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April 3, 2020 at 7:30 AM

State of the System '20: Mid-Minors Pitchers

Part two of our State of the System series will focus on pitchers signed in the 2016 and 2017 drafts, as well as international free agents from that same time period. Be sure to check out the rest of the entries in the series.

The Lineup:
Notable Draftees, 2016 and 2017
Jay Groome – 2016 draft, 1st rd., $3,650,000 bonus; 2019: Injured, Rk, SS-A
Shaun Anderson – 2016 draft, 3rd rd., $700,000 bonus; July 2017: Traded to SF for Eduardo Nunez
Mike Shawaryn – 2016 draft, 5th rd., $637,500 bonus; 2019: AAA, MLB
Stephen Nogosek – 2016 draft, 6th rd., $250,000 bonus; July 2017: Traded to NYM for Addison Reed
Matthew Gorst – 2016 draft, 12th rd., $115,000 bonus; 2019: AA, AAA
Kyle Hart – 2016 draft, 19th rd., $5,000 bonus; 2019: AA, AAA
Tanner Houck – 2017 draft, 1st rd., $2,614,500 bonus; 2019: AA, AAA
Jake Thompson – 2017 draft, 4th rd., $350,000 bonus; 2019: Injured
Alex Scherff – 2017 draft, 5th rd., $700,000 bonus; 2019: A, A+
Zach Schellenger– 2017 draft, 6th rd., $175,000 bonus; 2019: AA, A+
Aaron Perry – 2017 draft, 14th rd., $172,500 bonus; 2019: Rehab, Rk
Kutter Crawford – 2017 draft, 16th rd., $125,000 bonus; 2019: A+, AA, Injured

Notable International Signees (2016-18)
Hector Velazquez – February 18, 2017, $30,000 bonus; 2019: AAA, MLB; Claimed off waivers by Baltimore
Brayan Bello – July 2, 2017, $28,000 bonus; 2019: A
Yasel Santana – July 2, 2017, $10,000 bonus; 2019: SS-A, A
Alexander Montero – July 2, 2017, $10,000 bonus; 2019: Rk
Felix Cepeda – July 11, 2017, $40,000 bonus; 2019: Rk
Jorge Rodriguez – November 19, 2017, $37,500 bonus; 2019: Rk
Yoelvis Guedez – November 20, 2017, $10,000 bonus; 2019: Rk
Osvaldo De La Rosa – March 26, 2018, $1,000 bonus; 2019: SS-A
Aldo Ramirez – April 18, 2018, Purchased from Mexican League for $550,000; 2019: SS-A

Position Status: From 2016-18, the Red Sox devoted extensive resources to pitching in the draft with little impact, while devoting minimal resources internationally yet still coming away with far more potential impact arms. In both drafts, the Red Sox used several high picks on pitchers to whom they gave over-slot bonuses. In 2016, they gave Jay Groome the largest bonus they’ve ever given a draftee, while both Mike Shawaryn and Shaun Anderson received over-slot bonuses. In 2017, they signed Tanner Houck out of the first round and gave Alex Scherff a well-over-slot bonus in the fifth round. From that group, the club traded Anderson, saw Groome miss most of three years due to injury, and the other three are likely relievers. But internationally, as they have in the past two years, the organization found some potential gems while giving out very little in terms of individual bonuses. In the 2016-17 period, the club was restricted from signing almost any players, and in the 2017-18 period, no pitcher received more than a $100,000 bonus. Still, three pitchers from that latter signing period find themselves in our top 25, while Hector Velazquez from the former period contributed to the 2018 World Series team. Overall, these draft and IFA classes account for 10 members of the current SoxProspects top 60.

Verdict: These classes feature some interesting names, but the majority seem destined for the bullpen long-term. The club used two first-round picks on pitching, but one has been limited by injury and the other looks likely for the bullpen. Otherwise, a slew of low-bonus international signings look to be the best bets for the organization to produce a starter from this crop.

