Things tend to get weird after you win a World Series these days.
You might lose your manager due to a slow-burn scandal.
Might trade your franchise player in his prime.
For prospects, of course.
Might look kinda cryptically smart for doing so when a pandemic erases much of his final season under contract.
Oh yeah, and your big-money ace has the bad elbow but might be back in July or so. It’s a weird moment in Boston, but 2021 isn’t without hope, especially in the form of the guy who tops this list.
Format: Position Player | Age on 4/1/2021 | Highest level played | ETA
1. SS Jeter Downs | 22 | AA | 2021
The primary return for Mookie Betts, Downs has a lot to live up to, but when you’re named Jeter because Derek, you’ve probably been facing wild expectations your whole life. This Jeter appealed to the Red Sox partly due to a sizzling finish in 2019 that saw him slash .333/.429/.688 in AA. That line represented just 12 games but reflected the growth Downs showed throughout that season, when he stole 23 bases and hit 19 home runs across 107 games in high A. The only tool that’s not plus is defense, which is just fine for our purposes.
2. 1B Triston Casas | 21 | A+ | 2022
I could say this in every profile: 2020 was bad for everybody. Casas needs at bats as a high school draftee (first round, 26th overall in 2018) with fewer than 500 plate appearances as he enters 2021 at age 21. He’s 6’4” 238 lbs, stands tall in the box and manages the strike zone well. His 23.5 percent K rate as a tall 19-year-old in A ball is impressive when paired with his 11.8 percent walk rate in that first full pro season. The dream outcome here manifests in a plus hit corner infielder with plus-plus power.
3. OF Gilberto Jimenez | 20 | A- | 2023
He’s fast. Maybe an 80, depending how his 5’11” 160 lb frame fills out. He’s also kind of a slap hitter. That’s fine for now, as he still turns on the occasional pitch and will likely trade some contact for power as he ages. With a slash line of .359/.393/.470 (wRC+ 158) as an 18-year-old in Low A, he’s got a little contact to give. Then again, he’s a switch hitter, which tends to take a little longer. By which I mean as one learns the perfect moments to fire and finds the feel for his max-out swing and when to employ that slightly different but considerably more violent and fearless stroke, he gains a level. A switch hitter is very unlikely to find this level from each side at the same time.
4. RHP Tanner Houck | 24 | MLB | 2020
I wouldn’t say Houck flew totally under the radar, but I do think the 2017 first-rounder didn’t get much publicity for his dominant debut. Righties in rotations don’t often rely on deception, and Houck tried to remake his approach in 2018, raising his delivery and focusing on the four-seam high, curveball low combo that’s all the rage these days. The experiment wasn’t great, and Houck took off when he returned to the low-three quarters arm slot that made him an SEC and USA baseball ace. It’s become a little old school to pound the low zone and generate ground balls, but Houck pairs that skill with strikeouts thanks in part to his deception, in part because the stuff is just flat out good. He abandoned the change up in his three pro starts but got great results from the fastball and slider. His swinging strike rates have hovered around 11 percent throughout the minors, and while that’s not elite, it’s pretty good for a ground ball pitcher who’s around the plate as much as Houck.
5. 3B Bobby Dalbec | 25 | MLB | 2020
A large dude with a big swing, Bobby Dalbec generates plenty of power. Now he just has to figure out how to make contact. He needs better coordination between his hips and hands, and he needs to stop striking out 42.4 percent of the time. It was only 92 plate appearances, and he’d done a much better job managing his swing-and-miss in 2019, when he posted a 23.6 percent in AAA. He’ll be helped by experience that leads to better pitch selection, but much of this will come down to hand speed and whole-body-synthesis, something I suspect is just outside Dalbec’s reach at the big league level.
6. LHP Jay Groome | 22 | A | 2022
It makes a neat pun to say something like Jay Groome has cleaned up his act since his high school days, but that’s not a fair characterization of the difficult path he’s walked to get to this point. Regarded by many as the top talent in the 2016 draft, Groome fell to the Sox at 12 due to signing and character concerns, which were more the result of his father’s choices than his own. The 6’6” lefty with a dynamite curveball reportedly looked strong at the team’s training site this year, and I think he’s got a shot to be one of the real breakthrough prospects in 2020. He’s never pitched above A ball, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in Fenway for an inning or two come September 2021.
7. OF Jarren Duran | 24 | AA | 2021
Word from the training site is Duran was tweaking his swing and to add power and smoking the ball like a bong in the hands of Cheech or Chong. Duran never had much punch in college but slugged .534 in A+ in 2019. At 6’2” 200, he’s got enough physicality to keep the thump but struggled in AA, slashing .250/.309/.325 across 82 games. He’s an interesting player in draft-and-hold redraft leagues at this point thanks to his prowess on the bases. Despite that low OBP, Duran swiped 28 bags across those 82 AA games and was caught just eight times.
8. RHP Thad Ward | 24 | A+ | 2022
Ward enjoyed a breakout in 2019, dominating through two levels despite some wildness at A+ (5.33 BB/9 to go with his 2.33 ERA and 1.30 WHIP). 2020 was going to be a real moment of truth for the 23-year-old with the nasty cutter, and I guess it was still a moment of truth for everyone, but it wasn’t what Ward needed to gain value in dynasty baseball. Assuming we get a season, Ward is in line for a big bounce in perceived value if he carries over the stuff he had two years ago.
9. C 2B 3B Connor Wong | 24 | AA | 2021
Another piece coming back from Los Angeles in the Mookie Betts trade, Wong should get his chance to ease the home fans’ pain at some point in 2021, and I think he’s tailor made for the green monster, given his pull-heavy, uppercut approach. He’s also a versatile defensive piece who can cover some infield or captain the squad from behind the plate. Strikeouts have been a major problem in the 30 percent range, but the game continues to care less and less about this year over year, which helps Wong’s chances to carve out a role that gets him on the field enough to make him an option for our second catcher spots in deep leagues as early as this year.
10. 2B Nick Yorke | 19 | HS | 2025
Yorke has a tight, spring-release righty swing that makes exceptional use of his lower half. He’s had some throwing-shoulder injuries that might lock him into a right-side infield spot, or maybe even DH. These defensive limitations are partly why Yorke’s selection in the first round of 2020 shocked much of the draft-watching world. Second basemen just don’t go that high. Boston is hoping Yorke rocks out like Kid A and signed the 17th overall pick for an under-slot deal, saving about a million bucks off the sticker price for the 17 spot, money the front office then allocated to third-round, high-school first baseman Blaze Jordan. I suspect they’ll wish they’d picked some pitching in this arm-heavy draft.
Thanks for reading!
I’m @theprospectitch on Twitter.