
Injured - XST rehab: Jake Drehoff

Photo Credit: Brian Johnson, Trey Ball, Ben Taylor, Robby Scott, and Jamie Callahan by Kelly O'Connor