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April 22, 2020 at 8:30 AM

State of the System '20: Corner Infielders

Part five of our State of the System series focuses on corner infielders going back to the 2014 draft, as well as international free agents from July 2013 onwards. Be sure to check out the rest of the entries in the series.

The Lineup
Notable Draftees, 2014-2019
Michael Chavis – 2014, 1st rd., $1,870,500 bonus; 2019: AAA/MLB
Sam Travis – 2014, 2nd rd., $846,800 bonus; Traded to TEX for Jeffrey Springs, Jan. 2020
Josh Ockimey – 2014, 5th rd., $450,000 bonus; 2019: AAA
Jerry Downs – 2015, 15th rd., $100,000 bonus; 2019: A+/AA
Bobby Dalbec – 2016, 4th rd., $650,000 bonus; 2019: AA, AAA
Garrett Benge – 2017, 13th rd., $125,000 bonus; 2019: A+
Triston Casas -  2018, 1st rd., $2,552,800 bonus; 2019: A, A+
Devlin Granberg – 2018, 6th rd., $40,000 bonus; 2019: A, A+
Nick Northcut – 2018, 11th rd., $565,000 bonus; 2019: A-
Brandon Howlett – 2018, 21st rd., $185,000 bonus; 2019: A
Stephen Scott – 2019, 10th rd., $50,000 bonus; 2019: A-

Notable International Signees, July 2, 2013 to present
Rafael Devers – July 2, 2013, $1,500,000 bonus; 2019: MLB
Elwin Tejada – July 2 , 2014, $300,000 bonus; Released, March 2017
Hemerson Serven – July 2, 2014, $100,000 bonus; Released, July 2016
Pedro Castellanos – July 2, 2015, $5,000 bonus; 2019: A+
Danny Diaz – July 2, 2017, $1,600,000 bonus; 2019: Rk/DSL
Wilker Vargas – July 2, 2017, $175,000 bonus; 2019: DSL
Albert Feliz – July 2, 2018, $400,000 bonus; 2019: DSL
Noelberth Romero – July 2, 2018, $275,000 bonus; Traded to BAL for Andrew Cashner, July 2019
Lyonell James – July 2, 2019, $440,000 bonus; 2019: Tricky League

Position Status: In the time period covered here, the Red Sox have gone with a quality-over-volume approach towards corner infielders, inconsistently acquiring players for the corners in given years, but being unafraid to use high draft picks and/or over-slot bonuses in the draft and large international bonuses when they do. One reason for that, at least with international amateurs and, to some degree, high school draftees, very few players sign as true first base or third base types given that the best players typically play up the middle. In the draft, however, especially (but not always) with college players, you will see more true corner infield prospects.

Although they have drafted 10 players who we note here, seven of them came out of two drafts, the 2014 and 2018 classes. In 2014, the organization used first- and second-round picks on corner types. Michael Chavis (pictured, right) now looks like at least a valuable platoon or utility type, with the chance to be a second-division regular if he can tighten up his approach and cut down on his swing-and-miss. Second-round pick Sam Travis, on the other hand, failed to show enough power to stick as even a platoon corner bat and was dealt this past off-season for a depth arm in Jeffrey Springs. The final member of the 2014 corner infield class, fifth-round pick Josh Ockimey (pictured, left), who signed for an over-slot $450,000, has reached Pawtucket and has a chance at making a big league roster at some point, though his ceiling is limited.

From the next three draft classes, the corner infielders typically profiled as low-bonus senior signs, but 2016 fourth-round pick Bobby Dalbec has established himself as a top 10 prospect and imminent major leaguer after receiving an over-slot bonus. In 2018, the Red Sox dove back into the corner infield market, taking four players including first-round pick Triston Casas, currently the system’s top prospect with the highest offensive upside of any player in the system, and 11th-round pick Nick Northcut, who received the third-highest bonus they gave to a draftee that year.

Internationally, the team has not signed many true corner infield prospects—largely due to the phenomenon discussed above—but one massive success the renders everything else moot. On July 2, 2013, the Red Sox signed 16-year-old Rafael Devers (pictured, top), who after tearing through the minors broke out in a massive way in 2019, hitting .311/.361/.555 with 32 home runs. Devers has established himself as one of the most exciting young players in all of baseball and has the chance to be one of the better hitters in all of baseball. Other than Devers, the other corner infielders who received significant bonuses on the international market either qualify as misses or as players on whom the jury is still out at best. Two six-figure signees from the July 2, 2014 class failed to make it out of the complex leagues. The jury is still out on Pedro Castellanos, signed for a minuscule price in the bonus-limited 2015 class, and Danny Diaz, who signed for $1.6 million on July 2, 2017.

Overall, seven members of the current top 60 come from these classes, with two in the top six and several others with the potential for their stock to rise.

