While the Major League Opening Day extravaganza has come and gone, a larger group of teams begin their season today – the first day of the season for the full season minor league contingent. For fans of the Boston Red Sox, that means opening day for the Pawtucket Red Sox – who begin in Pennsylvania against Lehigh Valley, the Portland Sea Dogs – who begin their season at Hadlock Field against the Reading Fightin Phils, the Salem Red Sox – who also begin at home against one of the two new Carolina League franchises, the Down East Wood Ducks, and the Greenville Drive – who will begin the new season in Maryland, facing the Delmarva Shorebirds. What can be expected from these four Red Sox affiliates this season?
The Pawtucket Red Sox
AAA baseball is the strangest level of the minor league stratosphere. While the primary job of most minor league teams is the development of young prospects, the highest level of the minor leagues has a dual purpose. While development is not forgotten, the primary job of AAA baseball is to be an extended roster for the major league club – to be the bulwark against injury.
To that end, the Pawtucket Red Sox are stocked with players with major league experience. In fact, the PawSox will likely retain the crown as the most expensive team in the minors with a payroll approaching the opening day total of the San Diego Padres. However, both Allen Craig and Rusney Castillo – each pocketing $11 million this season – are highly unlikely to help Boston, seeing as both are stuck in Luxury Tax Purgatory.
Craig and Castillo will join up with Brian Bogusevic, Bryce Brentz, and Junior Lake in an outfield of major leaguers with very little hope of finding a place in the Boston Red Sox lineup. The infield, however, has some chance of being put on the Pawtucket Shuttle. Marco Hernandez will probably be first up if injury were to strike Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, or Pablo Sandoval. Deven Marrero, Mike Miller, and Matt Dominguez round out the quartet of MLB veterans in the infield. Jantzen Witte will return to Pawtucket for his second season, splitting third base duties with Dominguez and seeing spot duty at first.
But, the most exciting prospect in the infield has yet to earn his cup of coffee. First baseman Sam Travis will be looking to improve on his .765 OPS from last season, but more importantly to show he has no lingering issues from his ACL tear that ended his 2016 season in late May. If he is able to prove durable and continue his development, he may push himself onto the 40-man roster later this season and command the big league first base job in 2018.
Also looking to prove that his injury from last season is healed is catcher Blake Swihart. While the athletic Swihart was moved to the outfield last season – where he suffered his season-ending injury – he will be the primary catcher for the PawSox this year. Given his hitting credentials, it would be unwise of Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez to believe the battle for the Boston catcher spot has no more skirmishes left this season. Swihart will be backed up by Dan Butler – a Pawtucket mainstay, having seen time for the PawSox in six previous seasons.
The dozen-man pitching staff is nearly as tall in MLB experience as they are in height – with only 6’0” Matt Walden and Hector Velazquez (the shortest men on staff), Shawn Haviland, Chandler Shepherd, and 6’7” Kyle Martin (tall man of the group) devoid of their cup of coffee. However, Shepherd is likely a temporary addition to the PawSox club as injuries infiltrated the Boston bullpen.
The starting staff will be led by Kyle Kendrick and his 212 MLB starts as he looks to earn a trip back to the majors – which he last saw in 2015 with the Colorado Rockies. Henry Owens and Brian Johnson will both look to improve on their 2016 seasons in hopes of getting another chance in the Boston rotation. Shawn Haviland returns to the PawSox for his second stint – after garnering six starts for the team in 2015. Rounding out the starting rotation is likely to be former Mexican League star Velazquez – who went 14-4 in 36 starts in the Mexican League and Mexican Winter League last season.
The bullpen could be in constant flux, especially when the stars of the Boston pen (Tyler Thornburg and Carson Smith in particular) return from the disabled list, pushing Ben Taylor and Robby Scott back to AAA. Taylor and Scott will join Martin, Noe Ramirez, and Brandon Workman as relievers on the 40-man roster and the likely participants in the PawSox Shuttle. Joining these arms in the pen will be the aforementioned Walden, Edgar Olmos (who saw time with the Mariners in 2015), Eric Cordier (returning from Japan), and Cesar Cabral (who returns to the Red Sox organization after five seasons away).
