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Friday, March 6, 2015

Boston Red Sox Top Prospects: A Brief Recent History

In recent years, the Boston Red Sox have annually had one of the strongest farm systems in baseball. This should probably not come as a big surprise, given the substantial resources the organization has at its disposal when it comes to player development.

Baseball America is the foremost publication available to baseball junkies when it comes to rating, reviewing and reporting on all the different prospects for the various teams. While the Red Sox have traditionally had a number of highly-regarded young players, have they always panned out and become major league stars?

Let’s look back at a list of Baseball America’s top Red Sox prospect for each of the past 15 years, as it’s an intriguing exercise to see who lived up to expectations, who didn’t, and who is still a work in progress. If anything, it tells you how fallible predicting success for prospects can be, but also how some players are so talented they truly are “can’t miss.”

The Boston Red Sox’s Top Prospect by Year for the Last 15 Years:

Dernell Stenson, Outfielder/First Baseman- 1999 & 2001: The powerfully built left-handed slugger immediately thrilled Red Sox fans. Drafted in the third round in 1996, it was just a year after Mo Vaughn, a similarly built player, had won the American League MVP while playing first base with Boston. Stenson didn’t disappoint with his bat, mashing 59 home runs in his first three full-season minor league campaigns. However, he struggled in the field, including a whopping 34 errors at first in 1999 while at Triple-A.

Unfortunately, Stenson never made it to the majors with Boston. He was released in the offseason following the 2002 campaign and was subsequently picked up by the Cincinnati Reds. Following a strong 2003 season in the minors, he earned a major league call up late in the year, more than holding his own, hitting .247 with three home runs and 13 RBIs in 37 games.

Just as Stenson’s career was finally taking off, tragedy struck. In November, 2003, he was robbed and murdered in Arizona, passing away at the young age of 25.

Steve Lomasney, Catcher- 2000: A low point for the overall health of the Boston system, Lomasney was a local product (Peabody, MA) and legendary high school athlete who was drafted in the fifth round in 1995. The right-handed hitter developed power almost immediately but that was the one skill that truly stood out. In 1998 he was the Red Sox’s Minor League Player of the Year, hitting .239 with 22 home runs for High Single-A Sarasota.

He was summoned to Boston for his big league debut late in the season in 1999, appearing in one game against the Baltimore Orioles—striking out in both of his plate appearances.

With Jason Varitek and Scott Hatteberg in the fold, Lomasney hit a roadblock in the organization. He continued in the minors, but suffered a severe eye injury in 2001 and never fully recovered. He lasted in the Boston system through the 2002 season, and then played in the minors for three other teams before retiring after the 2006 season. He posted career minor league marks of a .229 batting average with 93 home runs. He also threw out 27 percent of runners attempting to steal. He is currently an instructor at a baseball and softball academy.

Seung Song, Pitcher- 2002: The right-hander from South Korea signed with the Red Sox as an international free agent in 1999 for $800,000. He was immediately successful, going 8-4 with a 1.90 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 123.1 innings in 2001.
Song never made it to the majors but did impact their big league roster, as he and fellow pitching prospect Sun-Woo Kim were traded at the trade deadline to the Montreal Expos for outfielder Cliff Floyd in 2002.

Song continued with varying degrees of success in the systems of Montreal, San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals until returning to play in Korea in 2007. He is still active, having just completed a 2014 season that saw him go 8-11 with a 5.98 ERA in 24 games for the Lotte Giants. Now 34, he has 140 career victories between the minors and Korea. Although he never made it with the Red Sox, his 16 professional seasons (and counting) show his staying power.

Hanley Ramirez, Shortstop- 2003-05: A much-anticipated prospect, he struck out in two at-bats in Boston in his debut in 2005 before being shipped off in a trade that offseason with the Florida Marlins that netted pitcher Josh Beckett and third baseman Mike Lowell. Ramirez won the 2006 National League Rookie of the Year and has been one of baseball’s biggest stars since, hitting a combined .300 with 191 home runs, 654 RBIs, 264 stolen bases and three All-Star selections in his 10 major league seasons.

With potential redemption on the line, Ramirez will get a chance to make good in Beantown. He recently inked a lucrative free-agent contract with the Sox and enters the 2015 season as one of their most important players, not to mention their highest paid (annual contract value) of all time.

Andy Marte, Third Baseman- 2006: There was great excitement in Boston in the autumn of 2005 after the Atlanta Braves traded Marte to Boston in exchange for shortstop Edgar Renteria. After all, the then 22-year-old was coming off a season at Triple-A where he had hit .275 with 20 home runs.

 Interestingly, Marte never played a single game in the Boston organization, as he was traded to the Cleveland Indians prior to the start of spring training in 2006 in a deal that returned outfielder Coco Crisp among others to the Red Sox.

Marte has never truly panned out as the player many once though he would become, and has bounced around with a number of teams. He has hit .282 with 182 home runs in the minors, and a combined .218 with 21 home runs in parts of seven major league seasons. Most recently, he signed a lucrative one-year deal to play in Korea in 2015.

Jacoby Ellsbury, Outfielder- 2007: A 2005 first-round draft choice, the left-handed hitter experienced extreme ups and downs with the team. In his seven seasons playing for the Red Sox, the team won two World Series with Ellsbury playing a pivotal role both times.

