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April 29, 2020 at 12:30 PM

State of the System '20: Middle Infielders

Part six of our State of the System series will focus on middle infielders drafted from 2014 onward or signed on the international market in July 2013 and later. Be sure to check out the rest of the entries in the series.

The Lineup
Notable Draftees, 2014-2019
Jeremy Rivera – 2014 17th rd., <$100,000 bonus; 2019: AA
Chad De La Guerra – 2015 17th rd., $5,000 bonus; 2019: AA/AAA
Yomar Valentin – 2015 20th rd., $130,000 bonus; Released, Jan. 2018
CJ Chatham – 2016 2nd rd., $1,100,000 bonus; 2019: AA/AAA
Santiago Espinal – 2016 10th rd., $50,000 bonus; Traded to TOR for Steve Pearce, June 2018
Brett Netzer – 2017 3rd rd., $475,000 bonus; 2019: AA
Andre Colon – 2017 11th rd., $125,000 bonus; 2019: Rk
Cameron Cannon – 2019 2nd rd., $1,300,000 bonus; 2019: A-
Matthew Lugo – 2019 2nd rd., $1,100,000 bonus; 2019: Rk/A-
Alex Erro – 2019 17th rd., $125,000 bonus; 2019: A-
Karson Simas – 2019 25th rd., $175,000 bonus; 2019: Rk
Daniel Bakst – 2019 28th rd., $75,000 bonus; Retired, Jan. 2020

Notable International Signees, July 2, 2013 to present
Yoan Moncada – March 12, 2015, $31,500,000 bonus; Traded to CWS for Chris Sale, Dec. 2016
Antonio Pineiro – July 2, 2015, $300,000 bonus; Contract voided, July 2016
Eduardo Torrealba – July 2, 2015, $300,000 bonus; Contract voided, July 2016
Everlouis Lozada – July 2, 2015, $250,000 bonus; 2019: A
Yeison Coca – July 2, 2015, $220,000 bonus; Traded to MIL for Tyler Thornburg, Dec. 2016
Kervin Suarez – July 2, 2015, $100,000 bonus; 2019: A/A+
Antoni Flores – July 2, 2017, $1,400,000 bonus; 2019: A-
Denny Daza – July 2, 2017, $250,000 bonus; 2019: DSL
Ceddanne Rafaela – July 2, 2017, $10,000 bonus; 2019: Rk/A-
Esteban Quiroz – November 21, 2017; Traded to SD for Colten Brewer, Nov. 2018
Eddinson Paulino – July 2, 2018, $205,000 bonus; 2019: DSL
Axel James – July 2, 2018, $60,000 bonus; 2019: DSL
Brainer Bonaci – July 9, 2018, $290,000 bonus; 2019: DSL
Jose Mendez – July 2, 2019, $200,000 bonus; 2019: Tricky League
Allan Castro – July 2, 2019, $100,000 bonus; 2019: Tricky League
Johnfrank Salazar – August 5, 2019, $400,000 bonus; 2019: Tricky League

Trade Acquisitions
Marco Hernandez – Acquired from CHC for Felix Doubront, Dec. 2014; 2019: Rehab/AAA/MLB
Jeter Downs – Acquired from LAD  for Mookie Betts and David Price, Feb. 2020; 2019: A+/AA

Independent League Signings
Ryan Fitzgerald - Contract purchased from Gary of the American Association, May 2018; 2019: A+

Rule 5 Draft
Jonathan Arauz – Selected from HOU, Dec. 2019; 2019: A+/AA

Position Status: For a time, with Xander Bogaerts (pictured, left) entrenched as the everyday shortstop and Dustin Pedroia locked up until 2021, the Red Sox had their middle infield set for the foreseeable future. Perhaps as a result, from 2014 through 2018, the organization rarely used high picks or large bonuses on middle infielders... with one enormous exception. In March 2015, the club gave the largest international free agent signing bonus ever, $31.5 million (not even counting the tax the club paid on the bonus), to second baseman Yoan Moncada. The Red Sox later leveraged his prospect status as a significant chip in acquiring Chris Sale in 2016, and with him, the 2018 World Series Championship. But now, a full season removed from that championship season, Sale will likely miss the first two seasons of his five-year, $145-million extension after Tommy John surgery and it is the White Sox now reaping the benefits. Meanwhile, Moncada broke out last year, hitting .315/.367/.548 and putting himself on a trajectory to become a star with a 4.8 bWAR/5.7 fWAR season. Flags fly forever and both teams will rightfully call the trade a win, but much as some fans, even after Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell were crucial in securing the 2007 World Series championship, couldn’t help but wonder “What if?” after trading future MVP Hanley Ramirez, so too may some dream about how a Devers-Bogaerts-Moncada infield might have looked in Boston for years, not to mention whether opting not to extend Sale would have kept Mookie Betts in Boston.