Portland Sea Dogs
While AA baseball is a proving ground – a place where prospects not only develop but show that they are ready for their first cup of coffee in the big show – there are usually a couple of MLB veterans on these teams to help with developing their best players. However, the opening roster for the Sea Dogs is nearly devoid of any former MLB players, with only Mike Olt – who played for both the Cubs and the White Sox in 2015 – the exception to the rule. Olt, a corner infielder, is one of only three players on the Sea Dogs opening day roster born before 1990; with utility man extraordinaire Ryan Court and relief pitcher Josh Smith joining him in the “old man club.”
However, the lack of experience brings forth the excitement of youth… and stoking the flames of prospect frenzy will be the youngest player on the Portland squad, third baseman Rafael Devers. A consensus top 20 MLB prospect, the 20-year-old third baseman will look to continue his steady and consistent development in his first season in AA. In 2016 with the Salem Red Sox, Devers batted .282/.335/.443 while showcasing his power, speed (with 18 steals and eight triples amongst his 51 extra-base hits), and increased plate discipline (with 40 bases on balls – 16 more than his 2015 season).
Also looking to make a dent in the prospect radar in their first trip to Portland are Nick Longhi, Joseph Monge, and Danny Mars. The 21-year-old Longhi – a first baseman who also dabbles in the outfield – has a developing power stroke, striking 40 doubles in Salem in 2016. Monge began last season with Greenville, where he had spent a disappointing 2015 with a .622 OPS. However, the young outfielder made the adjustments and batted a robust .293/.350/.418 in 116 games for the Drive and the Salem Sox. Mars, also in his second season of full-season ball, was a surprising presence in the Salem lineup, batting .293/.353/.401 with ten triples and 31 steals.
Joining Mars and Monge in the outfield will be returnees Cole Sturgeon and Aneury Tavarez. Tavarez is hoping to make a quick jump up to the crowded Pawtucket outfield after putting up a line of .335/.379/.506 for the Sea Dogs last season. Joining Olt, Court, Devers, and Longhi in the infield will be returning shortstop Tzu-Wei Lin, utility man Heiker Meneses (who rejoins the Red Sox after two seasons with the Twins), and second baseman Jose Rosario – who joins the Boston organization after eight seasons with the Yankees.
The Sea Dogs will sport a trio of catchers to start the season: reliable Danny Bethea will join Portland for his fourth season, Jordan Procyshen gets the bump up from Salem where he recorded a .677 OPS in 61 games last season, and Jake DePew, who has spent the last three seasons in AA Montgomery with the Rays organization. However, the Boston organization will be looking forward to the return of Jake Romanski, who hit .308/.338/.410 with the Sea Dogs last season, but will begin the year on the suspended list due to a positive test for amphetamines.
The starting staff will look familiar to those who watched the Sea Dogs last August, with Teddy Stankiewicz, Kevin McAvoy, Jalen Beeks, and Jacob Dahlstrand all returning to the starting rotation. All four will also be looking to improve upon their AA debuts as each of the youngsters (Stankiewicz, McAvoy, and Beeks were all 22-years-old and Dahlstrand was 24), had an ERA north of 4.50 and a WHIP above 1.30. With a lack of young pitching prospects, the Red Sox will certainly be looking for this rotation to turn a corner. Joining the staff will be former first round draftee Trey Ball, who will attempt to duplicate his 3.84 ERA for Salem in 2016 (while aiming to lower his 1.61 WHIP).
The bullpen will look familiar with the returns of Luis Ysla, Williams Jerez, Taylor Grover, and Austin Maddox. Ysla is striving to remain on the Red Sox radar and 40-man roster, Jerez looks to re-impress his way back onto the 40-man, while Maddox and Grover are attempting to continue their development and a possible promotion to Pawtucket.
Jake Cosart and Jamie Callahan will be joining the Portland pen as they make their AA debuts. Cosart may be the best pitching prospect on the Sea Dogs after punching out 104 in just 70 relief innings between Greenville and Salem in his first foray in full season ball. Callahan had his best professional season last year as he became a full-time reliever, winning five and saving seven in 36 appearances for the Salem Sox. Josh Smith will be the veteran of the pen, joining the Red Sox after five seasons with the Pittsburgh organization.
