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October 21, 2020 at 12:30 PM

2018 Draft Retrospective: Casas highlights solid haul


Thank you for checking in on the newest entry in our draft retrospective series. We recently featured a pick-by-pick rundown of 2018, while today we will dig a little deeper into a few of the more interesting and prominent draftees. For a quick list and links to player pages, check out our Draft History page.

2018 Draft

Background

By the time the 2018 draft rolled around, the major league club was riding high, sporting a winning percentage near .700 on its way to a 108-win season and World Series trophy. Unfortunately, the success at the major league level was not mirrored in the minors. Trades and graduations that built a juggernaut in the big leagues had depleted much of the system’s depth, leaving a farm system that was universally ranked at or near the worst in the game. Among those who remained, the underperformance of recent top picks and the suspension of top prospect Michael Chavis had created a vacuum, with little daily success to celebrate. With a homegrown core that would soon get expensive and force difficult decisions down the road, 2018 seemed like a particularly important year for Mike Rikard and the amateur scouting department.

The Vitals
President of Baseball Operations: Dave Dombrowski
Director of Amateur Scouting: Mike Rikard

Major Leaguers drafted and signed
None

Success with a surprising pick
The current top prospect in the Red Sox system was something of an unconventional pick for the organization when they selected him with the 26th-overall pick two years ago. Triston Casas joined Chavis and Blake Swihart as the only prep position players to be selected by the Red Sox in the first round during the 2010s. Even more surprising was that the team went for a corner player seen by most scouts as a first baseman going forward. The Red Sox have long focused their attention at the top of the draft on players up the middle. Casas was not listed among the likely selections on the annual SoxProspects.com draft preview, and none of the major publications mocked him to Boston. This was despite having pre-draft rankings that put him right in the range where Boston was picking: Baseball America had him ranked 25th in the class, MLB.com rated him 20th, and Perfect Game USA placed him 31st. Post-draft interviews reinforced what was apparent with the pick: Boston viewed Casas’s upside at the plate too high to pass up. 

A quick sign, Casas debuted quickly, less than three weeks after draft day. The bad luck that seemed to be afflicting the minor league system all year long struck Casas immediately. In his second professional game and first in the field, Casas injured his thumb on a diving play. He was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right thumb, requiring season-ending surgery. Casas’s debut campaign concluded with an inauspicious 0-for-4. 

Healed by start of the Fall Instructional League, Casas impressed scouts there as well as in spring training, even with some unconventional mechanics. Despite a six-foot-five frame that appears taller due to his Kevin McHale-esque limbs, Casas used a deep crouch with a wide stance and his hands held high. The Red Sox worked on getting Casas to be more upright to better incorporate the natural strength in his lower half. Assigned to Greenville out of spring training, Casas spent the first month of the year hitting like someone undergoing a mechanical adjustment. The 19-year-old hit just .208/.284/.364 with two homers and 31 strikeouts in 88 April plate appearances. Casas blasted a homer on May 1, another the following day, and he did not look back. Despite being one of the youngest players in the South Atlantic League, Casas hit .267/.364/.506 from May onward, earning a late-season promotion to Salem, where he homered once in two games. He finished the season with 20 homers, 26 doubles, and SoxProspects.com Offensive Player of the Year honors. 

While it does not make up for a mostly-lost 2020 season, Casas was one of the stars at the team’s Pawtucket Alternate Training Site after being added to the 60-man pool in late August. He is currently in Fort Myers as part of the Fall Instructs roster. 

College players break out
Casas is the clear top prospect in the 2018 class, but the Red Sox also found success with a pair of college players who arrived with little fanfare but have climbed into the organization’s top 10 after excellent, unexpected performances: Right-handed pitcher Thaddeus Ward, taken in the fifth round out of Central Florida, and Long Beach State’s Jarren Duran, a seventh-round pick as a second baseman who the team envisioned as an outfielder. 

Duran was an immediate sensation in his assignment to Lowell. While at Long Beach, the athletic Duran employed that school’s well-known approach of batters hitting the ball on the ground and using their speed. He hit .302/.380/.392 with 13 extra-base hits in 56 games during his junior campaign. He signed on June 14 and made a splash in his pro debut three days later, going 3 for 5 with a double and two triples. The triples would become routine for Duran. He registered 10, along with five doubles and two homers, on his way to a .348/.393/.548 line in 37 games with the Spinners. An early-August promotion to Greenville gave him little more resistance. Better outfield defense in the South Atlantic League limited the three-baggers, but Duran more than made up for it with singles and doubles, hitting .367/.396/.477 in 30 contests.