On the international market, outside of the signing of Moncada, the organization has gone with a quantity-over-quality approach to the middle infielders. It bears mention that many amateurs sign out of Latin America as shortstops before moving off of the position, so while the team handed out 13 bonuses of greater than $100,000 to players we consider middle infielders during this seven-year period, that number could be higher if we were to include players like Danny Diaz, Nelfy Abreu, and 2019 signees Jhostynxon Garcia and Kelvin Diaz, who all moved immediately or close to it. Of the group that remains in our purview here, Moncada and Antoni Flores were the only signees to get bonuses over $400,000. With Moncada gone and, as discussed below, Flores taking a step back in 2019, the organization is left with a set of intriguing prospects who have yet to establish themselves in the top 15 our current rankings. Flores was the number seven prospect in a very down system to start last year, but he regressed and now finds himself ranked 21st, sandwiched between Brainer Bonaci and Ceddanne Rafaela, who signed for just $60,000 and $10,000, respectively.

Domestically, prior to 2019, the organization had spent surprisingly little draft capital up the middle. 2016 second-round pick CJ Chatham was the club’s only day one pick during that time, and he and 2017 third-round pick Brett Netzer are the only middle infielders the club signed to bonuses of greater than $130,000—and both signed for under slot value. Unsurprisingly, Boston has yet to sign a major league middle infielder in the draft since 2013 (Carlos Asuaje, Mauricio Dubon). Although Chatham and 2016 tenth-rounder Santiago Espinal (pictured, right) (traded to Toronto for Steve Pearce) may be future major leaguers in some capacity, neither look like everyday options.

Last year’s draft showed a clear shift in emphasis as the Red Sox signed five middle infielders, including their first two picks. Second-rounders Cameron Cannon and Matthew Lugo both received over $1,000,000, while two more players drafted on day three, Alex Erro and Karson Simas, signed for $125,000 or more. Finally, second baseman Daniel Bakst, plucked late on day three, represented an intriguing scouting find after he took the spring off from baseball at Stanford, but he decided to retire over the offseason at a point when he was ranked at the back of our Top 60.

The surprising dearth of resources used to acquire talent up the middle and the trade of Moncada created middle infield depth that included sleepers and potential major league depth players, but nobody who took a step forward to look like potential everyday major leaguers, paving the way for the Red Sox to look outside the organization for help. After the first iteration of the Betts trade, centered around replacing Betts with Alex Verdugo and filling an even bigger organizational need for near-MLB-ready pitching with Brudsar Graterol, fell apart, the Red Sox pivoted and centered the deal around the acquisition of Jeter Downs to address its lack of middle infield depth. Downs immediately slotted in as a top-two prospect in the system and projected as the club’s second baseman of the future. Meanwhile, a couple months earlier, the Red Sox targeted Jonathan Arauz in the Rule 5 Draft despite his only having played for about a month in Double-A, a move that looked much more like a long-term play than the acquisition of a player who could help this season.

Overall, middle infielders make up seven of the top 22 prospects in the system and nine of the top 60. Of those nine, four were acquired in the last year and just one was acquired prior to July 2017, showing that most of the system’s middle infield depth has only arrived recently.

Verdict: Because of the additions over the last year, this group has a fair amount of depth and upside, although most of it is years away. In the high minors, Downs is the only potential impact player. Beyond that, these next few years will be key for development at the position, especially with the looming spectre of Bogaerts’ potential 2022 opt-out.

