Who will be the breakout prospects for the Red Sox in 2012?
That's a question that I've heard quite often lately. To me, "breakout prospect" can be defined in a few ways: You have players who break out from top-prospect status to elite blue-chip status, players who break into the top 100 prospects in all of baseball, and players who burst onto the scene from out of nowhere. Without currently having any surefire "blue chip" prospects in the organization, breakout potential may be the greatest strength of the Red Sox system right now, as there are several players in the system who could make a big leap in 2012 given the right development path.
Keep in mind, however, that I'm not projecting that every one these players will have such a breakout season -- I'm only saying that each of these players is capable of a breakout. The most likely scenario, as is the case with most years, is that a few of these players will have breakout seasons, others will follow a level development path, and others will take a step back.
That being said, here's a look at 10 breakout candidates in the Red Sox system for 2012.
POTENTIAL BLUE-CHIP BREAKOUTS
We covered Bogaerts' ascent to top-prospect status earlier this month. He's currently listed as a top-three prospect in the system and a top-100 prospect in all of baseball by most major publications. With the proper adjustments and improvements in A-Ball, Bogaerts could vault himself into elite-prospect status in 2012.
Likely to spend the season in Low-A Greenville and/or High-A Salem, the powerful 19-year-old shortstop from Aruba will need to continue refining his plate approach and make strides on defense. If he's able to do that and replicate his power numbers from 2011 over the course of the full season in 2012, he could be tagged as Boston's next franchise prospect.
The 19th overall pick in the 2011 draft, Barnes has No. 2 starter potential. The UConn product has an above-average 93-96-mph fastball, a plus high-70s curveball, and a fringe-average 86-87-mph changeup in his repertoire, all thrown with average command. Somewhat reminiscent of A.J. Burnett, Barnes should be able to dominate the lower levels of the minor leagues if he shows consistent command and makes strides with his changeup in 2012. Look for him to make his professional debut with Greenville in April, with an eye toward a mid-season promotion to Salem.
The power-hitting outfielder projected as a franchise player after his 2009 sophomore season at Middle Tennessee State, when he hit a whopping .465/.541/.930 with 28 home runs in 230 at-bats. He took a step back in 2010 and had some growing pains in his first year in pro ball, hitting just .198 in 69 games with short-season Lowell. He made some nice adjustments in 2011, hitting .306/.365/.574 with 30 home runs between stops in Greenville and Salem. Still, Brentz is ultra-aggressive at the plate and will need to improve his selectivity at higher levels to be considered an elite prospect. If he's able to address those developmental concerns and repeat his 2011 line with Double-A Portland in 2012, the 23-year-old will place himself squarely on the blue-chip prospect radar.
Jacobs came into the Sox system with a running back's build, which was not surprising given that Boston signed him away from a football scholarship to Auburn. But he came into his own in 2011, looking a lot more like a capable baseball player. At 20, he hit .303/.376/.505 with 17 home runs and 30 stolen bases for Greenville. If he's able to eliminate a couple of holes in his swing, he should have similar offensive success with Salem in 2012. He'll also need to improve his defense, specifically in the area of making reads on line drives to the left and getting better jumps.
POTENTIAL TOP 100 BREAKOUTS
A former top high school prospect, Cecchini fell to Boston in the 4th round in 2010 after missing nearly all of his senior season with an ACL injury. The third baseman ultimately signed with Boston for $1.31 million, and made his professional debut at the age of 20 with Lowell in 2011. He hit .298/.398/.500 and stole 12 bases for the Spinners before breaking his left wrist on July 23, which caused him to miss the remainder of the season. In limited time, he's shown above-average all-around tools, including a sweet left-handed swing, excellent bat speed, plus power potential, solid-average speed, an excellent arm, soft hands and a high baseball IQ. If he's able to stay healthy for a full season and make some advancements on defense, he should be in the conversation as a top 100 prospect in all of baseball by season's end.
Coyle gets a lot less fanfare than Cecchini at this point, despite that Coyle was picked a round earlier in 2010, was given a nearly identical bonus, is eight months younger and played at a level higher than Cecchini in 2011. A smallish second baseman with a capable defensive skill set, Coyle hit .247/.362/.464 with 27 doubles, 14 home runs and 20 stolen bases for Greenville in 2011. Quite the intriguing line, especially when you consider that he got on base 168 times over the course of the season, and only 47 of those times were singles. If and when he starts seeing more strikes, expect the 20-year-old to turn some of his walks into singles, upping that batting average. If that happens, look for the Dustin Pedroia comparisons to start in droves.
Jackie Bradley Jr.
At one point considered a mid first-round pick, Bradley slipped to the supplemental round of the 2011 draft after a poor junior season, which can partially be attributed to a wrist injury. The 21-year-old, a two-time national champion at the University South Carolina, will likely return to the Palmetto State in 2012 to man center field for Greenville. Bradley projects as a plus hitter for average with slightly-above-average power and average speed. He's advanced defensively, showing excellent instincts, a solid ability to make reads and get good jumps, and a plus arm. He should be able to stick in center field over the long term.
A 7th-round pick in 2011, Boston gave Kukuk an $800,000 bonus to buy him out of his commitment to Kansas. The tall lefty currently has a 91-93-mph fastball that could add velocity as he physically matures. He also mixes in a 81-83-mph slider with plus potential and a developing changeup. The 18-year-old (19 on April 10) could surprise people in 2012, especially if he comes out of the gate with an uptick in velocity. He's likely on the cusp of landing a rotation slot in either Greenville or Lowell.
POTENTIAL OUT-OF-NOWHERE BREAKOUTS
The stats aren't all that compelling. The 18-year-old Dominican right-hander went 0-1 with a 4.26 ERA and 12 walks in 12 innings in the Dominican Summer League in 2011. But he has the frame and the stuff to become a closer at the major league level, particularly when you consider that his fastball already reaches 100 mph in short spurts. He needs a lot of work with his command and control, and needs to develop his slider if he wants to reach the majors. Montas is likely to open the season in Extended Spring Training and join the rookie-level GCL Red Sox in June. He's the type of player that Boston likes to include as the third player in multi-player trade deadline deals.
Drafted by the Red Sox out of high school in 2008, Marquis did not sign and instead opted to attend Vanderbilt. After missing most of his freshman season with a broken hand, Marquis transferred to Maryland to be closer to his parents, both of whom were struggling with serious medical issues. He then played parts of two seasons for the Terrapins, putting up inconsistent results in the process, largely due to the fact that much of his focus was spent on being with his family during difficult times. The Red Sox then drafted him this past June despite his subpar college performance. He signed on Aug. 1 and really impressed in 25 games with Lowell, hitting .337/.429/.494 while showing fluid swing mechanics, solid-average power potential, good defense and a patient approach at the plate. He should be in the mix for a starting spot in Greenville in 2012, and would open a lot of eyes if he posted similar numbers over the course of a full season.