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April 1, 2020 at 8:00 AM

State of the System '20: Low-Minors Pitchers

As we continue past a baseball-less MLB Opening Day and approach what would have been minor league opening day on April 9, many of us—including those of us here at SoxProspects!—have mourned the absence of the game from our lives. But while there will be no games for some time, that does not mean that there is a lack of meaningful opportunity to take stock of the Boston Red Sox farm system in a meaningful way.

So, welcome to the first installment of State of the System. Over the next few weeks, this series will take a position-by-position look at the Red Sox system, evaluating the areas of strength and weakness as well as providing the context for why those strengths and weaknesses exist. This edition will be the first part of our look at the pitchers in the system, which will be split into three parts. Today, we will focus on the most recent additions to the organization from the last two draft and international free agent classes.

The Lineup:
Notable Draftees, 2018 and 2019
Durbin Feltman – 2018, 3rd rd., $559,600 bonus; 2019: AA
Thaddeus Ward – 2018, 5th rd., $275,000 bonus; 2019: A, A+
Chase Shugart – 2018, 12th rd., $125,000 bonus; 2019: A
AJ Politi – 2018, 15th rd., $25,000 bonus; 2019: A+
Chris Machamer – 2018, 16th rd., $213,000 bonus; 2019: A
Yusniel Padron-Artiles – 2018, 22nd rd., $75,000 bonus; 2019: SS-A
Ryan Zeferjahn – 2019, 3rd rd., $500,000 bonus; 2019: SS-A
Noah Song – 2019, 4th rd., $100,000 bonus; 2019: SS-A
Chris Murphy – 2019, 6th rd., $200,000 bonus; 2019: SS-A
Brock Bell – 2019, 7th rd., $465,000 bonus: 2019: Rk, SS-A
Brendan Cellucci – 2019, 12th rd., $345,000 bonus; 2019: SS-A
Blake Loubier – 2019, 13th rd., $500,000 bonus; 2019: Rk
Bradley Blalock – 2019, 32nd rd., $250,000 bonus: 2019: Rk

Notable International Signees, July 2018 to present
Gabriel Jackson – July 2, 2018, $350,000 bonus; 2019: DSL
Wikelman Gonzalez – July 2, 2018, $250,000 bonus; 2019: DSL
Nathanael Cruz – July 2, 2019, $200,000 bonus; 2019: Tricky Lg
Luis Perales – July 2, 2019, $75,000 bonus; 2019: Tricky Lg
Francis Hernandez – September 17, 2019, $142,000 bonus
Chih-Jung Liu – October 22, 2019, $750,000 bonus

Position Status: The last two years have seen a great influx of pitching talent to the Red Sox system. Though the organization hasn’t given a pitcher a bonus of more than $750,000 in either the draft or international market or used a Day One pick on a pitcher in the past two seasons, it has done a great job scouting and identifying players who could improve once they entered the system, then implementing the first stages of that development. Pitchers from these two draft and IFA classes account for 13 members of the current SoxProspects top 60, with several more just missing the list, a tribute to the depth the organization has begun to build on the mound lower in the system.

Verdict: In a system devoid of starting pitching prospects in the high minors, this group is very important to the Red Sox future. Their development will shape what the pitching landscape in the organization looks like in the next five to ten years. 

Top Prospect – Thaddeus Ward
Though he is not the top prospect from this group in the current SoxProspects rankings, let’s give Ward (pictured, right) the nod here due to the uncertainty surrounding Noah Song’s availability for the next two years due to his (potential?) military commitment. The right-hander had a strong debut in 2018 with Lowell, showing off an athletic, deceptive delivery and a three-pitch mix. His stock soared in 2019 as he excelled in both Greenville and Salem, throwing 126 1/3 innings with 157 strikeouts and a 2.14 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. The key to Ward’s success was his addition of a cutter, giving him a plus secondary pitch to complement his fastball and slider. He was also remarkably consistent, never giving up more than three runs in a start and only failing to pitch at least four innings twice, with those outings shortened when he tried to field comebackers with his bare hand (hopefully learning a lesson in the process). Our 2019 Pitcher of the Year, Ward is likely ticketed to Portland next. If he continues to perform there, could position himself with an outside chance at a big league call up at some point in 2021. 

Next in Line – Ryan Zeferjahn and Chris Murphy
The 2019 draft class went a long way toward restocking the arms in the farm system, and these two right-handers are big parts of that. Both Zeferjahn (pictured, above), a right-hander, and Murphy, a southpaw, excelled with Lowell during their run to within one win of the New York-Penn League Championship. Zeferjahn is 13th in the SoxProspects rankings and Murphy is 16th, but the distance between the two is slim. Zeferjahn was drafted in the third round out of Kansas and received a slightly under-slot bonus of $500,000. Over his 22 innings with Lowell, he struck out 31 hitters, but did walk 12 and allowed 24 hits, finishing with a 4.50 ERA and 1.64 WHIP. Zeferjahn has great velocity and an ideal pitcher’s frame, but he needs significant work with his command and control and the continued development of his secondary pitches. His fastball will top out at 98 mph, mostly sitting 93-95 mph. He flashed an above-average slider and changeup during his pro debut, but the quality of the secondaries varied greatly from outing to outing. Long-term, if he can become more consistent with those offerings and improve his fastball command, he has a chance to start. If not, he has the profile to succeed in a bullpen role. Zeferjahn’s next stop is likely Greenville with an eye towards a quick promotion to Salem.  

