The Class of 2006 (Part 1 of 2)

Since Theo Epstein took over the General Manager’s office with the Boston Red Sox (see Zach’s article on Theo’s first year here), one of his primary goals has been the construction of a deep and productive farm system. Through 2003 and 2004, though the big club didn’t see any farm products outside of Dan Duquette draftee Kevin Youkilis (and a few minutes of Freddy Sanchez, who wound up with Pittsburgh for a collection of arms that helped get us Curt Schilling in November of 2003). That didn’t mean that nothing was happening; several key prospects were moving through the lower levels of the system. By mid-2005, many of these prospects had moved into the top two levels of the Sox farm, AAA Pawtucket and AA Portland. Now, with some of Boston’s veterans potentially moving on, there will be plenty of opportunities for the kids. Here’s a list of the rookies we will – or, for those prospects I’ll discuss on Thursday in part 2, might – see in 2006. The ages listed are those as of Opening Day this coming April, and the order is some semblance of the amount of impact I expect these players to have.
Kevin Youkilis, 27, 3B/1B
The most experienced player on this list, so much so that he can no longer be considered a prospect. Youkilis has been back and forth between Boston and Pawtucket so often that he and Lou Merloni have traded driving tips. Kevin probably won’t need to worry as much about his gas mileage this year; chances are the 3B/1B will spend all year at Fenway. Bill Mueller and Kevin Millar, the two players holding Youkilis to the bench, have each filed for free agency; chances are neither will return. That leaves third base in Youk’s capable hands. Should the Sox decide to bring Mueller back, expect to see Youkilis share time at both corner infield positions. Youkilis is an interesting study in player development, as his numbers at AAA Pawtucket over the last three years show:
2003: 109 AB, .165/.295/.248, 2 HR, 18 BB, 21 K, 24 yrs.
2004: 154 AB, .266/.350/.403, 3 HR, 19 BB, 28 K, 25 yrs.
2005: 152 AB, .322/.451/.592, 8 HR, 35 BB, 29 K, 26 yrs.
Youkilis has also put up a line of .265/.376/.411 in just under 300 AB’s with Boston between 2004 and 2005. While it’s impossible to guess exactly how Youkilis will do as a regular, he has proven that he deserves a year-long shot at the job; entering his 27 year, it may be the perfect time for Youkilis to seize and everyday MLB career. He’ll get 500+ AB’s this year, most likely as the starting 3B.
Jonathan Papelbon, 25, RHP
We all know something about Jonathan Papelbon. We know two things, actually. First, we know he’s got one hell of an arm. Fastball in the mid-90’s with a get ’em out speed that can touch 97, a developing splitter, and the promise of a couple breaking balls that he used only sparingly in ’05. We also know that he has, to put it nicely and non-anatomically, quite the constitution. That and his minor league record – especially his combined 2005 campaign between Portland, Pawtucket, and eventually Boston – make him the most promising arm on the cusp of moving from prospect to player in the system. While others – Jon Lester and Anibal Sanchez to name two – have better-rated stuff, Papelbon has proven himself on the biggest stages the Sox saw this season. He has two options for 2006; he can remain in the bullpen, where he established himself as an excellent setup man in 2005, or he can move into the rotation, which is his long-term projection. The outcome of those options likely rest with whether the Sox are able to deal David Wells or Bronson Arroyo this offseason; if either of them gets moved, Papelbon is the first choice to move into the rotation. Once he’s there, bet on him to stay.
