Not so Minor : Players on the Rise

At each level in the Red Sox minor league system, there is at least two players to get excited about. Pawtucket boasts of power-hitting catcher Kelly Shoppach, while the brightest star out of many stars in Portland is Abe Alvarez. Pitching-rich Sarasota overwhelms you with choices, but you gotta go with the brightest future here, which is Jon Lester. Then you have Augusta (middle-A), which introduces you to Brandon Moss. The Lowell Spinners (low-A) showcase Annibal Sanchez, and the Gulf Coast League (rookie ball) asks you to take a gander at Jimmy James.

Scouting reports are provided to you by the invaluable SoxProspects.

PAW – Kelly Shoppach, C

Shoppach is 24 and in his first year at Pawtucket. In 329 at-bats, he has an anemic .228 batting average, but an encouraging .308 OBP (to put it in perspective, if he was hitting .328, his OBP would be .408) and a .453 slugging percentage. He has 19 homers so far to go with 17 doubles.

Top-line defensive catcher – great arm and great glove. Hits the ball to all fields and draws a lot of walks. Has some power, but Boston loves his OBP. Also said to be a natural leader. Many assume he is in line to replace Varitek in 2005.

A born leader, a high OBP, a top-line defensive catcher with power, this seems like a match made in heaven. The replacing Varitek thing, though – not so fast. The guy has a .228 batting average! Before this, his previous low for a batting average was .271, which he had in his first professional season at Sarasota. Last year for Portland, he threw up a .282 batting average. As soon as he starts finding more gaps in the field, he’ll be a top-notch starter.

Fire Brand’s Take: If Shoppach can boost that average into the .260 range, we are looking at another Jason Varitek. And who said that’s a bad thing? If he can never square away his average, he’ll become a solid backup catcher for Boston, and then eventually could claim a starting spot for a struggling team. His power, OBP, leadership, and defense help make up for the lack of contact. If he ever wants to be a star like Varitek, however, that average has to jump up. Look for Shoppach to spend the majority of 2005 in Pawtucket, with cups of coffee in Boston. If his batting average improves, he should become the backup catcher in 2006. If he starts making contact, he will take over as the starting catcher in either 2006 or 2007 – that is dependent on how long (if at all) we sign Varitek for.

POR – Abe Alvarez, SP

21-year old Abe Alvarez has already been covered by Fire Brand here, here, and more recently, here (the aftermath of his first big-league start).

Tall and lanky lefty. Has been compared to Orel Hershiser and Jamie Moyer. Changes speeds well and hits his spots with consistency. Fastball isn’t fantastic, topping out in the mid to high 80s, but throws all of his pitches with pinpoint control. Best changeup and command in the Sox farm system. Curveball needs some work. Very mature, knows what he needs to do to prepare for each game. Very focused. Blind in one eye. Wears his hat to the side because it gets in the way of his windup – not as a fashion statement.

So far at Portland, Abe is 9-8 with a 3.51 ERA. He has 115.1 IP, with 116 hits, 92 strikeouts, and 27 walks. He has pitched 120.1 IP total, so in 21.2 innings, he will have officially pitched the most he ever has since the beginning of college. How Abe holds up down the stretch will be telling. We rested him extensively last year, as he pitched 122.2 IP for Long Beach State, then 19.0 as a reliever for Sarasota.

Fire Brand’s Take: I-95 will become very familiar for him next year, as he should start for Pawtucket and come up every now and then to relieve for the Red Sox. Since he will only be 22 next year, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see him repeat Pawtucket twice, which may in fact be the prudent thing to do. At the very least, he should be in the Boston rotation no later than 2007, when he will be 24. He will very likely either start or relieve for Boston in 2006 – it depends how our rotation shapes up by then. Here’s another mini-prediction: Tim Wakefield will become a reliever by 2007.