Top Prospect – Jay Groome
Even though he has only thrown four innings since 2017, Groome (pictured, right) is still the top prospect from this group. At his best, Groome has perhaps the highest upside of any pitcher in the system. He has a great pitcher’s frame—and did a fantastic job during his rehab from Tommy John surgery in slimming down—and will show a plus fastball and plus-plus curveball to go along with an improving changeup. His inability to stay healthy, however, greatly limits his chances of reaching his potential. He missed significant time in 2017 due to an intercostal strain and later forearm soreness before missing all of 2018 and most of 2019 after Tommy John. Groome got back on the mound briefly in 2019 with Lowell, showing off a much-improved physique in three short appearances. In his entire pro career, he has thrown a total of 66 innings, so the most important point for his development is to simply stay healthy for an entire season and build an innings base, something that the current state of affairs is not helping at all. If he can somehow begin to build innings, stay healthy, and continue to show the stuff he did prior to his surgery—including, for example, his last spring training outing in 2018 before suffering the injury that led to the Tommy John surgery, which affirmed for us our ranking of him as the top prospect in the system—then his stock will soar. Groome will likely head to Greenville when baseball returns. The Red Sox have to make a decision whether to add him to the 40-man roster this winter, so he could get pushed pretty quickly to Salem to get him closer to a standard developmental timeline, although that depends on how much, if any, of a season we get in 2020.

Next in Line – Tanner Houck
2017 first-round pick Houck (pictured, left and at top) is next in line, though if he doesn’t take a step forward and increase his chances of developing into a starting pitcher, there are several other arms knocking on the door to take this spot. In 2018, the Red Sox tried moving Houck’s arm slot higher, changing his primary fastball to a two-seam, and tweaking his breaking ball in order to improve his chances to start in the majors, but he didn’t take to the changes and really struggled in the first half of that season, particularly with walks. He returned to his low three-quarters arm slot, two-seam fastball, and frisbee slider as his primary weapons midseason—although he continues to use the four-seam fastball in tandem with those pitches—while also sprinkling in the occasional changeup, and turned things around, albeit with a profile that is more likely to lead him to the bullpen. Indeed, he moved to the bullpen late in 2019 in case the Red Sox could use him in that role down the stretch, but he was never called up as the club fell out of contention for a playoff spot. Though he has the build of a starting pitcher, his arm slot, lack of a third pitch, and command profile all point towards a likely bullpen role. Houck has made it up to Pawtucket already, and will return there whenever play resumes with one more chance to show he can start, but his chances of a call-up in that capacity are limited. In a bullpen role, on the other hand, he may not need much longer in the minors at all, and could be up almost as soon as the big league club needs his services.

Players whose stock could rise in 2020 – Aldo Ramirez and Brayan Bello
The two prospects with the best chance to shoot into the top 10 are this pair of young, international signees who received small bonuses but have already made great strides. Ramirez (pictured, right) is the more highly ranked of the two, presently 14th in the SoxProspects rankings. After having his rights purchased from the Mexican League in April 2018, Ramirez had a strong debut in the DSL and looked interesting in Fall Instructs, putting him on the radar. Ramirez jumped directly from the DSL to Lowell in 2019 and had a breakout year as an 18-year-old facing hitters significantly more experienced than him. In 61 2/3 innings, he put up a 3.94 ERA and 1.22 WHIP while striking out 63 hitters and walking only 16, good for a 3.94 K/BB. Ramirez did tire as the season went on, but when he was on, he showed off the early makings of a three-pitch mix and advanced pitchability and control for his age. Ramirez can get his fastball up to 95 mph already and sits in the low-90s. Given his athleticism and remaining projection, there’s a chance his velocity will continue to tick up as it did in 2019. Both Ramirez’s curveball and changeup flashed at least above-average in 2019, though both need improved consistency and some refinement. Though he has a long way to go developmentally, Ramirez has shown the type of skillset teams seek in a starting pitcher. He will next head to Low A Greenville, and if he performs there he will quickly rise up the rankings.

Bello (pictured, left) is slightly farther along, albeit two full years older, having jumped from the DSL in 2018 directly to Greenville in 2019 as a 20-year old. He got off to a slow start last year in that relatively aggressive assignment but really took off in the second half, touching 98 mph with his fastball and showing the ability to miss bats with both his changeup and slider. In the first half, Bello had an 8.08 ERA and 1.85 WHIP in 52 1/3 innings. In the second half, he showed marked improvement with a 3.31 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 65 1/3 innings. Bello is loose and athletic with some remaining projection, so there’s a chance he could find more velocity as he matures and bump up from his usual 92-94 mph. There is also reason to think he could continue to improve with his secondary pitches. Bello’s next stop is High A Salem, where if he builds upon the improvements he made in the second half of last year, he will quickly rise up the starting pitching prospect depth chart in the system.

