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The MLB regular season is now less than a week away, and the Red Sox have started rolling out the lineups they’ll play when the games mean something starting next Thursday. That means you won’t see as much of the team’s young guns — most of which have already been sent back to the minors already — from here on out.
But the future is never quite as far away as it seems, especially for a few Red Sox farm hands who will be getting some burn with the team before you know it.
Boston’s minor-league system, which currently ranks 14th in baseball, has seen a significant upswing in reputation in the past year with Triston Casa and Jarren Duran on the rise and No. 4 overall pick Marcelo Mayer joining the organization in 2021. And they’re far from the only players worth keeping an eye on.
Before everyone’s eyes shift completely to the big-league season, here’s a quick look at the Red Sox’ 10 highest-rated prospects (according to MLB.com) and what the immediate future holds for them.
The talk of the town himself.
The 19-year-old hasn’t collected a hit in his three Spring Training plate appearances to date, posting a walk and two strikeouts. But his monster home run off of Nathan Eovaldi in an intra-squad scrimmage on Monday had Red Sox nation buzzing all week.
On top of that, Mayer, whom some scouts see as “a potential combination of Corey Seager’s bat and Brandon Crawford’s glove,” had an impressive stint in Rookie ball last fall, slashing .275/.377/.817 with three home runs and 17 RBI.
Seeing him light up the Sox’ Opening Day starter makes you forget just how far away Mayer might be from playing for the big club. After all, he hasn’t yet played above Rookie level (though that will change momentarily) and has a logjam ahead of him on the organizational shortstop depth chart.
On top of that, his glove, while plenty smooth, isn’t Major League quality yet. He committed 10 errors in rookie ball last season, which accounted for about 14 percent of all his defensive chances.
Again, though, that’s what his time in the minor leagues will be for: getting everyday experience against professional talent. Then, a few years from now, we could be looking at the true heir to Xander Bogaerts taking the field for the Red Sox.
Unlike Mayer, there’s a strong chance Casas gets his first big-league at-bats for the Red Sox in a few months.
The 6-foot-4, 252-pound first baseman doesn’t require much physical seasoning and put together an impressive 2021, hitting .279/.394/.878 with 14 home runs and 59 RBI with Double-A Portland and Triple-A Worcester in addition to starring for Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics.
What he did to the Arizona Fall league (.372/.495/.982) was even more impressive numbers-wise.
Casas will start this year in Triple-A, where one phone call could see him land on the big-league Red Sox’ roster in short order. Assuming Bobby Dalbec doesn’t have another utterly disastrous start to the season this year, that call probably won’t come until September. From there, the team’s place in the AL East standings will determine how much run he gets.
Next year, though, things will get more interesting. Assuming J.D. Martinez is officially gone after this season, the expected opening at DH could give Casas a chance to win the first base job out of spring training camp in 2023. His massive power potential as a left-handed bat in the middle of the lineup, especially if Rafael Devers sticks around long-term, is something you can’t teach.
Mayer gets a lot of the press clippings when it comes to Red Sox middle infield prospects. But his prospective double-play partner is also on a lot of fans’ radars.
Yorke, like Mayer, is just 19 years old and is coming off a stellar 2021 campaign that saw the young second baseman hit .325/.412/.928 with 14 home runs and 62 RBI in two A-ball levels. His 65-grade hit tool (out of 80) was fully on display with a touch of burgeoning power that grew as his season progressed; 11 of his 14 home runs came in his final 35 games.
MLB.com projects Yorke’s potential arrival to the big club as 2023, though that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll start the season as the team’s second baseman. Trevor Story will obviously play second this year, but he might slide over to shortstop if the Red Sox can’t retain Bogaerts. Then, the club has Christian Arroyo under control for a few more years and could conceivably try to keep Kiké Hernández around as well.
But if Yorke keeps hitting, he’ll have as compelling a case to be called up as anyone.
As hyped as Duran’s first stint in the big leagues was last year, the learning curve he faced was fairly predictable.
He finished 2021 with a rough slash line of .215/.241/.578 in 33 games, striking out in almost 35 percent of his plate appearances and only walking four times. For a guy you’d like to see be a top-of-the-lineup spark plug someday, that’s not going to get it done.
Of course, when Duran has gotten on base or is used as a pinch-runner, he puts together some pretty memorable moments, like his daring two-base tag-up on a fly ball to center field last Sunday. His 96th percentile sprint speed placed him firmly among the fastest players in Major League baseball last year.
The good news is Duran tore up spring training this year (albeit in limited sample size), hitting .333/.429/.818 in nine games, though he still struck out six times in 21 plate appearances.
With his power not expected to be a major factor in the Major Leagues, Duran will need to improve his contact ability to allow him to make use of his tremendous speed. The natural second baseman also has some work to do to develop his outfield instincts, which will best come if he can play center field every day in Worcester for a while.
But expect Duran to be back with the Red Sox sooner rather than later.
