In this week’s Fenway’s Future we look at a middle infielder at Triple-A who could help the big league bench, and a selection of pitchers throughout the lower levels who have shown considerable promise in the early stages of the season. We also check-in with a few familiar names and the author makes a selfish promotion-plea aimed at augmenting his viewing experience this week.
Triple-A Pawtucket: Marco Hernandez (SS/2B)
Marco Hernandez was acquired in the Felix Doubront trade with the Cubs at the 2014 trade deadline. At the time he looked like a light-hitting middle infielder, having posted below average TAv marks at the Low- and High-A levels of the Cubs’ system. Since joining the Red Sox organization he has developed into an offensive threat. He opened his Red Sox career at Double-A Portland in 2015 and hit well enough (.289 TAv) to earn a mid-season promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket. There, he slashed .271/.300/.409 (.266 TAv) which is a step down from what he was doing in Portland, but likely represents his adjustment to the higher level of pitching.
He opened this season at Triple-A and has gotten back to his excellent offensive ways. In 81 plate appearances he has .330 TAv, the highest mark he has shown at any level. Of course, I need to note that this performance has come in a small number of trips to the plate and that Hernandez is carrying a .417 batting average of balls in play, but there are positive developments. For example, his plate discipline. Hernandez’s walk rate is higher this season than it was last year at the Triple-A level, and, even better, he has paired it with a lower strikeout rate. Having a solid command of the strike zone is something that will help him get to the next level and succeed once there.
We saw Hernandez make his major league debut with the Red Sox earlier this season. On April 17, he started at second base, giving Dustin Pedroia a day off, and went 1-for-2 with a single, a walk and a stolen base, and was the Red Sox’s top offensive contributor by win probability added. We saw how he can impact a game at the plate and with his speed on the base paths. While I have focused on Hernandez’s offense, he is no slouch on defense. Taken together, Hernandez has the potential to be an asset in the major leagues as, at least, a bench, utility infielder role. Once the pitching rotation is settled and the bullpen is sorted out I would like to see the Red Sox get back to carrying (no more than) a 12-pitcher staff and consider adding Hernandez to the bench.
Quick updates on Rusney Castillo (OF) and Blake Swihart (C, OF)
Since we last checked in with Rusney Castillo on April 25, he has made 41 trips to the plate, collecting just six hits (three doubles) and two walks. All told he has a .227/.289/.280 line (83 PA) on the season, which is just bad.
Blake Swihart has made five starts in the outfield without any reported disaster and is still getting starts at catcher, so that route back to Boston is not yet closed. Regardless, his offense has stalled since returning to Pawtucket. He is not hitting for power (.042 isolated power) and not getting on-base at tolerable rate (.284). I hope the demotion did not break him.
Double-A Portland: Ty Buttrey (RHP) and Chandler Shepherd (RHP)
Last season, Buttrey was quickly promoted from Greenville to Salem after showing overpowering stuff in his four starts at the lower level. However, he did not show the same ability at the higher level. In 21 starts at the higher level his ERA was almost two runs higher, largely a result of getting fewer strikeouts and allowing more walks. Regardless, Buttrey was promoted to Double-A to start the 2016 season. Unfortunately, the trend in fewer strikeouts and more walks has followed him through his five starts, leading to a poor runs-allowed total. Control really seems to be his issue. In his 22.0 innings, he has walked as many batters (14) as he has struck out, and hit five of them. His last start was arguably his best of the season with regards to control, as he only walked one batter, struck out two and threw 60 percent of his pitches for strikes over his five innings of work. Ideally this is an outing he can build on.
Buttrey’s teammate, Chandler Shepherd is a reliever who has not struggled with the same control issues that have plagued Buttrey to date. In 10 appearances out of the bullpen (16.1 innings), Shepherd has held opponents scoreless seven times, striking out 20 of the 64 batters he has faced, while only walking five. He had been cruising along, dominating opponents until his most recent outing, which was his worst on the young season. Over two innings he allowed three runs on two home runs and walked two batters. The tough day raised his 2016 RA9 from a respectable 2.51 to a not-so-great 3.86. Regardless, it was one poor outing and generally Shepherd has been a real bright spot for the Sea Dogs so far this season. He looks to be another relief option for the Red Sox in the not-too-distant future.
High-A Salem: Travis Lakins (RHP)
Lakins was selected by the Red Sox in the sixth round of last summer’s amateur draft. He pitched for Ohio State for two seasons before entering the draft. There are questions about whether Lakins can stay in a starting role as he progresses through the system, but so far he is pitching well enough to remain a starter. If you drop his first start – which was pretty rough (3.2 innings, five hits, four runs, three walks, three strikeouts) – from consideration, Lakins has made five strong starts, posting a 2.93 RA9 (3.09 FIP), a 30-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and has only allowed one home run. That is an impressive line for the 21-year-old. Continuing to perform as he has should keep him in a starting role for the foreseeable future and could even lead to a promotion to the next level this season where he will be challenged by better hitters.
Updates on the Big-Three:
Andrew Benintendi continues to dominate High-A pitching to a ridiculous extent. He went hitless on Saturday for just the third time this season, which snapped his 23-game hit streak; a Salem Red Sox franchise record. His season line sits at .368/.424/.624. It is not clear to me what else he has to learn at this level. Power? He only has one home run, but has seven triples and 13 doubles and a .256 ISO. Plate discipline? I suppose he could walk more often than he has, but he has more walks (11) than strikeouts (8) and does not appear to be having difficulty making solid contact. I think it is time to promote him to Double-A. Full disclosure: my advocating for his promotion is partly selfish, as I will be in Portland on Thursday to watch the Sea Dogs and want to see Benintendi play. Make me happy, Mr. Dombrowski.
Much of what I wrote about Benintendi can be applied to Yoan Moncada. He too is ready for a promotion to the next level. Since we last checked in with him, Moncada’s season line has dipped slightly to .317/.450/.510, but those are still tremendous rates. I wouldn’t mind watching him on Thursday either, Mr. Dombrowski. Make the move.
To go along with his Big-Three teammates, Rafael Devers seems to be coming out of his early season struggles. Over his most recent 49 plate appearances he has a .250/.327/.477 line, with two home runs, two doubles, a triple, five walks to seven strikeouts, and two stolen bases without getting caught. Things are moving in the expected direction.
Low-A Greenville: Anderson Espinoza (RHP)
Espinoza is the Red Sox’s top pitching prospect. At just 18-years old, he is really young for the Low-A level, but his youth has not really affected his performance. Of his six starts, four have been strong (18.1 innings, three runs allowed, 26 strikeouts, six walks) and two have been clunkers (8.2 innings, ten runs allowed, nine strikeouts, three walks). All told, he has 35 strikeouts in 27.0 innings, which is absolutely fantastic. If he can pair his swing-and-miss stuff with an ability to consistently generate weak contact he will be a true force on the mound. How the Red Sox handle Espinoza’s development through the minor leagues will be interesting to see. Given that he is still young for the Low-A level, it makes sense that he will stay with Greenville for the duration of the 2016 season, continuing to work on his efficiency and developing his arm strength. However, if it gets to the point where he is not challenged by Low-A hitters then moving him to Salem is probably the better course of action. Either way, avoiding rushing him and potentially risking injury is paramount, as he has a high ceiling.
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