Verdict: The Red Sox have had a lot of success finding corner infielders, developing a homegrown star in Devers and another contributor (at least) in Chavis. There are also very interesting prospects in the minors, including the system’s top prospect and another imminent big leaguer in the top six. This is one of the deeper groups in the system, with the potential to give the Red Sox long-term, homegrown players at both first and third base, and should J.D. Martinez opt out, options at DH as well. 

Top prospect – Triston Casas
The Red Sox signed Casas for a slot bonus of $2,552,800 in 2018 as the club’s first-round pick. A high school third baseman likely to end up at first base due to his size, Casas had to hit to warrant that type of draft capital. That is what he did in 2019, establishing himself as the top prospect in the system with a massive offensive ceiling. Between Greenville and Salem, Casas hit .256/.350/.480 with 20 home runs as a 19-year-old. Already big when he signed, Casas has grown even more since signing and is a commanding presence on the field, now listed at 6-foot-4, 252 pounds. He has surprising bat control for someone with such long limbs, combining a solid swing with plus bat speed. He really whips the bat through the zone and generates a lot of torque with his hip rotation, which allows him to tap into his natural raw power. He will always have swing-and-miss in his game, but he has a good feel for the strike zone and should get on base at a good clip. Casas had limited exposure to left-handed pitchers in 2019, hitting just .213/.317/.416 with a 33 percent strikeout rate in 104 plate appearances, so that is an area to watch as he moves up the ladder.

Casas had plenty of arm for third, but limited mobility gives him a first base-only profile. At first, he has shown soft hands, confidence picking throws out of the dirt, and surprising agility. Overall, Casas projects to have plenty of hit tool to allow his plus-plus raw power to actualize and could develop into a middle-of-the-order, everyday regular. He will return to Salem whenever the 2020 season starts, and if he hits there (in a very difficult league for hitters) he will firmly establish himself as the number one prospect in the system and one of the top first base prospects in all of baseball.

Next in line – Bobby Dalbec
Coming off a 2018 season in which he hit 32 home runs to lead all Red Sox minor leaguers, Dalbec still had questions to answer, as that prodigious power came along with a 32.6 percent strikeout rate. In 2019, Dalbec again showed his power potential, leading the system in home runs with 27, but in the process, he cut his strikeout rate to 24.6 percent while maintaining a 13 percent walk rate against more advanced pitching. He only hit .240 on the year, but that came along with a .357 on-base percentage, and even in his peak he does not project to hit for a high average. What matters is that he makes enough contact to tap into his power potential, and if he does that, he has the chance to develop into an everyday regular. He lacks the hit tool upside of Casas, but Dalbec’s power is right there, and if he can show again that he can maintain a strikeout rate under 25 percent against Triple-A pitching, he will be in position for his first taste of the majors.

While Dalbec’s offensive stock improved in 2019, his defense took a slight step back. Scouts noted that Dalbec, the system’s 2018 Defensive Player of the Year, was a little stiffer and less agile than previous years, and his range had decreased a tad. He still projects as an above-average third baseman with a plus-plus arm, but he gained more exposure to first base, playing 24 games there in 2019, including 11 of his 28 games in Pawtucket. In Spring Training this year, he played third base in six of his first seven appearances, then appeared at first base in his last four games prior to being optioned. Given the presence of Devers and the lack of a clearcut answer at first base (especially with Casas a few years away), it would not be a surprise if the Red Sox shifted Dalbec primarily to first base with an eye towards seeing if he is a potential everyday option there. He will likely start the season in Pawtucket, but is definitely in the picture for a call up at some point, especially if he shows that his cut down strikeout rate is here to stay. If baseball returns in 2020 with expanded MLB rosters, that call-up may come even quicker.

Player whose stock could rise in 2020  – Albert Feliz
There were several prospects who could fit in this category, but comparing present ranking to where each could end up this year, Albert Feliz has the most upward mobility of the group. Feliz is not ranked in the SoxProspects top 60, but the list would not need to expand much further to include him and he could easily make a large jump once we get a good look at him stateside. Feliz hit nine home runs in the Dominican Summer League last year, tying with Bryan Gonzalez for the most by any DSL Red Sox hitter going back to 2006 (the farthest back available statistics go). Overall, he hit .250/.320/.428 with 23 walks and 76 strikeouts in 266 plate appearances.