Top prospect – Jeter Downs
After being acquired as part of the return from the Dodgers for Betts and David Price, Downs became the top middle infield prospect in the system, without question. This was actually the second consecutive offseason Downs was dealt, as the Dodgers acquired him from the Reds the previous year in a package for Alex Wood and Yasiel Puig. Downs broke out with the Dodgers after they tweaked his swing to tap into his raw power, hitting .276/.362/.526 across two levels with 24 home runs and 24 steals. In the process, he established himself as a consensus top 100 prospect, and he enters 2020 as either the system’s first- or second-best prospect along with Triston Casas. Downs is very polished at the plate and will show the potential for above-average hit and power. Speed is not a major part of his game, though he will steal a handful of bases due to his instincts. The Red Sox will likely start him at shortstop, but ultimately he projects best at second base, where he could be an above-average regular for a long time. Downs received a non-roster invitation to Spring Training and got a good look in early games before being sent down just prior to the suspension of camp. He will head to Portland when minor league baseball resumes. If he excels there, he could find himself in position to make his debut in 2021.

Next in line – CJ Chatham
The Red Sox 2016 second-round pick has been plagued by injury issues throughout his career, but has still steadily moved up the system and now finds himself on the brink of a major league call-up. Chatham does not have a high ceiling and isn’t the most exciting prospect, but he does a lot of things well and could carve out a nice big league career as a result of it. His carrying tools are all on the defensive side of the ball here he will show an above-average glove and plus arm. He looks the part at shortstop, standing 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, and has solid range and very fluid actions for someone his size. He could field the position in the majors, but because of his lack of offensive upside, he profiles best in a utility bench role, and he spent some time at second base, third base and even the outfield (that for one game on an emergency basis) last year between Portland, Pawtucket and the Arizona Fall League. At the plate, Chatham has solid contact skills, but he projects to hit for an empty average with no in-game power. That type of profile has a role in the major leagues, and he could make his big league debut in 2020. He lacks upward mobility from his current ranking and could easily be passed by some higher upside players once things start back up, including some at the position in the lower minors we’ll discuss below.

Player whose stock could rise in 2020 – Matthew Lugo
One such player is Lugo, the Red Sox’ second second-round pick in 2019. Lugo was seen by some outlets as a potential pick early in the round but fell to the Red Sox at the end of the round at number 69 overall, where he received an over-slot bonus of $1,100,000. He had a decent debut, hitting .257/.337/.326 across the GCL and a cup of coffee in Lowell. Lugo has a very projectable frame and is an above-average athlete. In his debut, he showed the potential for solid tools across the board, but he has a long way to go developmentally. He doesn’t have a stand-out tool right now, but you can dream on him as someone who could stick at shortstop and have at least average hit, power and speed tools. He will likely make his full-season debut with Greenville in the upcoming season, and if he shows well there could quickly vault into the top 10 in the system.

Sleeper – Brainer Bonaci
Bonaci received the largest bonus of any middle infielder in the Red Sox 2018 international class at $290,000 and showed off some very interesting tools in the Dominican Summer League. A switch-hitter, Bonaci is undersized, listed at 5-foot-10, 164 pounds (up, believe it or not, from 140 pounds when he signed), but looked to have projection in his frame during a limited look at the 2019 Fall Instructional League. He hit .279/.356/.397 in the DSL and showed off a plus-plus arm with above-average speed to go along with contact skills and sneaky power. He looks set to make his stateside debut in 2020, at which point he could quickly rise up the list when we are finally able to get an extended look at him.

