Sox prospects ahead of the game

One aspect of evaluating the future success of minor league prospects you may have seen me repeat often here is “age advancement” -- a player’s age relative to that of his competition. In my opinion, age advancement is one of the most important tools, short of firsthand scouting, in evaluating a prospect's future potential.

While a player's age itself has little meaning in a vacuum, the ability to perform well against significantly older competition in the minors is historically a telling indicator of future success at the major league level. On the other hand, if a player were to put up the same numbers against younger minor league competition, that player’s stats historically have minimal predictive value.

Moreover, the mere placement of a prospect can speak volumes about how the organization itself assesses that player. If an organization feels comfortable placing a player in a league where he regularly faces older competition, that nearly always signals that the club has high hopes for that player’s future. Alternatively, if the organization assigns that player to compete at a level against significantly younger competition, it often means that the team is not very high on that player’s future prospects.

Think of it like a freshman playing on the varsity squad, regularly facing competition two-to-three years older and with that much more experience. If the freshman can flourish under those circumstances, it is highly likely that he will be even more successful when he is a senior, and then after he graduates and moves on to the next level. Even if that player is merely holding his own as a freshman, it says something that the coach -- who has the opportunity to see the player every day -- is willing to give that player the opportunity to compete at an advanced level. On the other side of that coin, were an upperclassmen on the junior varsity squad to put up great numbers, those stats simply don’t have the same impact if he was facing players his own age, and on top of that there is likely an underlying reason why the coach did not bring him up to the varsity level.

Farm director plays big role

In minor league baseball, it's largely the role of each club’s farm director to decide where to assign each player in the system. And while talent is the primary factor in making that determination for each player, the farm director can often be left to play amateur psychologist -- is it best to challenge the player at a level where he may struggle, while risking diminishing that player's confidence? Or is it best to let the player thrive at one level for an extended time to build up his self-assurance? It’s one of the tougher decisions for every farm director to make, and it’s a decision that needs to be addressed for every player each spring and then re-assessed numerous times throughout the season. Ultimately, it all comes down to the farm director knowing each player's mentality and making the determinations on an individual basis.

In 2010, Red Sox farm director Mike Hazen has decided to push many of Boston's top prospects to significantly aged-advanced levels -- more so than in any year in recent memory. For example, Ryan Kalish and Felix Doubront are preparing to become regular major league contributors at the age of 22, something that arguably can be said about less than a handful of other players during the John Henry ownership era.

Similarly, both Lars Anderson and Yamaico Navarro are playing for Triple-A Pawtucket at the age of 22, facing competition with an average age of 26.8 in the International League.

Casey Kelly, Anthony Rizzo and Jose Iglesias have been competing at the age of 20 for Double-A Portland (Rizzo turned 21 on Sunday), where the average competition in the Eastern League is age 24.3.

Salem right-hander Stolmy Pimentel, second baseman Oscar Tejeda and center fielder Pete Hissey, all 20, have faced competition in the High-A Carolina League, average age 22.7.

Meanwhile, 2009 first-round pick Reymond Fuentes, 19, has been competing in the Low-A South Atlantic League, where the average age is 21.7; highly-regarded pitching prospect Madison Younginer is pitching in the short-season New York-Penn League at the age of 19, against 21.2-year-old average competition; and Dominican shortstop Jose Vinicio, who just turned 17, and Colombian right-hander Sergio Gomez, who turns 17 later this month, have faced competition with an average age of 20.2 in the Rookie-Level Gulf Coast League.

Back in 2008, I developed an age-advancement scale that assigns a “major league track” age to every level, primarily correlating to the average age of competition at each level, and then determines how far each player is ahead of (or behind) that track. Each positive point on the scale indicates that the player is one year ahead of the established major league track.

Here are the top 20 players in the Red Sox system in terms of age advancement:

As you can see, Boston has been quite aggressive this season in assigning players to play at levels that are two-to-three years ahead of the average track. But aggressive promotions have not been universal for the Sox in 2010, as the front office has moved certain players slowly for a number of different reasons.

