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Red Sox minor league year in review: Second basemen

09.28.13 at 11:47 am ET
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As the major league season wraps up, WEEI.com will also wrap up its minor league coverage of the 2013 campaign by looking at the depth of prospects at the different position groupings in the farm system. Today: Second basemen. Wednesday: Corner infielders. Tuesday: Catchers.

Overview: Why not lump together shortstop and second basemen in a review of middle infielders? Two reasons.

First, shortstops are typically examined in a different light by the industry than those on the opposite side of the bag owing to the specific defensive demands of the position. One assumes that a shortstop can move to second. The converse is not true. Perhaps that helps to explain why, to date, no second basemen have ever received an annual salary in excess of $15 million a year. (Robinson Cano will change that assessment this winter, but he has yet to do so.) Five shortstops have cleared that hurdle, topped, of course, by the first free-agent contract received by Alex Rodriguez, a 10-year, $252 million pact.

Secondly, and perhaps more significant from the standpoint of this prospect examination, the Red Sox have a pretty good idea of who their second baseman will be for the rest of the decade, and it’s not anyone in the farm system. Dustin Pedroia is under contract through 2021. He’s a fairly compelling obstacle to any Sox second base prospects as they move up the ladder, barring a change of position.

That, in turn, engenders an intriguing dynamic in the organization, given that the team has a significant amount of talent at second base. While the Sox prefer to let players develop at one position until they reach Triple-A — at which point there are clear major league needs that the players can fill through a position shift — in this case, the presence of Pedroia could result in a somewhat earlier exploration of positional alternatives for some of the players in this group. Foremost, the mind-blowing breakout year of Mookie Betts lends itself to questions about whether, if he continues to perform as he advances up the ladder, the wildly athletic second baseman might have an opportunity to move all over the field, cultivating a rare versatility that could allow him to bypass the second base bottleneck with numerous pathways to the big leagues.

Here’s a look at a position where the Red Sox are loaded in the lower levels, suggesting some decisions to make in the not-too-immediate future:

Brock Holt (2ge 25 season in 2013)

Big leagues: .203/.275/.237, 0 HR, 7 walks, 4 strikeouts

Triple-A: .258/.327/.309, 3 HR, 30 walks, 54 strikeouts

Big league ETA: He’s there now. On 40-man roster. Two options remaining.

Notes: After Joel Hanrahan blew out early in the year, Holt is the remaining return that the Sox have to show for Mark Melancon, Stolmy Pimentel, Jerry Sands and Ivan DeJesus Jr. Holt isn’t likely to even the scales with that Pirates trade, given that Melancon emerged as an All-Star for Pittsburgh, but his strides as a third baseman in the spring and during the season give him value as a utility backup option who can cover the Sox at three positions (second (his best position), short and third) while delivering competitive at-bats — particularly against right-handed pitchers — and offering some speed on the bases. Certainly, he could stick on the roster next year in a Pedro Ciriaco-type role.

Jonathan Diaz (26)

Triple-A: 101 games, .253/.358/.316, 2 HR, 47 walks, 67 strikeouts

Big league ETA: Been there. Not on 40-man roster.

Notes: Diaz represents utility depth, a player capable of offering credible defense at short, second and third. That resulted in a brief call-up during which Diaz got into the first five big league games of his career this year. He’ll be a minor league free agent this offseason.

Justin Henry (28)

Triple-A: 102 games, .210/.294/.286, 2 HR, 40 walks, 57 strikeouts

Big league ETA: When need arises. Not on 40-man roster. Eligible for free agency.

Notes: Henry came to the Red Sox from the Tigers in a minor trade last December. His foremost trait is his defensive versatility, as Henry has played every defensive position in his minor league career except for catcher. But after hitting .300 with a .372 OBP in 2012 for the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate, Henry did not hit this year. The fact that he was invited to big league camp at the start of the year suggests that he could find a way to the big leagues at some point as a depth option to cover a team in case of injury, but he’ll likely be searching for a minor league deal with an invitation to big league camp this offseason.

Heiker Meneses (21)

Double-A/Triple-A: 110 games, .253/.312/.343, 3 HR, 25 walks, 96 strikeouts

Big league ETA: When/if need arises. Not on 40-man roster. Eligible for Rule 5 draft.

