Big spending doesn’t have to take place just at the big league level. The Red Sox have kept their farm system perennially deep thanks to big spending in the draft year after year.
In the past four years, the Red Sox have signed eight players to seven-figure deals—after the first round. Two of those players—Anthony Ranaudo and Ryan Westmoreland—signed for more than $2 million. They’ve also had five first-rounders in the past four years, the least expensive of whom (Reymond Fuentes in 2009) signed for over $1.3 million.
Their big spending has not always paid off in major league production, as no draft pick from the past four years has made a significant contribution in Boston, but the Red Sox draft for trading chips as much as anything else. This new was more evident than when they traded their first-round picks from back-to-back years (Casey Kelly from 2008 and Fuentes from 2009), along with Anthony Rizzo, for current first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, then gave him a huge contract.
With many long-term contracts at the major league level, there just aren’t always openings for upcoming prospects, but if the Red Sox want to make a move in the future involving prospects, they have plenty left in the system to work with.
With Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford in the Red Sox outfield for the foreseeable future, there aren’t a lot of at-bats available for up-and-coming outfielders, meaning that prospects like Bryce Brentz, Brandon Jacobs and Jackie Bradley may never roam the outfield at Fenway.
But then again, they could. After adjusting to eye issues, Brentz went swing-for-swing with Bryce Harper in the South Atlantic League for the first half of the season, then more than held his own in High-A ball after a midseason promotion. His biggest deficiency is his plate discipline, which will be exploited at higher levels if not improved, but if he can refine his approach without losing his power potential, he could man right field alongside Ellsbury and Crawford.
Jacobs, a year behind Brentz, broke out in his first full professional season, hitting .303/.376/.505 in Low-A ball in 2011. Unfortunately, he’s a left field-only outfielder, meaning if he’s ready anytime before 2018 (which he will be) when Crawford’s contract is up, he won’t get much playing time in Boston.
Bradley was a College World Series star who suffered from poor play and injury in his draft year, but the Red Sox have the payroll flexibility to take a chance on his high ceiling by paying over slot after drafting him in the first supplemental round last year. It’s not the first time they’ve pulled this move.
One year earlier, the Sox grabbed another former college star whose junior year had been a disappointment—Anthony Ranaudo out of LSU. They were able to follow Ranaudo into the Cape Cod League after drafting him, and after liking what they saw, signed him for just over $2.5 million. The risk has still yet to be determined as wise or not, but Ranaudo did have a solid first year and made a full season of starts while displaying his college velocity. The Red Sox are excited about those two facts, assuming he continues to build on them.
The Red Sox do have some openings at the major league level from time to time, and the most obvious one entering this season is behind the plate. Jarrod Saltalamacchia returns as the probable starter, and the team brought in Kelly Shoppach to push him, but neither is entrenched in the position with the departure of long-time captain Jason Varitek.
That opens the door for Ryan Lavarnway, who saw some playing time down the stretch during the team’s collapse last season. He’s not a strong defensive catcher, but he can hold his own and has a bat that could end up being above average for a catcher. At worst, he should be a solid backup, but if he gets a chance to play, he could prove his worth as a solid starting catcher.
If Lavarnway doesn’t firmly entrench himself in the backstop position, there is more help on the way, albeit somewhat far away. Blake Swihart was drafted out of high school this past summer, and got just six professional at-bats, but he has an advanced bat that could move quickly through the minors once he gets started. He’s certainly far enough from the majors that the Red Sox wouldn’t make any decisions at the top level based on him, but Swihart is regarded highly enough that they could start factoring him into their decision making by this time next year.
Catcher is the most obvious opening for the Red Sox, but third base isn’t nearly as stable as it might seem. Sure Kevin Youkilis is the man at the hot corner for now, but he is in the last guaranteed year of his contract with a team option for 2013.. He’s battled injuries the past two seasons, so the Sox might turn to 2007 fifth-rounder Will Middlebrooks, the team’s top prospect, rather than pick up the $13 million option on Youkilis.
Middlebrooks is a strong all-around player, including defensively at third base, and will play the entire 2012 season at Triple-A, where a strong season could make the Youkilis option decision an easy one.
Others to watch
Xander Bogaerts. The top power hitting prospect in the system and among the most powerful in the minors, Bogaerts is likely to outgrow shortstop but could settle at third base or a corner outfield position. He’s slated for High-A ball in 2012.
Jose Iglesias. He’s the best defensive shortstop in the Red Sox organization—majors included—but might not hit his weight. And he’s pretty skinny.