Daniel Nava is undoubtedly an outlier as a “prospect” still playing in Pawtucket at the age of 27, but he also has had one of the most unique professional career paths in recent memory, coming out of the independent leagues after initially being cut at nearly every level of the game. Same goes for Pawtucket reliever Robert Coello, 25, another former indy-leaguer. The big right-hander is looking for a shot in the majors as a bullpen arm after converting from catching to pitching following the 2006 season.

Sox conservative with catchers

The organization has also historically been conservative in promoting catchers, primarily for defensive reasons but also because backstops tend to advance on a slightly slower track than other players. This season, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Mark Wagner, Dusty Brown, Tim Federowicz, and Dan Butler have all played behind the normal age-advancement track for other everyday players.

A few other names in the Red Sox system that are behind the general age-advancement track right now are 2009 fourth-round pick Jeremy Hazelbaker, playing in Low-A Greenville at the age of 23, and Kolbrin Vitek and Bryce Brentz, Boston’s top two picks from the 2010 draft, both playing for Lowell at the age of 21. But then again, it is not unusual to see advanced college players initially assigned to the New York-Penn League in their first professional season and then skipped to High-A Salem the following year, which would put both players back on a major league track.

Ultimately, in pushing prospects to compete against older and more advanced competition, the hope is two-fold: (1) that facing tougher competition will push each prospect to become a better overall player; and (2) that allowing each player to face adversity early in their minor league careers will prepare them for the bumps in the road that will inevitably come in facing major league competition for the first time. For example, Boston is challenging Kelly with a placement in Double-A at the age of 20 in the hope that he does not encounter the same struggles that plagued Clay Buchholz with Boston in 2008. Prior to 2008, Buchholz never really hit any of those speed bumps in his professional career, and he struggled making the proper adjustments in the majors that season.

Why aggressive promotions are risky

But history shows that there can be some risks involved with aggressive promotions. First and foremost, the struggles can kill a player’s confidence. As an example, consider former first-round pick Jason Place, who was consistently assigned to levels where he was two years younger than his competition but never managed to hit above .262 after his first minor league season. Place opened the 2010 season with Portland at the age of 21, hit .127 in 25 games, and then took a leave of absence to contemplate retirement. He recently returned to the organization, but suffered an injury soon thereafter.

Second, letting a player thrive against age-equivalent competition rather than promoting that player quickly has shown to help build confidence with certain players, two examples in recent memory being Jonathan Papelbon and Kevin Youkilis.

Third, it’s virtually unheard of to send a top prospect back a minor league level, save for optioning the player from the majors back to Triple-A. Once a player receives a promotion to the next level up the ladder, there’s really no turning back. On the rare occasion when a player is demoted, it typically signals some major mechanical issue that needs to be worked out against weaker competition.

Fourth, a “stuck in neutral” effect can occur if a player is forced to spend an extended period of time at one level because he is not quite ready to advance up the ladder. For example, right-hander Michael Bowden is now in his third year at Pawtucket at the age of 23, but has only been able to garner infrequent playing time with the big-league club in that three-year period. Similarly, Almanzar is now in his third season in Low-A ball, but still remains roughly two years younger than his competition. While he may not be ready for High-A in 2011, it’s certainly worth considering whether a fourth year at the same level might cause any player to lose some motivation.

Last, a player is less likely to put up the gaudy numbers that draw the attention of opposing clubs and fans when assigned to an age-advanced league than if he was facing players his own age. This fact alone shouldn’t give an established farm director any pause whatsoever, and is only marginally relevant when a team is attempting to artificially build up a player’s trade value or appease its fans.

But this last point should give fans some pause when reviewing the stats of prospects that are competing at significantly age-advanced levels. Just because a player on that list may fail to put up flashy numbers this season does not mean his status has faded.

Take Kelly, for example. At 20 years old, he is younger than the average player in the New York-Penn League. If the Red Sox front office opted not to challenge him in Double-A this year, he could probably have put up dominant numbers in A-Ball, especially considering that he already mowed down A-Ball competition at the age of 19 in 2009. In fact, he would still be well ahead of the average major league track if he were in High-A right now. While a lot of fans would rather see him putting up a sub-2 ERA this season, over the long haul it is probably best for the young pitcher to learn how to make the necessary adjustments against Double-A batters this year, even if his numbers are not as sexy.

Mike Andrews is the Executive Editor of SoxProspects.com and a special contributor to ESPNBoston.com.