Notes: Meneses has never been able to recapture the unexpected magic of a 2011 season in which he hit .295 with a .363 OBP across three levels (Single-A, High-A, Double-A) in his age 19 season. Instead, he finds himself in the mix of potential glove-first utility players (he can play short, second and third).

Ryan Dent (24)

Double-A/Triple-A: 72 games, .242/.303/.315, 3 HR, 18 walks, 53 strikeouts

Big league ETA: When/if need arises. Eligible for free agency.

Dent primarily played second but also served as a third baseman, shortstop, left fielder, right fielder and he even pitched. Still, he’s fallen into the status of being an org player, filling needs while shuttling between the upper levels, rather than emerging as the high-ceiling prospect whom the Sox thought might emerge when they took him in the supplemental first round of the 2007 draft.

Derrik Gibson (23)

Double-A: 88 games, .250/.348/.342, 2 HR, 37 walks, 61 strikeouts

Big league ETA: Uncertain. Not on 40-man roster.

There was a time when Gibson ranked among the Sox’ top 10 prospects, a reflection of his athleticism and what looked like an advanced plate approach that might lend itself to the ability to hit for average with strong OBPs, as well as the ability to impact the game both on the bases and as an up-the-middle defender, potentially a shortstop. He moved off of short and over to second for 2013 (a reflection of the fact that Xander Bogaerts and later Deven Marrero had taken over as the Sox’ priority shortstop prospects), though he did see some action at short between Bogaerts’ promotion to Triple-A and Marrero’s from Salem to Double-A, while also getting a game at third and one each in left and right fields. In the process, he showed his first glimpses of the approach that made him a prospect back in 2009, when he hit .290/.395/.380 as a 19-year-old in Lowell. Then, however, Gibson was young for the level, performing at a precocious level. Now, the 2008 second-rounder — who will play in the Arizona Fall League — is trying to offer evidence that his former prospect status was not entirely misplaced.

Sean Coyle (21)

High-A (with a rehab assignment in the Rookie Level GCL and Single-A Greenville): 60 games, .242/.326/.500, 16 HR, 30 walks, 80 strikeouts

Big league ETA: 2016. Not on 40-man roster.

Notes: Coyle, a 2010 third-round pick, showcased his tremendous (and quite surprising, given that he is 5-foot-8) power in limited playing time, ranking among Red Sox minor league leaders in homers. But after showing what seemed like considerable strides in his plate discipline and approach to start the year — which played into a burst out of the gates as one of the top home run hitters in all of the minors in April — his selectivity took a hit, and so did his numbers as he struck out in volume (80 times in 276 plate appearances) while repeating in High-A. More significant was the fact that Coyle lost months of his season to injuries — knee, thumb, elbow — that prevented him from progressing up to Double-A and from taking part in the Arizona Fall League.

If Coyle can stay healthy, his power is so significant — he has what Sox talent evaluators thought was 25-30 home run potential when they drafted him — at a position where such a trait is rare then he’d still be a noteworthy prospect in the system. But even then, he also needs to show progress with his plate approach so that his power can play. The Sox will have a significant decision about whether or not to add Coyle to the 40-man roster after the 2014 season; if he fails to advance, then like his longtime teammate Brandon Jacobs, he could end up becoming trade bait at a time when the Sox are deep in second basemen.

Mookie Betts (20)

Single-A/High-A: 127 games, .314/.417/.506, 15 HR, 38 steals, 81 walks, 57 strikeouts

Big league ETA: 2015. Not on 40-man roster.

Notes: Betts’ year was little short of amazing. He was one of three minor leaguers to hit .300/.400/.500 with 10 or more homers and 30 or more steals, and he also played excellent defense at second, showing the capacity for highlight reel plays. It was certainly the most impressive all-around impact delivered by any Sox minor leaguer, and it was one of the most dynamic seasons of any minor leaguer in the game, vaulting Betts from a fringe prospect who showed good on-base skills, a line drive stroke but no power in Lowell in 2012 (where he didn’t hit a single homer) to a player with considerable potential based on his ability to get on base, steal bags and hit for some power while showing good defensive skills and game aptitude. When he was promoted in July from Greenville to Salem, he was even more dominant at the higher level than he’d been in Single-A.

Suddenly, Betts has become one of the top second base prospects in all of minor league baseball, a player whose age 20 season suggests a considerable ceiling — at a position where the Sox have their everyday player for the rest of the decade. And so, it seems fair to wonder: Could the Red Sox cultivate Betts as a sort of Ben Zobrist type, capable of impacting the game at numerous positions?