Salem Red Sox
While Pawtucket is a club of MLB veterans and Portland has a few players that could rightfully be called experienced, Salem is filled with young prospects in their early 20s. But, the bright light will be shining brightest on a teenaged pitching prospect.
While many hearts still feel absent without youthful pitching prospect Anderson Espinoza, those hearts seemed to have forgotten Espinoza’s sidekick, 19-year-old Roniel Raudes. In his second professional season, Raudes merely picked up 11 victories against six defeats in the full-season South Atlantic League. While Raudes did have some rough patches, giving up eight dingers in his 24 starts, the teenager was able to put up a 3.65 ERA with a 1.19 WHIP. As long as he can continue to dazzle with his amazing BB/K ratio (23/104 last season), Raudes’s star will continue to rise.
The other four starters will all be returning to the Salem rotation. 24-year-old Matt Kent led the Red Sox with ten wins in 2016. Daniel McGrath, only 22, despite five seasons with the Red Sox, went 8-6 with a 1.194 WHIP in 19 starts last season. Twenty-two-year-old Travis Lakins was roughed up at times in his first full professional season, but managed to garner six victories with only a trio of defeats. The 21-year-old Dedgar Jimenez rounds out the starting rotation, where he hopes to improve his 5.86 ERA from a season ago.
The bullpen will see the returns of Bobby Poyner, Yankory Pimentel, Adam Lau, and Trevor Kelley. In his first full professional season, Poyner dominated over 16 games for the Greenville Drive before earning a promotion to High-A for his final 23 games of the season. Poyner collected three wins and four saves for Salem, but struggled to a 4.99 ERA. Pimentel, after four seasons in short-season ball, proved worthy of the jump to High-A in 2016, where he recorded a 3.12 ERA over 32 appearances in a variety of roles. Lau ended the season with three wins in just five games for Salem, after putting up a 3.54 ERA in 29 games for the Drive. Kelley also saw brief action in Salem (two perfect innings) after seeing action in 21 games (with a 2.41 ERA) for the Drive.
Joining Salem for the first time will be Gerson Bautista and Austin Glorius. Bautista split time in the Lowell and Greenville bullpens in 2016, with a combined ERA of 2.55 over 23 appearances. Glorius was a jack of all trades for the Drive last season, pitching 76 innings in 31 appearances, including five starts. Mitchell Osnowitz joins the Drive after spending last season with the Joliet Slammers in the independent Frontier League.
The offense will be led by returning elder-statesmen Jordan Betts and Jose Sermo. The 25-year old Betts, a corner-infielder, will be returning to Salem for his third go around after putting up a .241/.309/.381 line in 2016. The 26-year-old Sermo, a utility infielder, had an excellent return to organized baseball with a line of .292/.343/.505 with Salem after spending a year and a half in the independent leagues. The 22-year-old middle infielder Deiner Lopez (.646 OPS), 22-year-old outfielder Mike Meyers (.712 OPS), and 21-year-old outfielder Bryan Hudson (.743 OPS) all return for their second full season in Salem. But, the biggest offensive returnee may be Michael Chavis. The third base prospect hopes to wipe the bad memory of his seven-game debut last season for Salem (four hits in 27 plate appearances after batting .244/.321/.391 with 22 extra base hits in Greenville).
Kyri Washington leads a group of seven Drive alumni making their High-A debut. The 22-year-old outfielder battered South Atlantic League pitching to the tune of a .262/.323/.487 line. Josh Ockimey, 21, will be another powerful addition to the Salem lineup, having led the Drive with 25 doubles and 18 home runs last season. 2015 draft selections Jose De La Guerra (infielder – .665 OPS) and Tate Matheny (outfielder – .706 OPS), along with outfielder Derek Miller (.663 OPS) will also get their first High-A experience. Austin Rei, who batted .212/.331/.318 in 91 games for Greenville, will be the primary catcher while Jhon Nunez – who played in 18 games while traversing three levels last year – will back him up. Josh Tobias, acquired from Philadelphia in the Clay Buchholz trade, is the final man on the Salem roster. The second baseman batted .291/.362/.422 over 127 games between Lakewood of the South Atlantic League and Clearwater in the Florida State League.