At his first spring training, Duran quickly made an impression on manager Alex Cora, who frequently requested him be included among the minor league camp reserves. He joined the big league club for seven games, going 4 for 12. An assignment to Salem proved torturous to Carolina League hurlers. Duran kicked off the season with an eight-game hitting streak on his way to a .387/.456/.543 line—which was actually even better before a short slump just before his call-up—in just 50 games before graduating to Double-A. It was with Portland that he experienced the first notable struggles of his professional career, getting off to a .211/.279/.263 start in his first 24 games. He recovered to turn in a solid .267/.322/.351 line the rest of the season that becomes more impressive in the context of his rising from the Big West Conference to the Eastern League in less than a calendar year. Had the 2019 major league squad not fallen out of contention, Duran may have been a dark horse option for a September callup and the postseason pinch runner slot. 

Duran continued to impress in the Arizona Fall League and this spring in Fort Myers. While the pandemic-shortened season likely cost the 23-year-old a good chance to break into the majors, particularly considering the increased power production he showed at the Alternate Training Site with some new batting mechanics, he heads into 2021 as a key part of the outfield picture. With Jackie Bradley Jr. headed into free agency and Andrew Benintendi coming off a season marred by injury and on-field struggle, Duran seems to have a path to major league playing time. After a short break, Duran will be joining the Caguas club in the Puerto Rican Winter League this offseason.

Like Duran, Ward was also assigned to Lowell, that after signing quickly to a deal slightly below slot. The six-foot-three righty celebrated July 4 with his minor league debut, striking out three and walking one in 1 2/3 innings. He finished his first season with a 3.77 ERA in 31 frames, a mark that was tarnished by one mid-August start in which he surrendered six runs while retiring only five batters. 

Ward began his own breakout 2019 with Greenville, turning in a solid April before taking off in May. He did not allow an earned run during a five-start stretch from May 14 through June 6, striking out 36 and walking only four in 32 1/3 innings, pitching his way to a promotion to Salem. He allowed three or fewer earned runs in all 12 of his Carolina League appearances, finishing with a 2.33 ERA. Ward’s first full pro season came to an end with an outstanding 157 strikeouts in 126 1/3 innings. His 29.9-percent strikeout rate was the best for a Red Sox minor leaguer with over 100 innings since Henry Owens in 2013. He is currently ranked ninth in the system and joins Tanner Houck, Bryan Mata, and a healthy Jay Groome as the best collection of arms the organization has had in the high minors in several years.

While Duran and Ward have been early success stories, Durbin Feltman did not join his 2018 college pick brethren with a breakout season in his first full year as a pro. An exciting debut that saw him reach Salem just two months after being drafted elevated expectations for the former TCU relief ace. Given an aggressive placement in Double-A, Feltman was discussed as a potential impact bullpen arm for the 2019 season. The weight of those expectations and the advanced hitters of the Eastern League proved a challenge for Feltman; after 10 appearances, he sported an unsightly 9.90 ERA and more walks than strikeouts. While his control straightened out as the season continued, the runs kept coming as he finished the year with a 5.26 ERA. There were positive takeaways from Feltman’s 2019, notably the 54 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings. Diminished fastball velocity in spring training 2020 was concerning, and the lost season cost him the opportunity for a quick rebound season. 

Growing pains for prep phenoms
Casas was joined in the class of 2018 by three other talented high school picks who profile as corner players but did not match his initial success. Fellow third basemen Brandon Howlett and Nick Northcut and second-round pick Nick Decker, an outfielder, struggled to varying degrees in 2019. 

Howlett was a 21st-round pick who received a $185,000 bonus to forgo a commitment to Florida State. He joined Duran as an early breakout after signing in 2018, hitting .307/.405/.526 in 39 games in the Gulf Coast League, thanks in large part to getting contact lenses. He continued to impress in Spring Training, joining Casas in Greenville and rising to 11th on the SoxProspects.com rankings to start the season. 