Feliz has a physically mature frame, listed at 6-foot-2, 235 pounds with a thick lower half and no remaining projection. He will have to watch his body as he matures, as he is already a well-below-average runner and limited athletically. In a brief look at the Fall Instructional League, he showed legit plus-plus raw power and some bat speed, but his swing is long and already has a lot of swing-and-miss. In the DSL, he had a 28.6 percent strikeout rate, and he has very raw pitch recognition skills. His raw power gives him significant upside, but there is also a ton of risk with the hit tool, especially since Feliz is limited to first base or left field, where he split his time last year. Due to the projected makeup of the next GCL Red Sox roster, along with his size and athleticism, first base seems like his near-term and, eventually, full-time home. If he comes stateside and shows the same power along with an improving hit tool, then he has the chance to skyrocket up the rankings, and it would not be a surprise to see him pushing towards the top 30.

Sleeper – Pedro Castellanos
Castellanos is one of the most frustrating but also intriguing prospects in the system. Signed for only $5,000 on July 2, 2015, he has hit for average and made a ton of contact at every level through High A, but he had never shown the power potential he does in batting practice or that you would expect from someone listed at 6-foot-3, 244 pounds. He has never hit less than .276 in any season since his debut in 2016, and he has hit over .300 every season except 2019. But in his first 1209 professional plate appearances over three-and-a-half seasons, he hit just 9 home runs, a problem given his first base-only profile. Interestingly, from July 17 to August 30 of last year, Castellanos hit 8 home runs in 123 plate appearances with a .295/.350/.580 triple slash. Whether that sudden power outburst is real or not will determine whether Castellanos is just an organizational player or something more. If the power carries over without sacrificing the average he has always hit for as he advances up to Portland, then he becomes a lot more interesting.

Others of note:
  • The Red Sox signed three players for over one million dollars on July 2, 2017, with Danny Diaz—then a shortstop, but almost immediately moving to third—receiving the second-highest bonus of $1.6 million. After an intriguing DSL debut in which he showed off raw power with a rudimentary approach, hitting 6 home runs in just 113 plate appearances, Diaz was impressive in the 2018 Fall Instructional League and looked poised to break out stateside in 2019. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, as he showed up out of shape and eventually was demoted back to the Dominican Summer League. Overall, Diaz hit .238/.295/.385 with only two home runs, but Diaz still has some intriguing tools and the chance to rise up the ranks if he can get into shape and used to his new body—listed at 6-foot-1, 170 pounds when he signed, he is now listed at 247 pounds and he looks closer to 6-foot-3 or 4. He still has plus raw power and is surprisingly athletic for his size, but will need to make significant strides in all aspects of the game to return his stock to where it once was.
  • 2018 21st-round pick Brandon Howlett signed for only $185,000, an over-slot figure still overshadowed by the larger bonuses of Casas and Northcut, but he quickly shot up the system’s rankings during his professional debut, hitting .307/.405/.526 in the Gulf Coast League, in part because the Red Sox figured out a problem with his contact lenses. He shot up all the way to number 11 in the system rankings to start the 2019 season, but had a rough time adjusting to an aggressive assignment to Low A Greenville, hitting .231/.341/.356 with only 8 home runs in 465 plate appearances. Most concerningly, his strikeout rate jumped to 31 percent, though that did come with a 12 percent walk rate. Even with his struggles, Howlett still has the chance to develop an average hit tool and average power with good enough defense at third base to move back into the top 20 prospects in the system. 
  • Another 2018 draftee, 11th-round pick Nick Northcut, received a significantly larger bonus than Howlett at $565,000, but he has yet to get out of short-season ball and really struggled in 2019 in Lowell. In 217 plate appearances, he hit .211/.287/.299 with only 1 home run and a 27.6 percent strikeout rate. As the season went on, Northcut looked overmatched at the plate, and he really struggled both recognizing spin and catching up with velocity. He showed off some raw power in batting practice, but that didn’t translate in-game as he struggled to drive the ball with any authority and showed a raw approach. Northcut still has potential above-average tools with his raw power and arm, but the rest of his game still has a long way to go, and he will need to show significant improvement as he makes the jump to Low A. 
  • Somewhat of a forgotten man in the system, Josh Ockimey’s future remains up in the air. He does some things very well, with an advanced eye and knowledge of the strike zone and plus power. On the other hand, Ockimey’s hit tool lags behind, as he has a lot of swing-and-miss in his game and severe platoon splits to the point where it would be hard to justify letting him face left-handed pitchers in the majors, and his defense rates below average at first base. As a result, his MLB prospects are murky as that profile is not an ideal fit on the bench. Ockimey has gone unselected in the Rule 5 draft twice now and will head back to Pawtucket in what could be his last year with the organization given that he will be minor league free agent in November.
Photo Credit: Rafael Devers, Josh Ockimey and Michael Chavis, Triston Casas, Bobby Dalbec, Pedro Castellanos, Danny Diaz by Kelly O'Connor.

Ian Cundall is Director of Scouting for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @IanCundall.

Chris Hatfield is Executive Editor of SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @SPChrisHatfield.