I thought I'd check in with the farm system, taking a look at five players, three who have impressed, and two who have struggled a bit.
Three Steps Forward
Ryan Lavarnway is a catcher out of Yale who was drafted in the 6th round of 2008. Lavarnway's bat has always been ahead of his glove, especially since he was converted to catcher at Yale and was very raw coming out of the draft. Since then he's worked on his catching mechanics, but whether or not he can stay at catcher depends on whom you ask. Despite the questions about his glove, Lavarnway's bat has been remarkably consistent; in is last five stops in the minors he's posted an OPS of .907 (low A in 2009), .879 (high A in 2010), .888 (AA in 2010), and .869 (AA in 2011). He has a very nice set of skills, with solid power (.200 ISO) and a patient approach (walking in 10% of his PA). The Red Sox recently promoted him to AAA, where he took over the starting role from the recently traded Mike McKenry. Unsurprisingly, he's hit so far in AAA, going 3/9 with two doubles.
Chris Balcom-Miller came over to the Red Sox in the Manny Delcarmen trade last August. To get anything at all for Delcarmen was a minor miracle, especially since it was after the July trade deadline and Delcarmen had to clear waivers, but to get a solid prospect like Balcom-Miller is just gravy. Scouting reports before the trade had Balcom-Miller as a potential mid-rotation starter, who has good control and kept the ball on the ground. Although he was not among the Red Sox top prospects (ranked 26 by SoxProspects.com coming in to the season), and he’s done nothing but impress since then. He’s striking out batters (49 in 47 IP split between high A and AA), not walking very many (14, good for a 3:1 K:BB ratio), and generating a ton of ground balls (3.30 ground ball outs per fly ball out). That’s a spectacular recipe for a rotation work horse. There is always a risk that polished pitchers without great stuff (Balcom-Miller sits at about 90 MPH, which is pretty pedestrian for a right handed pitcher) will flame out as they reach the upper minors or majors, but so far, so good for Balcom-Miller. Other writers, such as Marc Normandin of Over the Monster, seem fairly bullish on Balcom-Miller as well, although he's failed to make the any of the traditional prospect top ten lists. Although the Red Sox rotation remains very crowded, with Lackey, Lester, Buchholz, and Beckett all under contract through 2014 is Lester’s very reasonable option is exercised, and the Red Sox have a lot of interesting arms in the minors (Doubront and Kyle Weiland and AAA, Balcom-Miller at AA, and Ranaudo and Workman in A ball), he could be very valuable to the Red Sox either as a trading chip or an injury replacement. Plus, his nickname is Baconator, what's not to love?
Anthony Ranaudo fell into the Red Sox' lap last year, thanks to a sub par season at LSU. Since then, he's been excellent. Ranaudo started the year in A ball, where he was dominant, striking out 50 in 46 innings, with more than three strikeouts for every walk. Since being promoted to AA he's succeeded as well, with a 2.55 ERA, but with far less impressive peripheral numbers (12 K, 6 BB in 18 IP). Eighteen innings is nowhere close to enough to make a real judgement on a player, but it is nice to see him pitch well after the Red Sox made them their most expensive draft pick last year. Given his experience and polish as a former SEC ace, Ranaudo could move quickly through the system if he continues to pitch well. Getting to AA this season, and maybe even a spot start in September, after the rosters expand, is not out of the question.
Two Steps Back
Drake Britton had an excellent season in 2010, especially given that he was coming off Tommy John surgery. The left handed starting pitcher struck out better than a batter per inning, and limited walks enough to maintain a 3:1 K:BB ratio. His success earned him a spot in Baseball America's top 100 prospects and put him in the Red Sox top 4. Unfortunately, in 2011, Britton seems to have taken a big step back. He appears to have lost all control (31 BB in 47 IP) and has a big decline in his strikeout rate (9.27 in 2010 at A, 6.27 at high A in 2011). This led to a very ugly 7.42 ERA and a 1-6 record. Britton is still very young, so there is time to fix whatever has led to the loss of control, but the current numbers are very worrisome.
Oscar Tejada also made big steps forward in 2010, which led to him being ranked the 9th best prospect in the Red Sox system, by Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus. Initially signed out of the Dominican Republic as a sixteen year-old shortstop, after three seasons of shaky defense he was converted to a second baseman in 2010. He responded with an excellent all around offensive season for a 20 year old middle infielder (.307/.344/.455 with 11 home runs and 17 steals), which was easily the best of his minor league career. However, thus far in 2011 his numbers have had more in common with his pre-2010 numbers, putting up an uninspiring .232/.297/.311 line in AA. If those numbers hold for the season, Tejada could fall back off the prospect radar, as the 2010 season will look more like a fluke than a development and his glove remains shaky, even at second base.