His introduction to the more advanced pitching of the South Atlantic League was a difficult one, as he hit .203/.263/.304 in 20 games in April, striking out in one-third of his plate appearances. Like his Brobdingnagian draftmate across the diamond, Howlett appeared to break out after an initial slump, with a .285/.399/.412 line bolstered by an excellent 13.3-percent walk rate. However, he continued to strike out in more than 30 percent of his plate appearances, and his batting average was bolstered by a seemingly unsustainable .413 batting average on balls in play. Howlett’s first-full-season grind and a correction on those balls in play resulted in a prolonged slump, as he hit just .186/.310/.321 in the final two months. On the promising side, his plate discipline did not suffer. His ability to work deep counts and willingness to take a walk will allow him to see more hitters' pitches, and the next step must be to punish those pitches with more regularity when he does see them. 

While the canceled 2020 minor league season affected development across the board, it comes at a particularly unfortunate time for Howlett. Adjusting to the long professional season and dealing with a first prolonged slump are frequent issues that prospects need to deal with in their full-season league debuts. Seeing how Howlett rebounded from that was and remains key to his development. 

The decision to assign Nick Decker to Lowell rather than Greenville out of spring training in 2019 was something of a surprise, though not necessarily an alarming one. Greenville has generally been the destination in the first full season for a player with his pedigree, but there were some extenuating circumstances. Decker had been afflicted with the curse went through the minor league system the previous year, fracturing his left wrist during batting practice after signing and being unable to debut until the New York-Penn League playoffs. Additionally, a Greenville assignment for the previous year’s second-round pick, the similarly-touted Cole Brannen, had proved too aggressive and required a move back down to Lowell to retool. Add Decker's background in the northeast, and a conservative approach was justifiable.

Decker came with the power that was advertised, posting a .224 isolated slugging that matched Casas’ and placed him fourth in the New York-Penn League. He finished with 10 doubles, five triples, and six homers, easily pacing the Spinners in extra-base hits. On the downside, he struck out much more than one would like for a player not given a challenging level assignment. Decker’s 59 whiffs in 195 plate appearances (30.3 percent) limited his batting average to .247 and his on-base percentage to .328. Still, his value remains high. Though he has dropped in the prospect rankings from 12th at the start of 2019 to 24th at present, that dip is more a function of the much-improved system depth than it is about Decker’s standing: 12 of the players currently ranked higher have entered the system during that time, accounting for the vast majority of his "drop." 

Nick Northcut entered the draft as a consensus top-100 prospect with a commitment to Vanderbilt, raising questions about his signability. Boston took him in the 11th round and brought him into the fold with a $565,000 bonus. That figure, roughly equivalent to a third-round pick, broke Nick Longhi’s record for the largest bonus the team had given a draftee outside the first 10 rounds in the bonus pool era, but it was less than some teams felt it would take to sign the Ohio native. 

Northcut’s debut was solid if unspectacular, as he showed a raw approach while hitting .232/.319/.317 in the Gulf Coast League before a weeklong cameo in Lowell. Like Decker, Northcut was assigned to Lowell rather than Greenville out of his first spring training, a move that was even less surprising with Casas, Howlett, and Devlin Granberg all taking up at-bats with the Drive, Lowell seemed the obvious choice to get Northcut the necessary reps both at the plate and at third base. While certainly young and athletic enough to develop, his first full season gave fewer reasons to be sanguine. He hit just .211/.287/.299 while striking out 27.6 percent of the time. He is currently ranked the 53rd-best prospect in the system. 

Final thoughts
It is, of course, far too early to draw any conclusions from a draft class that has seen only one full professional season, but the initial returns are promising. The crop includes prospects who are currently ranked first, fourth, and ninth in the system, along with several more in the top 60. Beyond the players mentioned above, the team holds pitchers Chase Shugart and AJ Politi in high regard. While those first impressions can be off the mark, as the 2006 and 2010 draft classes can attest, the quality of depth that you are looking for seems to be present. Unlike the 2017 edition, which seems to ride heavily on the success of Tanner Houck, there are many ways to envision 2018 providing value.

Photo Credit: Triston Casas, Jarren Duran, and Nick Decker by Kelly O'Connor

James Dunne is Managing Editor of SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesDunneSP.

 
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