Others of note:
  • The club’s first selection, 43rd overall, in the 2019 draft, Cameron Cannon had a rough professional debut with Lowell. He hit only .205/.289/.335 in 180 plate appearances following a short, three-game adjustment period in the Gulf Coast League to shake off post-draft rust. That’s not what you’d expect from a top 100 draft prospect coming from a top program like Arizona who led Division I in doubles. In flashes, Cannon showed the bat speed and short, direct swing the Red Sox saw from him at the collegiate level, but he looked very anxious at the plate and seemed to be pressing early on, leading to a tendency to expand the strike zone—he showed an alarming tendency to swing at the first pitch in at-bats initially—and to get out in front of secondary pitches. His discomfort in the box could have been tied to the Red Sox trying to tweak his swing mechanics by changing his load, making his struggles far more understandable. Coming into the draft, Cannon was seen as having potential to develop average hit and power tools, and that is still his upside if his development progresses. Defensively, Cannon also has big questions as to his long-term position. He lacks the tools to stick at shortstop long-term, nor has the arm for third base, so either second base or left field seems his most likely long-term position. After playing mostly shortstop in his first couple weeks of pro ball, he played more at second base than short in 2019. With Matthew Lugo also at shortstop on roughly the same development track, it would not be a surprise to see him transition to second base sooner rather than later.
  • Antoni Flores (pictured, below left) signed for $1,400,000 on July 2, 2017, the third-highest bonus the Red Sox gave out during that window and tenth-highest they have given to an international player younger than 25 years old. The young Venezuelan had a very strong pro debut, hitting .347/.439/.510 in the DSL before a promotion to the GCL. Things took a turn stateside as he missed six weeks with what was described as “general soreness,” then came back and played two games before pulling his hamstring and missing the rest of the season. He did return healthy in the Fall Instructional League and showed a diverse skillset with the potential to hit and stick at shortstop. 2019 was a major struggle, however, as Flores seemed to have grown and his body got softer on him. He lost some athleticism and as a result really struggled to adjust to an aggressive assignment to Lowell, hitting .193/.293/.227 with a 28.4-percent strikeout rate, albeit with a 12-percent walk rate. Scouts really soured on Flores, as he showed a poor approach and limited offensive ability while simultaneously struggling in the field, where he made ten errors in 48 games at shortstop. Context is important, as Flores was only 18 years old facing pitchers on average three years his senior, and often more, in his first exposure to living in the United States for an extended time. The range of outcomes for Flores is wide: The player who showed up at the Fall Instructional League in 2018 had the potential to develop into a potential everyday player and a top-five prospect in the system, but the player we saw last year in Lowell looked like he would struggle to get out of the lower minors. Long-term, that ceiling remains, and the 2020 season will go a long way towards showing which way he is trending.
  • Ceddanne Rafaela (pictured, right) only received a $10,000 bonus when he signed out of Curacao in July 2017, but he has already greatly exceeded expectations and established himself as a top 30 prospect in the system. Coming off a solid but unspectacular season in the DSL, Rafaela slugged six home runs in the Gulf Coast League in 2019 even though he’s listed at 5-foot-8, 152 pounds. He struggled in a three-game cup of coffee in Lowell to end the year, flashing some intriguing tools along with a lack of physical projection. Rafaela has great defensive versatility, playing passable second base, third base, and shortstop in the Gulf Coast League. At the plate, he has a hit-over-power projection with strong contact skills and a solid approach for his age. He will need to get stronger—he has gained just seven pounds between signing and this past spring—and show he can handle higher velocity and more advanced pitching. The jump to Low A would be a good test for him, although a return to Lowell is not out of the question. 
  • Jonathan Arauz was the Red Sox’ first Major League Rule 5 selection of a player who was not either already an established major leaguer (Josh Rutledge in a unique situation in 2016) or was immediately traded (picks in 2011, 2012, and 2014) since 2008, a signal that Chaim Bloom may return the Red Sox to being active in that December curiosity. Arauz hit .249/.319/.388 in 2019 with 11 home runs across High A and Double-A, but still needs a lot of development, which is why Houston left him unprotected despite being a legitimate switch-hitting prospect with the glove and arm to handle shortstop. He missed time due to a suspension in 2017 and has always been young for his level, but he has shown promise, his breakout coming in 2018 in the Midwest League. Although he is not big-league ready, he has the tools to develop into a major leaguer and the chance to acquire a player of his talent at such a weak position was too good to pass up, even with the strings that attach to a Rule 5 pick. Arauz’s approach is raw and he needs to physically mature, but he will show bat speed and some surprising power at times. If there is baseball in 2020, it will likely involve expanded rosters, which would make it a lot easier for the Red Sox to stash Arauz in a reserve infielder role with the hope he can resume a more normal development path back in the minors next season, likely in Portland or, at that point, Triple-A Worcester.
Photo Credit: Yoan Moncada, Xander Bogaerts, Santiago Espinal, Jeter Downs, CJ Chatham, Matthew Lugo, Brainer Bonaci, Cameron Cannon, Antoni Flores and Ceddanne Rafaela 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.