SoxProspects: Top 10 stories for 2012

Will Middlebrooks, Ryan Lavarnway and Jose Iglesias are three Red Sox prospects that could make an impact with the major-league club in 2012. Getty Images/ICON SMI

Happy New Year! Here’s a look at the top 10 stories to watch in the Red Sox minor-league system in 2012:

1. When will the next round of top prospects emerge as major-league ready?

In Will Middlebrooks, Ryan Lavarnway, Jose Iglesias and Alex Wilson, the Red Sox have a group of prospects that could be ready to step in and make an impact with the major-league club at some point in 2012. All four should make Boston intriguing to watch this March during the club's first spring training at JetBlue Park.

Middlebrooks is the top prospect of the bunch, but could be the furthest away. Look for the 23-year-old third baseman to get the call to the big club in August or September, but any injury to Kevin Youkilis could require an earlier promotion for the third baseman.

Boston's signing of Kelly Shoppach meant that Lavarnway will start 2012 in Triple-A Pawtucket, where he should see extended time behind the plate. While the Yale grad is essentially major-league ready offensively right now, it will be interesting to watch how the backstop's defensive skills improve over the course of 2012, and if and when he can force his way onto the major-league roster.

Iglesias is just the opposite, as his glove is more than major-league ready right now but his offensive approach still needs some seasoning. He's just 21, so it's far too early to write off the Cuban shortstop as an offensive liability. It's all a matter of how quickly he can develop offensively. This should be a key year in that development.

Wilson, the club's 2011 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, could make contributions to Boston's bullpen by mid-season. But given the club's lack of depth in the starting rotation, it wouldn't be surprising if the front office allows him more of a chance to develop as a starter in 2012. In that case, he could spend the entire minor-league season in the PawSox rotation, followed by a call-up to Boston in September.

2. Is Xander Bogaerts the next Hanley Ramirez or the next Michael Almanzar?

It’s unclear at this point, and the answer is undoubtedly that he's somewhere in between. This year should show whether the Aruban shortstop is closer to Ramirez, a former top Sox prospect and now a perennial MVP candidate, or Almanzar, a talented $1.5 million bonus baby who has fizzled out largely due to a substandard work ethic.

Bogaerts has the talent to develop into a middle-of-the-order bat at the major-league level. However, just like any other 19-year-old prospect, he will have to put in the work to develop his plate approach, specifically his pitch recognition and strike-zone judgment. By most accounts, he’s already shown impressive baseball IQ and advanced maturity, so signs point to Bogaerts being willing to put in the required work.

The key story to watch in 2012 may be how Bogaerts fares against more advanced pitching, especially pitchers with refined off-speed offerings. Fans may also want to keep an eye on him in the early spring, to see how much he’s physically matured during the offseason. If he continues to grow, he could end up moving to third base or right field down the line.

3. Who of Felix Doubront, Lars Anderson, Oscar Tejeda, Stolmy Pimentel and Drake Britton will bounce back to top-prospect status in 2012?

All five former top prospects failed to meet expectations in 2011, but all five have also flashed major-league skill sets during their minor-league careers. All five are on Boston’s 40-man roster, and the latter four could end up in the position that Doubront will face in 2012 -- being out of major-league options despite not being 100 percent major-league ready.

Doubront is likely to begin 2012 in Boston’s bullpen, but could challenge for a spot in the starting rotation depending on how the offseason plays out. If he’s not traded, Anderson is likely to be sent back for a third season in Pawtucket. Tejeda will seemingly spend his second year in Double-A Portland. Despite a late-season demotion to High-A Salem in 2011, Pimentel should be back with Portland in 2012. Britton is likely slated for a return engagement with Salem in 2012.

Returning these former top prospects to form will be a major challenge for the Red Sox development staff, making another exciting storyline for the 2012 season.

4. Will the new front office treat the farm system any differently?

OK, so the front office is not that new. But Ben Cherington has taken over as the new general manager, Mike Hazen has been promoted to assistant general manager, and Ben Crockett is now the new director of player development. There’s no guarantee they’ll do things the same way as they did when Theo Epstein was in charge.

The most fascinating point to watch will be how aggressively the new regime deals with player assignments and promotions. Some early telltale signs may be if players such as Alex Hassan, Anthony Ranaudo, Drake Britton, Matt Barnes, Henry Owens, Blake Swihart and Jackie Bradley are assigned to start the 2012 season.

5. Can Anthony Ranaudo emerge as a potential ace?

As many Sox fans know, Ranaudo was considered a sure-fire ace and the top pitcher in his draft class after he led LSU to a national championship in 2009. After struggling through his junior season, he slipped to Boston in the supplemental first round of the 2010 draft. In his professional debut in 2011, the 6-foot-7 right-hander cruised through 10 starts with Greenville of the Low-A South Atlantic League, but was fairly mediocre performance-wise after a June 1 promotion to Salem.