Sleeper – Felix Cepeda
An under-the-radar signee in July 2017 for only $40,000, Cepeda looks the part of a starting pitcher and showed off intriguing raw stuff during his first season stateside in the Gulf Coast League in 2019. Cepeda has already hit 95 mph with a very projectable frame. He will mix in a curveball, slider, and changeup, with the breaking ball showing more potential at present. He is still very raw and is years away, but there is considerable upside here to rise from his current ranking of 37th in the system.

Others of note:
  • Mike Shawaryn and Kyle Hart (pictured, right), a pair of 2016 draftees, both have a chance to contribute to the Red Sox at some point in the upcoming season. Shawaryn looks destined for a swingman role after being developed as a starter until mid-2019, when he moved to the bullpen midseason to assist the beleaguered Boston bullpen. Hart was drafted in the 19th round in 2016 as a fifth-year senior out of Indiana and signed for just $5,000. He is already 27 years old, so his upside is limited, but he can command all four of his pitches and really knows how to pitch despite a lack of overwhelming stuff. He looks like a potential emergency depth starter.
  • After getting well above slot in the 2017 draft and significantly cleaning up his mechanics, Alex Scherff was maddeningly inconsistent in nearly two full seasons in Greenville, showing flashes at times of the potential that led to his receiving a $700,000 bonus but getting hit hard in others. One wonders if a move to the bullpen might lead to greater consistency from outing-to-outing, but he will probably get one more chance at starting before the organization makes that move.
  • After barely pitching due to a number of injuries in 2017 and 2018, the Red Sox gave reliever Zach Schellenger an ultra-aggressive assignment to Portland coming out of camp in 2019 after he showed potentially dominant stuff in Fort Myers. That backfired spectacularly when he walked 21 hitters and hit three more in 8 2/3 innings, then was demoted to Salem. The big-framed right-hander was much better in the Carolina League, striking out 51 hitters in 36 innings, but he will need to build on his improvement at that level to shake off the sting of that rough start to 2019 when he returns to Double-A.
  • 2017 14th-round pick Aaron Perry flashed a plus curveball and touched the mid-90s in the GCL in 2019 while working his way back from May 2018 Tommy John surgery, but he also walked 19 hitters in 21 innings. How he fares in his next action on the mound will determine whether the club can continue developing him as a starter or if a move to the bullpen might be necessary despite his promising arm.
  • 2017 16th-round pick Kutter Crawford was a breakout arm in 2018 and made it up to Portland after dominating Salem to start the 2019 season, but he missed most of the second half of the season and underwent Tommy John surgery this offseason, causing him to fall out of the top 60. (Coincidentally, he threw on Wednesday for the first time since the surgery five months ago.) He already had a relief profile, relying heavily on his fastball and cutter, so it is very possible he will move right into that role after rehabbing his injury given that he is already 24 years old.
  • Jorge Rodriguez could have been the sleeper in this post, but he is already 25th in the SoxProspects rankings, so he is not under the radar to us. Rodriguez dominated the GCL in 2019, putting up a 1.91 ERA and 0.94 WHIP while striking out 58 hitters and walking only 9 in 47 innings. He earned a late-season promotion to Lowell, where he had another solid outing. His frame lacks projection, which limits his upside somewhat, but he really controls his fastball at 88-92 mph and the spin rate on his curveball is very high.
  • Yoelvis Guedez is another undersized pitcher who dominated the GCL last year. In 33 2/3 innings, Guedez had a 1.60 ERA and 0.89 WHIP with 36 strikeouts and 5 walks. The right-hander has deception in his delivery and has shown advanced control of his low-90s fastball. He will also show a potential above-average slider.
  • Osvaldo De La Rosa is among the prospects just outside the top 60. Having converted from catching shortly before signing as a 20-year-old in March 2018, he is a bit old for an international signee. He shows a heavy fastball that he can run up to 95 mph, but his secondaries need work. 
Photo Credit: Tanner Houck, Jay Groome, Tanner Houck, Aldo Ramirez, Brayan Bello, and Kyle Hart 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.