The Boston Red Sox farm system is talented despite the promotion of Andrew Benintendi and departure of Anderson Espinoza, but that talent is not always bound for Boston. In Brandon Magee‘s 2016 Greenville Drive recap, he details the ups and downs of the short season league team.
Regular Season Record: 70-69 Overall – 1st Half: 37-32 / 2nd Half: 33-37
Division: 1st Half: 2nd of 7 (5 games back of Charleston)
2nd Half: 4th of 7 (10 games back of Rome)
Players of the Week
Mitch Gunsolus (5/9-5/15)
Luis Alexander Basabe (7/11-17)
Pitchers of the Week
Jose Almonte (5/23-5/29)
Logan Boyd (7/18-7/24)
Tate Matheny (OF), Luis Alexander Basabe (OF)
The lowest rung of the full season minor league ladder is one of the hardest steps for prospects to steady themselves upon. Going from a 70-game season to a 140-game season brings about many lessons of baseball life: long road trips – in both distance and time – playing through the inevitable aches and pains of everyday activity, working through slumps, and maintaining an even keel through the ups and downs of a full season. The Greenville Drive in 2016 were able to mold their young crew into a winning club over the course of the season, but it was the first half performance that produced seven All-Stars which showed off the potential of the players. Unfortunately, their fine play in the first half was not enough to catch the Charleston Riverdogs, Single-A affiliate of the New York Yankees and first-half leaders. Promotions, trades, and the inevitable slumps led to a sub-par record in the second half of the season, with the Drive finishing the second half a disappointing four games under .500.
While the Drive were unable to qualify for the South Atlantic League playoffs, the ultimate goal for the organization is not playoff appearances – it is player development.
By many metrics the Drive were a slightly below average pitching staff. They placed tenth in the league with a 4.24 R/G, slightly worse than the league average of 4.20. The Drive finished 12th in ERA with a 3.82, 0.16 higher than the league average. Greenville was essentially league average in WHIP, finishing eighth at 1.283. But in other ways, they were better than average: sixth best in the league in home runs allowed with 77; sixth with 1,128 strikeouts. However, when it comes to command, they were among the best teams in the league. The Drive were second to the Augusta Greenjackets in hit batters, hitting only 54. Greenville ranked third in wild pitches – behind only Greensboro and West Virginia – uncorking 84. And they were second to none in walks allowed, with only 358 free passes given out. However, the context of these stats can only be truly understood with this fact: The Drive were the second youngest pitching staff in the league, averaging 20.9 years of age a full year younger than the average pitching age in the league. Only the Rome Braves at 20.8 years were younger.
The Drive began the season with a pair of 18-year-old starters in the rotation. Heavily hyped Anderson Espinoza was the main attraction, and he showed a powerful presence at times. In four of his 17 starts for Greenville, Espinoza pitched five-plus scoreless innings. He also whiffed 11 Augusta Greenjackets in just five innings in another outing. However, his overall stats for the Drive were less than stellar: a 5-8 record, a 4.38 ERA, a 1.368 WHIP. In 2015 – his first season with the Red Sox organization – he was nearly unhittable, yielding only 41 hits in 58 ⅓ innings. In his 76 innings for Greenville in 2016, he allowed 77 hits. In July, Espinoza was traded to the San Diego Padres.
The less hyped 18-year-old, Roniel Raudes, was nearly as effective as Espinoza during his first professional foray. The young righty showed unbelievable control, leading to an absurd 8.78 K/BB ratio over his first 73 ⅔ professional innings. With Greenville in 2016, Raudes continued to show the control that made him a standout last season, walking only 23 batters in his 24 starts. However, Raudes showed his potential in other ways as well. Over 113 ⅓ innings, he struck out 112 batters and ended the season with a 4.52 K/BB ratio. He gave up 112 hits, leading to a 1.191 WHIP. Raudes picked up 11 wins with a 3.65 ERA on the year. Consistency was the hallmark of his system, pitching at least four innings in 20 of his 24 starts – and only less than three innings in his final start of the season. He allowed four or more runs in just eight of his 24 starts while allowing no more than a single run in ten of his appearances. This fantastic first full season performance earned him the Red Sox Minor League pitcher of the year award.
Daniel Gonzalez displayed a fantastic ability to avoid walks in the second half of his strange 2016 journey. The 20-year-old threw up a 5.40 ERA over his first seven games of the 2016 season, walking 11 and striking out 26 in 33 1/3 innings. But after a good six inning appearance on May 14, Gonzalez disappeared from the Drive roster and showed up one month later on the roster of the short-season Lowell Spinners. After a seven-game stint with the Spinners – putting up a 1.75 ERA – Gonzalez returned to the Drive, where he finished out the season in impressive fashion. Gonzalez lasted at least five innings in each of his final nine starts for Greenville, putting up an ERA of 2.65 over 54 ⅓ innings. Perhaps more impressively, he walked only six batters in his last nine games while whiffing 43. On the full season, Gonzalez finished with a 3.70 ERA and a 4.06 K/BB ratio.
Fellow 20 year-old Dedgar Rodriguez ended his season with an even more impressive 5.40 K/BB ratio, having walked only 15 while striking out 81 in 97 innings. Rodriguez started the season with a 6.35 ERA in nine starts for Salem, then put up a 4.73 ERA and a 1.423 WHIP in 17 starts for the Drive. However, Rodriguez averages were sent sky high by a pair of horrific starts – allowing 13 runs on 15 hits in just three innings. In his other 15 starts for the Drive, Rodriguez went at least five innings, with just four outings allowing more than three earned runs.