“It’s certainly not the first [time] externally or internally that’s been asked,” said Sox assistant GM Mike Hazen. “He is ultra-athletic. He played shortstop before we moved him to second base. It’s one of those things, where is the timing exactly right? We have a second baseman for the next eight years. We’re envisioning Dustin Pedroia manning that position for that time. We get it. Mookie is also a second baseman right now. Where’s the rub? The question is, when is the right time to do these sorts of things.

“Even if you’re going to do it a little bit earlier, we don’t know the exact time to do that. The biggest thing for us, which you’ve seen with any prospect in the minor leagues, given all the things he’s done, all the things he can do with the bat, that the offensive performance is to the level that you start making plans to move them off a position, the worst thing you can do is overreact to a year of minor league performance and move a guy all over the diamond in anticipation of his ascension to the major league level only to have the offense not be what you thought it was. Now you’re moving a guy all over the place in anticipation of creating a spot on the major league team when he hasn’t hit well enough to make it to the major leagues in the first place and he gets stuck being a utility guy in the minor leagues. That’s not the goal.

“We don’t have a lot of contracts signed at the major league level for extended periods of time — this is really the one position that we have that; this is the one position we have now that offers a completely unique situation for us — given, one, the outrageous performance that he’s shown over the year — this kid has a chance to be an impact offensive player for us, what timeframe, who knows — but given all the things he shows with the bat, we are going to have to make the decision at some point. The obvious questions are when and where.”

The decision won’t be immediate. Betts is taking part in the Arizona Fall League as an everyday second baseman, where he’ll be one of the younger players against that advanced level of competition. But when he gets to the upper levels, assuming Pedroia remains a franchise cornerstone, it is a conversation that the Sox likely will revisit.

Wendell Rijo (17)

Rookie level/Short-season Single-A: 52 games, .277/.367/.375, 0 HR, 22 walks, 32 strikeouts

Big league ETA: 2017-19. Not on 40-man roster.

Most players signed as international amateurs make their pro debut in the Dominican Summer League. The fact that Rijo made his pro debut in the States speaks highly of the regard that the Sox have for the second baseman, whose upbringing as the son of a scout gave him an uncommonly advanced feel for the game given his age and experience level, a notion further underscored by the fact that the Sox moved him up to Lowell for three games at the end of the year. As a 17-year-old, Rijo showed an excellent ability to control the strike zone and barrel the ball for line drives (singles and doubles), but given how young he is, there’s certainly the chance for him to add some strength and power. He also showed strong baserunning instincts en route to 15 steals.

Luis Alejandro Basabe (16)

Dominican Summer League: 58 games, .192/.332/.295, 1 HR, 33 walks, 48 strikeouts

Big league ETA: A long time from now

Players typically don’t debut in the DSL until their age 17 season, so all of Basabe’s numbers (as well as those of his twin brother, Luis Alexander Basabe, who played center for the DSL Sox) need to be appreciated in the context of a player who was very young for pro ball. The switch-hitter showed the ability to take walks and command the strike zone while showing occasional pop. In short, Basabe showed  a number of traits that merit prospect status, even though — as the Red Sox expected when they assigned him to the DSL — he remains a very raw player.

OTHER PLAYERS

Nick Natoli (25)

High-A/Double-A/Triple-A: 101 games, .194/.310/.260, 1 HR, 51 walks, 88 strikeouts

Reed Gragnani (22)

Single-A/Short-season Single-A: 52 games, .277/.356/.354, 1 HR, 17 walks, 26 strikeouts

Carlos Asuaje (21)

Short-season Single-A: 52 games, .269/.366/.368, 1 HR, 27 walks, 33 strikeouts

Deiner Lopez (19)

Short-season Single-A/Rookie Level: 53 games, .245/.317/.324, 0 HR, 6 walks, 14 strikeouts

Notes: Gragnani and Asuaje both showed an advanced strike zone approach in their pro debuts after being drafted out of college. If nothing else, that skill — in tandem with multi-positional ability for both — suggests the ability to emerge as something like Natoli, valuable organizational players with the versatility and maturity to plug a number of holes throughout the system. That baseline, in turn, means that there is opportunity and possibility, depending on how they perform when challenged.

Read More: Brock Holt, derrik gibson, heiker meneses, luis alejandro basabe
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