In between a rash of injuries that caused him to miss the majority of two seasons (2010 and 2012), he was an outstanding leadoff man whose production peaked in 2011 when he hit .321 with 32 home runs, 105 RBIs and 39 stolen bases—finishing second in the MVP voting.

Following the 2013 season, Ellsbury left via free agency to sign a mammoth $153 million contract with the rival New York Yankees. He finished his Red Sox career with a .297 batting average, 65 home runs and 241 stolen bases in 715 games.

Clay Buchholz, Pitcher- 2008: Although he has been one of the few prospects who has graduated to the majors and made significant contributions to the Red Sox, the right-hander has done so among continuous ups and downs. The ups have included a no-hitter in his second MLB start, and a dominant 2013 season that saw him go 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA. The downs have been missing time every season because of nagging injuries, and also not yet having consecutive above-average seasons. All told, he is a combined 66-44 with a 3.92 ERA in parts of eight years. Still just 30 and signed to a team-friendly deal that could keep him in Boston until at least 2017, he still has time to build on his legacy.

Lars Anderson, First Baseman- 2009: The only reason the left-handed hitter fell to the 18th round of the 2006 draft was because of signability concerns. However, the Red Sox offer of an $825,000 signing bonus convinced him to forego college at Berkeley.

Anderson excelled immediately, hitting .292 and .317 in his first two minor league seasons, drawing comparisons to established first basemen who could also hit like Adrian Gonzalez. However, his power peaked with the 18 homers he hit in 2008—the majority coming while playing in the hitter’s paradise of Lancaster in the California League.

He received a handful of brief appearances with the Red Sox in 2010-12, appearing in a total of 30 games where he hit .167 with four RBIs in his 48 at-bats. Traded to the Cleveland Indians in 2012 for pitcher Steven Wright, he bounced around several organizations’ minor leagues and was still active in the system of the Chicago Cubs as of this past season. In eight minor league seasons, he has hit a combined .269 with 84 home runs.

One of his former managers, Gabe Kapler, once wrote about the physical and intellectual talents of the former prospect, and Anderson himself has even gotten in on the writing game, posting this article about sustainability earlier in 2014.

Ryan Westmoreland, Outfielder- 2010: The outfielder was already unusually polished when he was drafted out of high school in the fifth round in 2008. A lifelong fan of the team, his selection was the culmination of a long-time wish come true. He only increased the excitement surrounding his potential by hitting .296 with seven home runs and 35 RBIs in 60 short-season games in his first professional season in 2009. Sadly, it proved to be his only season, as he was diagnosed with cavernous malformation, a brain condition, prior to the 2010 season.

After multiple surgeries and working tirelessly to return to playing, Westmoreland officially retired from baseball in 2013. He has since embarked in obtaining his college degree and is still held in high regard by the Red Sox and their fans, who not only appreciate his indomitable spirit and work ethic but also the memory of what might have been.

Casey Kelly, Pitcher- 2011: Originally drafted as a shortstop (but also as a talented pitcher) in the first round of the 2008 draft, the right-handed Kelly played his first season and a half in the field before converting to the mound full-time. Although raw, he was immediately regarded as a top pitching prospect and was an integral piece in a December, 2010 trade with the San Diego Padres that brought first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to Boston.

Kelly debuted with the Padres in 2012, going 2-3 with a 6.21 ERA in six starts. He missed the entire 2013 season because of Tommy John surgery, but came back at the tail end this past year and looked good in the four games he threw in the minors (2.21 ERA). Still just 25, he still has time to live up to his previous status as a top prospect.

Will Middlebrooks, Third Baseman- 2012: Another tough sign, the Red Sox threw a lot of money at Middlebrooks following his fifth-round selection in 2007 to convince the terrific athlete to pass up going to college. He made steady progress in the minors and appeared to be the team’s next superstar after producing a .288 batting average, 15 home runs and 54 RBIs in 75 games as a rookie with Boston in 2012. Unfortunately, a broken wrist ended his season early.

Since that time, he has been unable to recapture his previous form. Battling injuries and waning production, he has combined for a .213 batting average, 19 home runs and 169 strikeouts in 157 games over the past two seasons. He will look to get a fresh start with a new team, as he was traded to the San Diego Padres this offseason.

Xander Bogaerts, Shortstop- 2013-14: Signed as a 16-year-old out of Aruba, the anticipation of the right-handed hitter has only increased as he has matured and progressed in his development. Profiling as a similar player to Hanley Ramirez—minus the speed—Bogaerts appears to be the team’s shortstop of the future.

He debuted towards the end of the 2013 season, and ultimately played a pivotal role in that year’s playoffs, batting an impressive .296. Playing both short and third in 2014, he had a rocky year but finished up at .240 with 12 home runs in 144 games. Just 22, it would be a surprise if he isn’t given a chance to blossom even further in Boston, now that a permanent third baseman was acquired in the form of free agent Pablo Sandoval.

Blake Swihart, Catcher- 2015: A catcher that can both hit (.293/13/64 in 2014) and field (46 percent caught stealing in 2014), the 22-year-old switch-hitter is currently viewed as the future at the position for the Sox. A pure athlete out of high school in New Mexico, the team decided to make him a catcher—and that decision has paid off in spades thus far. Unless he gets traded, which seems unlikely at this point, he should have an opportunity to make an impact in Boston in the next year or two.

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