Dustin Pedroia, 22, 2B
By mid-season 2005, Dustin Pedroia was everyone’s favorite answer to the question ‘when I shoot Mark Bellhorn, who plays second?’ Pedroia had an absolutely blistering half-season in Portland, hitting .324/.409/.508 with 8 homers in 256 AB before being moved up to AAA Pawtucket. Had he not been hit on the wrist by a pitch – an injury which sidelined him for two weeks and marked a downward trend in his production – Pedroia might have been the 2B the Red Sox turned to when Bellhorn was injured and subsequently released. Instead, he finished up the season at Pawtucket, where he hit .255/.356/.382 with 5 HR in 204 AB. Pedroia was a major surprise this season, so it’s still hard to say exactly what he’s capable of. He is in a lot of ways the perfect Theo draft pick; a small MI with an excellent batting eye and good contact rate, good fundamental defense, not flashy but competent in all aspects of the game. For the most part, players that fit many of those descriptors also fit another one: utility. Pedroia may be different, and success over two seasons at 3 Minor League levels says he is. But I’d proceed with caution for Pedroia; 2B is a position that’s hard to fill at an excellent rate but easy to fill at an average one. We can do that, while giving Pedroia a chance to ply his way into Fenway starting the season at McCoy. Still, chances are that with a strong spring performance, he’ll at least start the season in some kind of a time-sharing position at second.
Craig Hansen, 22, RHP
At the beginning of the 2005 season, Craig Hansen was in college. At the end of the 2005 season, he was in the Boston bullpen. In between, he was scouted, hyped, represented by Scott Boras, dropped on draft boards, drafted, signed, and whisked through the Sox system as fast as anyone’s been who ever actually spent time in the minors. There’s no questioning his stuff or his ability; with a fastball that lives above 95 mph and a wicked sharp slider, Hansen has the kind of closer stuff that makes managers drool. The only questions with Hansen relate to his experience. He pitched only a combined 12 2/3 innings between the GCL and AA Portland before arriving in Boston. The Boston bullpen in 2006 is wide wide open; Keith Foulke is under contract, and it appears that Mike Timlin will be as well, but they’re essentially it. Hansen is probably first on the prospect depth chart (at least after Papelbon is counted); the only question is how the FO approaches its bullpen in the offseason. If they choose to restock with free agents – B.J. Ryan, Billy Wagner, and the underrated Julian Tavares are all available – Hansen might receive some AA or AAA conditioning. If they decide to throw prospects at a wall and see who sticks, Hansen is a good bet to be one of those who does.
Manny Delcarmen, 23, RHP
Delcarmen was a high school draft pick, a Duquette selection in 2000. A highly touted West Roxbury native, Delcarmen moved steadily through the lower minors using his hard fastball and looping curve as a starter. In 2003, though, he went down with an elbow injury that later required Tommy John surgery; he returned to action as a starter in 2004, but did not meet with success in the Florida State League despite striking out over a batter an inning. Starting with his work in the Arizona Fall League, Delcarmen was used as a reliever; he experienced a great deal of success in that role in 2005, opening in Portland where he struck out 49 batters in 39 innings of work. He was even better in a shorter amount of time in Pawtucket, before being called to Boston at around the same time as Papelbon. Francona was hesitant to use him in high-lev situations due to his inability to control his secondary pitches, but expect that to change – maybe not a ton, as Delcarmen has had high walk rates throughout his minor league career, but enough to get him a shot at the pen. The same rules that applied to Papelbon apply here: it all comes down to how Boston approaches its offseason priorities. Delcarmen will see time in Boston in 2006; it remains to be seen how much, and how tough that time is.
Adam Stern, 26, CF
A rule 5 selection between the 2004 and 2005 seasons, Stern comes with a reputation for speed and good defense, but little else. The numbers he produced in limited time at Pawtucket make me question the assessment a bit; a .321/.385/.494 line is fairly good for someone who projects to be a bench player. The other issue with Stern was that – at least anecdotally – his baserunning skills left much to be desired; it seemed that every time he was put in to do something, he found a way to get called out. Given the gaping hole that Johnny Damon could leave in the lineup next year, Stern has to get a look here; still, by no means expect the Sox to give him an opportunity to win a starting job. He will likely be around Fenway this year, but as a 4th or 5th OF exclusively.
That’s it for the sure things. On Thursday, I’ll take a look at some of the other players in the system: guys who could surprise, who could fill in because of injury, or who will get time… if they’re still around.
Update: I wrote this dead tired at around 12:30 last night, and in my stupor forgot to include Lenny DiNardo, who is fast becoming one of my favorite prospects. I’m almost certain he’ll see real significant time this coming season; I’ll do his writeup on Thursday.