SAR – Jon Lester, SP

Another lefty that’s doing well for Boston. Last year, 20 year-old Lester had an ‚Äúokay‚Ä? year, posting a 3.65 ERA in 21 starts (24 games), going 6-9 for Augusta. He earned a promotion to Sarasota this year, where he has broken out. At Sarasota, he has gone 5-5 with a 3.55 ERA. In other words, he is one of those prospects that consistently stays good each year. There are several types of prospects. One type, the most common, is that they get worse the higher the level gets. The second type is similar to Jon Lester – consistently good at each level. They tend not to get much notice because many people assume they will do worse in the majors, like Jody Gerut. Gerut was a surprise because he stayed the same in the majors, he did not worsen. The third type is those that actually improve, quite rare. Then you have the can’t-misses: excelling everywhere.

Very athletic lefty – fastball reaches low 90’s, with an above-average change-up, along with a curveball that is slowly improving. Has an easy delivery motion which has helped him to a fantastic sophomore season. While he may be one of the top pitching prospects in the organization, he still only currently projects as a third starter.

I would be amiss if I did not give an honorable mention to 21 year old Juan Cedeno. The reason I picked Lester over Cedeno is because Lester has a lower ERA, is one year younger, and has a higher Strike-Out to Walk rate, However, Cedeno has had quite a season as well. Cedeno might actually project to be better than Lester.

Cedeno overpowers batters with his mid-90’s fastball, which has drawn comparisons to Pedro. He also utilizes an improving curveball which he struggles with command-wise. Also needs to work on a change-up in order to project as a top line starter. Still, the Red Sox are very excited about the future for the Dominican lefty.

Fire Brand’s Take: Jon Lester will be used as a trading chip in the off-season and next season. He should eventually round out into a nice number four or five starter for contending teams. At the very worst, he will bounce from team to team as a starter or reliever. Lefties get many chances, and there’s no reason to think Lester won’t at the very least spend an entire year ast the majors. Cedeno, if he can develop as the Sox hope he does, could be another Pedro. I believe the more realistic projection has him as a power reliever, eventually a closer.

AUG – Brandon Moss, OF

20-year old Brandon Moss has had a bust out season, hitting .342/.405/.519 in 430 at-bats for Augusta.

Athletic Outfielder with a good arm. He didn’t show much at the plate in his first two professional seasons, but put in a good amount of work in the off-season prior to 2004, which has shown early on.

The previous two years, Moss had spent time with the GCL and Lowell. He hit in the low .200s, so this is especially surprising. Hopefully he realizes what work reaps, so he’ll work even more next off-season and translate that to further success at Sarasota. High school prospects generally take time to develop, and so it should come to no-one’s surprise that Moss developed – but this much? Truly impressive.

Fire Brand’s Take: Still quite a ways from Boston. His age helps him here. In 2008, he will be 24, and if he keeps up this pace, he could even supplant Johnny Damon as the Boston center-fielder after 2005. Realistically, though, it’ll take him until 2008 to get into the majors. It’s pretty impossible to predict where he will end up, but it seems that he should be good enough to be an eventual utilityman in the majors.

LOW – Anibal Sanchez, SP

20-year old Anibal Sanchez has flourished for Lowell so far, starting ten games and ending up with a 2.22 ERA in 48.2 IP (2-3 for a 20-30 team). Even better considering Sanchez had been out of baseball all of 2003. It’s quite early to predict how Sanchez will end up, but my gut is telling me he will turn out to be a good middle reliever in the majors starting in 2009, when he is 25.

Sanchez last played in 2002 in the VSL. Used primarily as a starter; excellent k/bb ratio. Throws a 96 mph fastball.

GCL – Jimmy James, SP

19 years old, James had a nice year in the Dominican Summer League for 2003, where he hurled 66.2 IP, resulting in a 2.83 ERA. He’s turned that into a solid start for the GCL so far, posting a 1.60 ERA in 33.2 IP (8 G, 6 GS). He has K’d 26 while walking 11. It’s definitely way too early to predict what James (do you think I could post a 1.60 ERA in the GCL?) will do, but it’s certainly great stats he’s put up so far.

Fire Brand’s Take: Well, there were several types of rookies, as I explained earlier. Let’s run them through and see how James fits into each of them.

  • Get worse the higher the level gets – James would be a AAA retread.
  • Consistently good at each level – Pedro!
  • Those that actually improve, quite rarer – Best Pitcher Ever.
  • Can’t-misses: excelling everywhere – Pedro!

Maybe James will never become Pedro, but the future is bright, indeed.