As the lowest full-season level, the South Atlantic League is often full of players who have barely made a professional dent. The 2017 Drive squad will be no different.
As with Anderson Espinoza last season, this year all eyes will be on teenage wunderkind Jason Groome. The 12th pick of the 2016 draft did see 6 ⅔ innings of action for the GCL Red Sox and Lowell Spinners at the end of the season… but for all intents and purposes, his first start for Greenville will be the real start of his career. Joining Groome in the Drive stable of 2016 draftees are Shaun Anderson (2 ⅔ innings in Lowell), Matthew Gorst (13 games for Lowell), Robby Sexton (6 games in the GCL), Mike Shawaryn (6 games for Lowell), and Hunter Smith (11 games for the GCL and Lowell).
The Drive will be gaining some arms with a little bit more mileage on them. After three seasons in the GCL and one in Lowell, Pat Goetze will make his full-season debut. Darwinzon Hernandez made his stateside debut last season with the Lowell Spinners at 19-years-old after spending his first two seasons with the Red Sox in the Dominican Summer League. The 19-year-old Hildemaro Requena will also be making his full-season debut after spending last season in the Gulf Coast League and his first two seasons in the DSL.
A trio of pitchers will return for their second season in Greenville. Logan Boyd picked up an impressive 14 wins for the Drive last season, but with an inflated ERA of 4.78. If Boyd can lower that number, he may be the first man out of Greenville this season. Daniel Gonzalez could beat him to the punch though. Gonzalez returns after going 5-5 with a 3.70 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP in 16 starts for the Drive. Reliever Stephen Nogosek spent the final ten games of his debut season with Greenville after spending his first ten games with Lowell. Also returning to Greenville after a three-year hiatus is Jordan Weems. Weems spent parts of 2012, 2013, and 2014 in South Carolina as he attempted to rise to the majors as a catcher. After hitting a wall in Portland to begin last season, Weems was converted to the pitching mound.
The position players mirror those of the pitchers in terms of full-season experience, with only three players returning to the Drive from 2016. Infielder Mitch Gunsolus saw action in an even 100 games for Greenville last season, batting .223/.323/.353 with 50 walks and 11 bombs. Pablo Sandoval clone, Roldani Baldwin (catcher/third base/DH) saw action in 61 games for the Drive after a 25-game stint with Lowell; he had a combined OPS of .677 last season. Infielder Nick Lovullo spent two-thirds of his debut season with the Drive after being drafted in the 20th round – Lovullo struggled to a .417 OPS with Greenville in 37 games.
Third baseman Bobby Dalbec leads the large contingent of players making their debut in full-season Greenville this year. Dalbec toyed with New York-Penn League pitching last season, slapping 51 hits – 22 for extra-bases – in only 34 games. Seven other Spinners join Dalbec in making the trip south. In his third professional season, outfielder Tyler Hill made a loud impression in his first full season at Lowell, batting .332/.400/.487. First baseman Tucker Tubbs put up a .794 OPS in his second season with the Spinners. Outfielder Ryan Scott put up a line of .276/.337/.443 in his professional debut. Outfielder Chris Madera posted a .713 OPS in his first season with the Spinners while infielder Carlos Tovar posted a .725 OPS over 58 games. Utility man Victor Acosta put together an OPS of .659 with Lowell in 2016, nearly matching his .658 OPS in 2015. Finally, 19-year-old outfielder Yoan Aybar also gets the bump up, despite a line of .207/.247/.315 last season in Lowell.
Santiago Espinal, a middle infielder selected in the 2016 draft, will begin his year in Greenville after a 26-game debut last year in the Gulf Coast League. Outfielder Lorenzo Cedrola also jumps up from the GCL, where he batted .290/.350/.393 in his second professional season. But, the biggest jump onto the Greenville Drive roster for 2017 belongs to catcher Eddy Reynoso. The 22-year-old will be making his stateside debut after putting up a line of .285/.330/.408 in his two Dominican Summer League seasons.