Murphy (pictured, left) is the more polished of the two pitchers and has a better chance to start, but a slightly lower ceiling. He showed an advanced four-pitch mix in Lowell, primarily relying on his fastball and changeup. His fastball velocity ranged from 90-94 mph, topping out at 95 mph with advanced control, as he issued only 7 walks in 33 1/3 innings. He allowed only 23 hits and 4 runs all season, good for 1.08 ERA and 0.90 WHIP and the nod as our Rookie of the Year in the system. Murphy’s changeup showed great improvement in pro ball, showing late fade. He has the confidence to throw the pitch, which grades out the best of his secondary pitches with above-average potential, in any count. His curveball does not lag far behind, but he did not consistently get over it in games last year. With his four-pitch mix, strong pitchability, and feel, Murphy has the makings of a potential back-end starter. There’s a chance he heads right to Salem next given his advanced profile and success in Lowell in 2019, but his initial assignment will likely depend on how he looks whenever camp resumes, and the disjointed, delayed start to the 2020 season could play a part in the organization potentially wanting to take a more conservative approach to his next assignment.

Players whose stock could rise in 2020 – Noah Song and Luis Perales 
This might be cheating, but if Song (pictured, right) somehow gets a waiver to delay his military commitment and pitches this year, his stock would soar. Currently, however, Song is on the military list and awaiting final judgment on his request for a waiver. On the mound, Song may have the best combination of polish and stuff of any pitcher in the system (as stated above, he probably still is this group’s top prospect) and he has a chance to develop into a solid mid-rotation starter. Song showed three above-average-to-better pitches in his pro debut. His fastball showed plus at 93-96 mph and topped out at 98. His slider came as advertised, flashing above-average-to-plus. But the most interesting development was his changeup, a pitch he barely threw in college but that still flashed plus at 83-85 mph with late fade at its best. With that advanced three-pitch mix along with a show-me curveball and a starter’s frame, Song checks all the boxes. If he can get on the mound this year, he will quickly find himself as a top-five prospect in the system and in strong consideration for the top overall pitching prospect, if not more. 

Venezuelan right-hander Perales might have the potential to raise his stock most considerably from where he currently ranks once he makes his Dominican Summer League debut. After signing for just $75,000 out of Venezuela last July, Perales exploded in the Tricky League (an unofficial circuit in which organizations’ recent international signees play exhibition games, something like a DSL junior varsity), touching 95 mph as a 16-year old with advanced feel for a breaking ball. Perales has a very projectable frame, listed at 6-foot-1, 160 pounds, and last summer he established himself as one of the best pitchers in last year’s international class despite his relatively small bonus. He is currently 45th in the SoxProspects rankings, but if the reports out of the DSL are as glowing as those we have already read, he could find himself pushing the top 30 prospects in the system very quickly. 

Sleeper – Nathanael Cruz
Another signee from the 2019-2020 international class, Cruz established himself as another arm to watch with strong development after signing out of the Dominican Republic for $200,000. Cruz has also hit 95 mph and progressed significantly quicker than comparable arms in past years, especially with his secondary pitches. He is still very raw and years away, but there is considerable upside here to rise from his current ranking of 59th in the system. 

Others of note:
  • 2018 third-round pick Durbin Feltman (pictured, right) was the fastest riser from that class, beginning 2019 in Portland, but his stuff backed up last year as he attempted to implement changes suggested by the Red Sox coaching staff with an eye towards giving him an arsenal better suited to pitching to major league hitters. 
  • 2018 15th-rounder AJ Politi’s stock is on the rise after he really took to being used in longer relief outings and, eventually, a move to the rotation in Salem. He’s near the top of our watch list whenever baseball returns. 
  • Last year’s draft class featured a very interesting group of arms, led by some of the players mentioned above along with 7th-round pick Brock Bell, 12th-round pick Brendan Cellucci, 13th-round pick Blake Loubier, and 32nd-round pick Bradley Blalock, who all either have yet to debut or pitched only sparingly, The first three of those names are already on our top 60, and all four have the chance to rise. 
  • On the international front, the 2019-2020 class looks especially exciting with Perales, Cruz and Chih-Jung Liu. The Red Sox in October signed Liu, currently our 26th-ranked prospect, as a 20-year-old out of Taiwan, where he was a two-way player. Liu will focus exclusively on pitching this year, having topped out at 98 mph and shown a solid slider and changeup. Once he gets back on a mound in the U.S., he looks destined to debut at one of the short-season affiliates in either the GCL or in Lowell. 
  • Names to watch from the 2018-2019 international class include Wikelman Gonzalez and Gabriel Jackson, who both looked like they had the chance to develop into starters during their DSL debuts. 
Photo credit: Ryan Zeferjahn, Thaddeus Ward, Chris Murphy, Noah Song, and Durbin Feltman, all 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.