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Sox farm system not at level best

No players expected to make major jump

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / October 15, 2009

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For the last few years, there has always been someone, always a big-name, high-impact prospect just waiting at the upper levels of the Red Sox farm system to make a mark on the major league club.

There was Jonathan Papelbon in 2005, Jon Lester and Manny Delcarmen in 2006, Clay Buchholz and Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia in 2007, Jed Lowrie in 2008, and Daniel Bard in 2009.

But there might be a void in 2010.

There are names, to be sure. But they are slightly lesser lights, at least at the moment. There is no guarantee any of them will be ready to be major players with the Red Sox in the near future. Josh Reddick and Junichi Tazawa and Lars Anderson will remain in the plans, possibly for next season, but there isn’t the high volume of soon-to-be major leaguers that there has been in recent years.

“I think the clear strength of our farm system is in a group of very high-ceiling players that we feel great about, most of whom are 18-20 years old,’’ said general manager Theo Epstein. “How we as an organization can impact those players and help them with their development and reach their ceilings will be a hugely important factor in our success starting in probably about 2012 and beyond.’’

But not in 2010, and potentially not in 2011.

“That’s where the biggest gap is right now, at Triple A,’’ said director of player development Mike Hazen. “Hopefully over the course of next year that’s going to change, but right now there aren’t enough ready players, and that’s obviously our big challenge and our problem right now, that there’s not enough major league-ready-now players sitting [there] to take positions at the major league level.’’

Part of that void has to do with players not performing up to expectations, most notably Anderson. The first baseman was touted as the next big thing in the organization, being named the best prospect in the Sox system and the 17th best in the game in 2009 by Baseball America. But Anderson didn’t perform up to his reputation this season, with a .233 batting average, 114 strikeouts in 119 games, and just 9 home runs.

“Not singling any one person out, but Lars had a bit of a disappointing year this year, and I think that’s changed the face of it a little bit at the upper levels,’’ Hazen said, before adding later, “No matter what anybody said, I do think what happened last offseason was a pretty big jump for him, as much as it was downplayed to an extent, some of those expectations I think did feed into the season some.

“We talked to Lars and have talked about sort of refocusing those expectations coming in next year, and we expect he’s going to be a very good player, just the same as we did last year. Players have had disappointing seasons in the past. He’s not the first, and he’s definitely not going to be the last.’’

It’s not only Anderson. The Sox have mined the upper levels of their system, mostly through promotions to the majors. There are more players there, such as outfielder Ryan Kalish, catchers Mark Wagner and Luis Exposito, and shortstop Yamaico Navarro. None of them, however, are close to being ready.

Part of this is due to changes in the availability of college players in the draft. With teams all over baseball signing high school players later in the draft, that level of talent isn’t making it to college as much. So there are fewer players available - especially where the Sox draft in the later part of the first round - that are close to being ready for the majors, like a Pedroia or an Ellsbury, Hazen said.

And there are huge differences between taking a college player (say, Bard) and a high school player (say, Jason Place), even in the same round of the draft, as the Sox did on back-to-back picks in 2006.

Instead, the Sox are trending toward talent like Reymond Fuentes, taken with their first pick in 2009. He is a raw high school talent a long way from the majors.

“I think just looking at it externally that the draft is getting stripped of some of those high-caliber college-type players,’’ Hazen said. “What would Dustin Pedroia have been if he had gotten signed as a high school kid as an overslotted sign? What would Daniel [Bard] have been like if he signed at 18 instead of 21? That dynamic is changing the draft quite a bit to the point that when we’re drafting at 25, 26, 27, 28; we’re not staring at elite, college-performing players, those fast-to-the-big-league-type players.

“I just think that the way the draft has shifted has sort of left us with that opportunity.’’

So the Sox have work to do in the offseason, to shore up the upper levels of their system as they did last year with the signing of Tazawa. As Hazen said, “We’re going to have to do a better job of signing depth players in the offseason at Triple A, and we’re going to have to do a better job of [working with] some of the older guys that are up at Triple A to make sure that they’re ready to step in and contribute at a fairly high level. Those are probably the two biggest challenges we’re going to have walking into the offseason.’’

“There are good players in the upper levels,’’ Epstein said. “There’s not the three or four obvious candidates to step in, guys that we’re going to create jobs for this winter. But I think there will be those players in a year or two.

“Some of that is a function of our shift after our first couple of drafts toward focusing on higher-impact younger players, as it turned out in a lot of cases. There’s no doubt that left a void in the upper levels of our farm system.

“That’s something that we actually dealt with last winter as well. We had to create depth where there wasn’t organic depth in the organization. I think we’re in that same boat again this winter, and it’s not our preferred position, but it’s the reality.

“We’ll continue to nurture and develop that, what I think is going to be that elite talent that’s a couple of years away, while we transition without anyone noticing. If people notice, then we didn’t transition as smoothly as we wanted.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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