The Drive even featured a schizophrenic 22-year-old lefty named Logan Boyd, who led the League in wins with 14, despite a 4.78 ERA and a 1.435 WHIP. When Boyd was pitching well, he racked up wins. In ten of his 14 victories, he allowed two or fewer runs. In the other four victories, he allowed four runs thrice and five runs just once. The lefty was also pretty good in his six no-decisions, with five games allowing four or fewer runs and only one game where the offense needed to bail him out (a 4 inning, seven run affair). However, in his seven losses Boyd only made it five innings twice. He allowed seven runs twice, six runs once, and five runs once. While his walks (31) and strikeouts (112) fit in well with the rest of the rotation, he did allow 169 hits in his 139 ⅓ innings.
The bullpen also featured several steady performers. Jake Cosart was the strikeout artist, whiffing 76 batters in 29 relief appearances. However, he was also a bit of a wild child, walking 25 and uncorking eight wild pitches in his 52 ⅔ innings before being promoted to Salem in August. Trevor Kelley whiffed 40 and walked only five in his 37 ⅓ innings out of the Drive bullpen, posting a 1.93 ERA over his 21 appearances. In the first two months of the season it was Bobby Poyner who defined dominant. In 26 innings and 16 appearances, Poyner allowed only two runs on eleven hits while striking out 32 and walking not a single batter. A 0.35 ERA and a 0.423 WHIP quickly earned Poyner a promotion to Salem.
While the offense was not quite as young as the pitching – with an average age of 21.2 – it was still younger than the league average of 21.4. Despite their youth the Drive were one of the better offenses in the league, ranking third in runs (620) and in OPS (.712) behind the Asheville Tourists and Hagerstown Suns. However, the offense was not great at actually hitting the ball, ranking just tenth in hits (1141) and batting average (.248). It was an offense defined by walks (leading the league with 496) and power – ranking sixth in doubles (229), first in triples (43), and second in home runs (104). The walks led to a team OBP of .327 – fourth in the league – while the extra-base hits contributed to the fourth best slugging percentage in the league (.385).
Perhaps the best example of the Drive’s overpowered offense was Josh Ockimey who led the league by accumulating 88 walks in 117 games – 17 more than Mitchell Tolman of West Virginia Power who ranked second in the league. Ockimey also slugged 25 doubles – landing in the top 20 in the league – and powered 18 home runs, good for fifth overall. But the powerful walker had just 92 total hits, resulting in an unconventional line of .226/.367/.425.
Despite not being recognized by the South Atlantic League in their postseason All-Star voting, the best offensive player all year for the Drive was Kyri Washington, who batted .262/.323/.487 with 20 doubles, 16 home runs – ranking eighth in the league – and nine triples, which ranked third in the circuit. The outfielder also stole 16 bases and provided four outfield assists.
Centerfielder Luis Alexander Basabe withstood the loss of his twin (Luis Alejandro, traded to Arizona) and did earn a place on the postseason squad, finishing with a line of .258/.325/.447 in his first full season appearance. Basabe – like Washington – was an extra-base maven, blasting 24 doubles, eight triples, and 12 bombs in his 105 games for the Drive. Basabe also led the team with 25 stolen bases and 61 runs scored. However, Luis Alexander was not only an offensive prodigy at 19-years-old, he also accumulated eight outfield assists from centerfield. Perhaps most impressive for Basabe was that he was able to put up good season stats despite an awful slump, batting just .115/.236/.262 over 18 games in the month of May.
Outfielder Tate Matheny was the only member of the Drive to make both the in-season and postseason All-Star squads – but at first look, the rationale for his inclusion in the postseason squad is not obvious. Matheny batted .277/.324/.382 with 20 doubles, four triples, five home runs, and 21 steals – a good line but one that pales in comparison to Washington. However, Matheny also excelled in the outfield. In 35 games in centerfield, Matheny threw out five baserunners. In his 61 games in right field, Tate gunned down ten more baserunners. Fifteen assists in less than 100 games tends to garner some notice.
Another outfielder that played a big part, both offensively and defensively, for the Drive was Trenton Kemp. The 20-year-old batted .244/.325/.447 with 18 doubles, three triples, and a baker’s dozen dingers in 92 games. He also picked up eight assists from his outfield positions – four each from right and left field.
Two other players played in over 100 games for the Drive: Shortstop Jeremy Rivera was a steady, if not powerful offensive performer, slashing .260/.300/.334 with 19 doubles and four triples in 111 games. Mitch Gunsolus played over 20 games at first base, second base, and third base. In 100 games, Gunsolus hit .223/.323/.353 with 11 doubles and a dozen downtown shots. He ranked second on the squad to Ockimey with 50 free passes.
Luis Alexander’s twin, Luis Alejandro Basabe deserves special mention, leading the offense with a .310/.412/.467 batting line in 64 games with the Drive prior to being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks organization in the Brad Ziegler acquisition. The infielder was a catalyst for Greenville, powering 16 doubles, four triples, and four home runs for the Drive while swiping 14 bases; however, Luis Alejandro had a rougher time away from his twin brother in Kane County of the Midwest League, batting just .217/.339/.323 for the Cougars.
While the Drive were unable to secure a playoff berth in 2016, the team was able to nurture a number of prospects that could help the Red Sox in future seasons. They were also able to showcase a couple of prospects who were traded for valuable contributors to the 2016 AL East Champions. And, the future looks bright for the Drive, who are likely to receive multiple pieces from the Lowell Spinners and the Gulf Coast League Red Sox – two teams who did make the playoffs – to go along with some of the youthful stars already on the team. While there are no guarantees in the hard fought South Atlantic League, the Drive should be in a position to challenge for a playoff spot in 2017.