After a tough 2019 season in Single-A in which he went 5-10 with a 5.43 ERA, Bello took a step forward in High-A ball (2.27 ERA, 45 strikeouts in six starts). Though his trip to Double-A saw his walks and hits allowed go back up, he also managed 87 strikeouts and earned a spot on the Red Sox’ 40-man roster.
None of the three hitters Bello faced during spring training managed anything off of him, which is a solid sign heading into the season. He’ll head to Worcester for his first stint in Triple-A, with his clock seemingly set on playing at Fenway Park later this year.
So far, Bello has started all but one of the 60 games he’s pitched in professional baseball. But he’ll likely need to accept some bullpen reps in the short term, assuming he gets a big-league opportunity this year.
In 2023, though, things could be a bit more open depending on what happens Eovaldi and the veteran stopgaps fighting for spots in the back end of the rotation.
With all the excitement about Mayer and Yorke, Downs has become something of a forgotten man in the Red Sox’ infield plans.
After getting off to a smashing start in Single-A and Double-AA in 2019, the 23-year-old middle infielder struggled with Triple-A Worcester in 2021, slashing just .191/.272/.606 and striking out 131 times. He especially bottomed out in July (.138 batting average) and August (.097).
On top of that, he committed 12 errors at Worcester, nine of which came at shortstop.
The one big bright spot: he was still able to show off a bit of his tantalizing power, slugging 14 home runs. There just weren’t too many other extra-base hits, or hits in general, to overcome the whiffs. That unfortunately carried over to Downs’s limited spring training action as well as he struck out in six of his nine plate appearances.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility Downs still gets a chance to collect some big-league at-bats in September if he can get his exorbitant strikeout rate under control. But with significant talent in the organization both in front and behind him, one wonders if Downs’ future might lie elsewhere in the end.
Boston’s third-round pick from the 2020 draft arguably hit better than anticipated in his first minor league stints in Rookie ball and at Single-A Salem, slashing .324/.368/.958 with six home runs and 26 RBI in 28 games.
The home runs and extra-base hits were always the hope for Jordan, who sports an above-average 60 power grade. But he also kept his strikeouts low for a guy who only walks about 7 percent of the time and was adept at using the opposite field in both minor-league stops last year.
At just 19 years old, Jordan’s growth will be intriguing to watch as he goes through a whole season of Single-A or maybe even Double-A in 2022. The question, of course, is where he fits in the long term.
The Red Sox already have a pretty good third baseman (Devers), and the other corner infield spot seems destined for Casas. There’s always the possibility of learning an outfield spot just to put him somewhere, but he’s a candidate to end up with another team if the path ahead of him remains blocked.
Mata’s path to the Major Leagues took a significant detour last year when he was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament before the 2021 season began and underwent Tommy John surgery.
More than a year out from the operation, the 23-year-old has been throwing bullpen seasons as he works his way back. But he apparently still isn’t quite ready to throw breaking balls, suggesting he still has a bit of recovery in front of him.
His timeline for joining the Red Sox in some capacity, therefore, probably looks more like 2023 now than this season.
But Mata’s huge strikeout potential, thanks to an electric fastball and above-average slider and changeup, are enough to keep him as the organization’s No. 2 pitching prospect. If he can keep his walks in check when he returns, the hard-throwing righty could push for a roster spot next season.
A southpaw with a wipeout slider and a changeup that has promise, Walter is an intriguing name the Red Sox might see coming out of their bullpen at some point in the next few years.
Hitters have had a hard time touching him at any level he’s played at so far as he hasn’t allowed a batting average against of higher than .211 since starting Rookie ball in 2019. He certainly sits down a fair share of his hitters, striking out a whopping 13.3 batters per nine innings in 2021.
Walks are just about the only thing he has to worry about as that crazy slider sometimes can get away from him. But his improved .974 WHIP last season demonstrated his ability to stay under control.
The 25-year-old southpaw missed two seasons in college due to Tommy John surgery, otherwise he might have been in the Major League conversation already. If he ends up in Double-A this year and performs the way he has been so far, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him get a few innings with the Red Sox late this season.
This 20-year-old right-hander doesn’t exactly strike the most imposing of figures on the mound at 6 feet tall and generously around 170 pounds. But his arm has plenty of juice in it.
Gonzalez has bumped his fastball velocity up from the mid-80s as a teenager in Venezuela to the mid-90s at the moment with a slightly above-average curveball and changeup as well. Though walks have been a bit of an issue for him in his two minor league seasons, he has a career .213 batting average against so far and put up a 2.91 ERA over the course of 2021.
He’s projected to start off in Single-A Salem this season and could see his endurance built up a bit more this season — he has yet to pitch more than 52 2/3 innings in the pros yet.
If stretching him out doesn’t necessarily go as planned, perhaps there could be a bullpen role for him a few years down the line. But there’s still plenty of time to see if he can turn into starter material before his projected 2023 ETA for the Red Sox.
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