Regardless of the stats, the 22-year-old indeed flashed ace potential in 2011, but will need to continue to make refinements in order to reach that ceiling. In 2012, look for whether Ranaudo can add sitting velocity to his 91-93-mph fastball, make slight improvements to the command of his curveball, gain confidence in his changeup, and improve his stamina and mound presence. He is likely to spend the majority of 2012 working on those aspects of his game with Portland.

6. How will the 2011 draftees fare in their first full professional season?

I’ll be keeping a particular eye on Barnes and Bradley in 2012, and I expect both players to post solid performances, whether with Greenville or Salem. With respect to Boston’s other top picks, Swihart and Owens, the key will be whether at the age of 19 they’re able to break camp with Greenville and hold their own in Low-A for a full season. A handful of other 2011 draftees will be fun to track in 2012, including outfielder Williams Jerez, catcher Jordan Weems, right-hander Noe Ramirez, infielder Mookie Betts and left-hander Cody Kukuk.

7. Who’s the best outfield prospect in the system?

I still consider Ryan Kalish a “prospect,” but he’s now slated to be out until May or June, and that could mean that he takes until July to get back to full speed. That also means he’ll have missed a lot of vital development time. He has the tools to become an everyday major-league outfielder for a first-division team, but he’ll need to get back on the field and re-prove himself in 2012.

Beyond Kalish, Bryce Brentz and Brandon Jacobs are two high-ceiling prospects who had excellent performances in 2011. Brentz, a former college First Team All-American, hit .306/.365/.574 with 30 home runs between stops in Greenville and Salem. Jacobs hit .303/.376/.505 with 17 home runs and 30 stolen bases for Greenville. Both have the potential to take the leap to elite prospect status in 2012.

8. Will Sean Coyle or Garin Cecchini take the next step in 2012?

Infielders Coyle and Cecchini were roommates when they played for the Team USA prep team in 2009, were selected in back-to-back rounds by Boston in 2010 and were given nearly identical signing bonuses. Coyle, a 19-year-old second baseman, spent 2011 with Greenville, hitting .247/.362/.464 with 14 home runs and 20 stolen bases. Cecchini, a 20-year-old third baseman, spent the season one level lower with short-season Lowell, hitting .298/.398/.500 in 32 games before his season was cut short after being hit in the wrist with a pitch.

Both have shown the ability to be impact major-league starters, but both are a few years away. Coyle still needs development in his plate approach, particularly his pitch recognition, to improve his plate coverage and cut down on the strikeouts. Cecchini needs to stay on the field for a full season. His glove is also behind his bat, but the tools are there for him to round into a decent defender.

9. How will the new CBA change the landscape of the draft and international free agency?

Remember in recent years how the best players in the draft could often slide down the first round or even into much later rounds due to signability concerns, leaving big-market clubs like the Red Sox and Yankees free to snatch up all the amateur talent they could pay for? Those days might be over. The new draft structure, which all but institutes a hard slotting system for signing draft picks, will put the emphasis on scouting rather than dollars. Simply put, the best players should now go at the top of the draft, or it’s highly unlikely they’ll get the bonuses they’re looking for in later rounds. This means that we may see a lot more raw prep players heading off to college in the hopes of getting a bigger payday in two-three years. It could also mean that we see a weaker draft pool for the next few years, with an emphasis on more relatively proven college talent ramping up over that time frame.

There will be similar limits on bonus spending on international amateur free agents, and an international draft may even be instituted. The details have yet to emerge in that area, and may still be under discussion when the CBA is actually executed and released in the coming weeks.

10. Will injuries have a major effect on the Sox system in 2012?

Every year, a handful of pitchers in the system go down with elbow injuries that ultimately require Tommy John surgery, which has a long recovery period. You just have to cross your fingers that your best pitching prospects are not among that group. That’s especially the case in 2012, as there are only five or six pitchers among the club’s top 20 prospects. As such, the front office will take every step imaginable to ensure that Ranaudo, Barnes, Doubront, Wilson, Britton, Pimentel and Owens remain healthy this season.

Among the players coming off of 2011 injuries are Middlebrooks (sprained left thumb), Kalish (shoulder strain), Rich Hill (June 2011 Tommy John surgery), J.C. Linares (torn ankle ligaments) and Cecchini (broken wrist). Additionally, right-hander Junichi Tazawa will look to continue his return from April 2010 Tommy John surgery, and outfielder Ryan Westmoreland will look to get back on the field after undergoing surgery in March 2010 to remove a cavernous malformation on his brain stem.