Marco Hernandez

Don’t Overlook Utility Prospects

One of the reasons we watch sports — whether we care to admit it or not — is that we love to dream on the future. The Red Sox farm system has made that easy to do for the last few years now, as they’ve been one of the best groups of prospects in the league. Of course, for every Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, there have been Will Middlebrooks, Allen Webster and Anthony Ranaudo. The future doesn’t always go according to plan, which is simultaneously terrifying and thrilling. Generally speaking, though, the Red Sox have had a talented group of young players in their organization, and that’s been fun to root for.

This year is no exception, as the team is stacked at the top-end of its farm system. Specifically, Boston boasts a foursome of high-ceiling guys in Yoan Moncada, Andrew Benintendi, Anderson Espinoza and Rafael Devers that matches any other foursome across the league. The ceilings of each player differs from one another, but collectively all four have the potential to be core members of a championship team if everything goes to plan. Who among us doesn’t like to dream on that kind of potential?

While the Red Sox have been stockpiling these assets, they’ve also quietly started developing another type of minor leaguer, the kind of guy who goes unnoticed by casual fans and diehards alike. If you look at the recent history of the organization, a seemingly infinite number of high-floor, low-ceiling infielders have come up through the system, or been added from elsewhere. These are, almost by definition, incredibly boring players and understandably don’t get much attention They do hold the potential to provide a ton of value, however, and one can see why the Red Sox have to be happy in developing plenty of the utility-type players.

If you look at the recent history of the organization, a seemingly infinite number of high-floor, low-ceiling infielders have come up through the Red Sox system.

Three main players currently come to mind when I talk about this prospect archetype: Marco Hernandez, Mauricio Dubon and Carlos Asuaje. Deven Marrero could also be included in this group, as his glove bakes in a relatively high ceiling even if the bat comes around. The first three, however, share a lot of interesting similarities. Each can play multiple infield positions, making them valuable bench pieces. Each can run at least a little bit, giving them extra versatility. Finally, each possess line drive-oriented swings with gap-to-gap power to make up for a lack of home-run strength.

None of this makes for a superstar package, but it’s easy to succeed at some level with that toolset at your disposal. While they are never going to be headliners of a farm system (and you never want to allocate your scouting resources to find only players of this ilk), they are highly valuable for any organization for a few different reasons.

The first being that it’s simply easier for everyone if you don’t have to fill out your bench using free agency. Just look back at this past offseason for the Red Sox, when their lack of outfield depth was a glaring hole, and they had to find their fourth outfielder on the open market. It’s not a perfect comparison, as Chris Young is a starting-caliber player against certain pitchers, but ideally teams would be able to develop short-side-of-the-platoon outfielders rather than spending $11 million in free agency.

Most of the time, the group of bench players in free agency is simply terrible. Here is a sampling of last year’s pool: Chris Johnson, Stephen Drew, Mike Aviles, Gordan Beckham, Cliff Pennington. Pennington got a two-year deal! Obviously, these guys aren’t costing a significant amount of money, especially for a team like the Red Sox. However, they do cost some money that is better saved for wooing free agents that provide more impact. Plus, it takes time seeking and working out a trade for these types of players that would be better spent doing anything else.

On top of that, these types of players can also be used as kickers in trades, particularly when you have a surplus like the Red Sox enjoy. You don’t need to look any further than this past winter with the Craig Kimbrel trade. Manuel Margot and Javier Guerra were the headliners and Logan Allen was the pitcher San Diego seeked, but Asuaje was a key part of the deal, too.

Could the trade have gotten done without him? Probably. It would have either taken a more highly rated prospect or simply more time to get it done, though. If it’s a more highly rated guy, like Teddy Stankewicz, for example, then the downside is obvious. This is particularly true if you have to dip into an area of less depth. If you simply try to wait the Padres out, it could work out but it could also allow another team to jump in and get the deal done. Winning every trade is great, but if you’re too stubborn, no trades get done. Obviously, you don’t want to trade every one of these high-floor players, but when you have a bunch of them, they work as tremendous kickers to get desired trade targets without having to play mind games.

Finally, there’s the fact that prospects sometimes develop into better players than we believe. Mookie Betts is the most obvious recent example, but he looked like a stud by the time he got to the high minors. Brock Holt is a better example; he was only supposed to be a utility player as recently as last year. He’s not as good as his All-Star bid in 2015 might indicate, but he’s much better than his minor-league track record would suggest. Dubon best fits this bill among Red Sox prospects, and his performance in the minors has turned heads at every level. The scouting reports still suggest a bench role is in his future, but every strong game provides more hope of a higher ceiling.

The Red Sox and other teams are always going to spend their scouting and development resources on high-ceiling prospects, as they should. These are the players who ultimately make the biggest difference. However, when teams can develop a handful of secondary pieces at the same time, it gives them a chance to build better depth and do some interesting things. It allows teams to spend free agency time and money on high-impact players; it allows teams to more easily make trades; and it gives teams a chance to have their prospects surprise them. With Hernandez, Dubon, Asuaje and possibly Marrero, the Red Sox are seeing this work out to their advantage.

Photo by Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports Images

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