The Red Sox hadn't won a World Series in more than eight decades when they assembled one of baseball's best farm systems in the early 2000s. They ended their drought with a club of mostly imports in 2004, then took a second championship in 2007 with direct contributions from homegrown prospects Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis while also using Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez in a crucial trade for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell.
Minor League talent usually runs in cycles, and Boston's dipped for a few years before a resurgence in the early 2010s. Xander Bogaerts starred in October as a 20-year-old on a 2013 World Series title team, then teamed with a homegrown core of Andrew Benintendi, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Rafael Devers and Christian Vazquez to win another championship five years later. The ace of that 2018 club was Chris Sale, acquired in a deal that included blue-chip prospects Michael Kopech and Yoan Moncada.
The Red Sox system ebbed again after promotions and trades and entered 2021 ranked No. 24 by MLB Pipeline. While it will need some time to rise again, Boston is optimistic about its in-house talent. It's too early to start reserving duck boats for yet another World Series parade, but the Sox have another group of position prospects on the rise.
Boston just graduated one Top 100 Prospect to the big leagues in first baseman Bobby Dalbec, and has three more Top 100 bats in first baseman Triston Casas, middle infielder Jeter Downs and outfielder Jarren Duran. All of them will open this season in the upper levels of the Minors. Behind them is a wave of 20-and-under talent led by outfielder Gilberto Jimenez, second baseman Nick Yorke, third baseman Blaze Jordan and shortstop Matthew Lugo.
"The group we have now is pretty interesting and exciting," said Red Sox senior vice president of baseball operations Ben Crockett, who has worked in the front office since 2007. "Every situation is somewhat unique, and those previous groups of players were incredibly talented and have proven themselves at the Major League level. This group certainly has potential."
The next to arrive at Fenway Park may be Duran, who has vastly exceeded expectations since signing as a seventh-rounder out of Long Beach State in 2018. He played in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game and reached Double-A in his first full pro season, then incorporated some swing changes to add power to go with his plus-plus speed in 2020. That translated into an MVP Award in the Puerto Rican Winter League playoffs and a .400/.500/.640 batting line in the Caribbean Series.
Duran might have been Boston's most impressive player in Grapefruit League action, hitting .340/.367/.702, and he has continued to rake at its alternate training site in Worcester, Mass., home of its new Triple-A affiliate. He still needs to polish his plate discipline and his center-field defense, but the Red Sox find themselves off to a hot start without getting much help from their outfielders. He'll likely start the season in Triple-A but could land in Boston by midseason if he continues on this trajectory.
"It's been very exciting to see this play out after Duran grinded it out at the alternate site last year and then took control of his own development by going down to play in Puerto Rico last winter," Crockett said. "It's carried over to big league camp and the alternate site. I just watched him hit a home run today against the Mets. He's an ultracompetitive kid and that motivation to compete and win stands out."
Lugo had a chance to go in the first round of the 2019 Draft before a poor offensive performance at a showcase that May dropped him to the Red Sox in the second. They didn't get to see a lot of him past his pro debut that summer because the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the 2020 Minor League season and a minor wrist injury prevented him from hitting in instructional league last fall.
Fully healthy this spring, Lugo has looked good on both sides of the ball in Minor League Spring Training. The nephew of nine-time All-Star Carlos Beltran, he has impressed with his strength and gameplan at the plate.
"There's a lot of polish to what Lugo does," Crockett said. "He's very consistent with his mental approach day to day. He has put himself in a tremendous position athletically. He's one of the strongest guys pound per pound that we have."
Two more hitters who have performed well in Minor League camp are first baseman Pedro Castellanos, who has displayed increased power, and third baseman Brandon Howlett, who has improved his approach and made more consistent contact. On the pitching side, left-hander Chris Murphy and right-handers Brayan Bello and Aldo Ramirez are maintaining the velocity gains they showed during instructs.
Prospect we’ll be talking about in 2022
Bello signed for just $28,000 out of the Dominican Republic at the relatively advanced age of 18 in 2017, dominated the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League in his pro debut and then skipped two levels to jump to Low-A in 2019. He struggled for the first three months of that season before finishing strong, then kicked his stuff up a notch during instructional league last fall.
Bello went from operating at 92-95 mph with his four-seam fastball in 2019 to averaging 95 and touching 98 in shorter outings during instructs. His slider also added power and showed increased signs of becoming a plus pitch, and his fading changeup has similar potential.
"Bello had pretty good stuff previously and he's continued to improve as he's gotten more physically mature," Crockett said. "He was maybe a bit more inconsistent with his stuff in instructional league but in Spring Training, he's back to pounding the strike zone and really attacking hitters while maintaining the ability to get to 97-98 mph and an improved slider."
Something to prove
It looked like a coup for the Red Sox when they landed left-hander Jay Groome, MLB Pipeline's top-rated prospect in the 2016 Draft, with the 12th overall selection that June. It still could be, but he hasn't made much progress because injuries (most notably Tommy John surgery in May 2018) and the cancelled 2020 season have limited him to 66 innings in his first five years as a pro.
Groome did attend Boston's alternate site and instructional league program last year, and he made his Grapefruit League debut this March with a scoreless inning against the Braves. After a strong Spring Training, he's ready for a full 2021 season that should give the Red Sox a better idea of what he can become.
"Groome got a chance to pitch in Major League camp and his stuff was electric in short outings, up to 97 mph," Crockett said. "He rode that momentum into Minor League camp and once he got stretched out, he continued to show good velocity, some 95s and 96s and a lot of 93s and 94s. His curveball is a good pitch that complements his fastball life, and his changeup and slider continue to develop."