Diehard Top 50 Midseason Evaluation: 11-20

Gabbard: A rookie no more--in more ways than one

Editor's Note: With the minor league season more than halfway complete, it's time to evaluate the performance thus far of Diehard's top 50 Red Sox prospects as listed in our 2007 prospect guide. How are these prospects faring this year? Whose stock is rising and whose is falling? We'll take a look at 10 prospects a day each of the next five days. Now up: Prospects 11-20.

20.) Chris Smith, P: Got his career back on track last year after multiple arm woes but opened this season as a reliever. The Sox said it was to get an idea of how he can help the team further up the chain—just as it was with teammate Andrew Dobies—but it couldn't have been encouraging to move to the bullpen at the start of his fourth straight season at Double-A. Smith has been effective as a reliever after a rough start—after giving up six runs in 10 innings over his first five outings, he surrendered just five earned runs over his next 23 1/3 innings out of the bullpen—but has struggled in four starts since moving back into the rotation June 20 (12 earned runs in 15 innings). At 26, and after six seasons in the chain, he's a prime candidate to move on over the winter. STOCK: Dropping

19.) Kason Gabbard, P: Authored the most remarkable chapter yet in an impressive rags-to-riches story Monday by throwing a three-hit shutout against the Royals. It was Gabbard's first complete game of longer than five innings as a professional, which isn't as surprising as it seems considering he threw just 59 1/3 innings in his first three professional seasons due to a trio of surgeries on his left arm. He's probably not as good as he looked Monday, but he took giant strides at Pawtucket prior to his promotion—he was 7-2 with a 3.26 ERA in 14 starts after going 1-7 with a 5.23 ERA in nine games, eight starts, for the PawSox last year. And with his crafty repertoire and "pitchability," there's no reason why he can't have a long career in the middle or back of someone's rotation. With Julian Tavarez struggling, Gabbard will get every chance to spend the rest of this season in the Sox' rotation. STOCK: Rising (Note: Gabbard's rookie eligibility expired this season, which means he will not be eligible for next year's rankings)

18.) Craig Breslow, P: A victim of the numbers game. Breslow has been outstanding at Pawtucket, where he is 1-1 with a 2.08 ERA, one save and 51 strikeouts in 47 2/3 innings while limiting left-handed batters to a .161 average. But the success of Hideki Okajima and Javier Lopez leaves no room in the Sox pen for Breslow, who is a prime candidate to be moved before the trade deadline. He certainly seems to have accomplished all he can in the minors. STOCK: Rising

17.) Jeff Natale, IF: The breakout offensive star of the system last year, when he led Sox minor leaguers in RBI (87) and on-base percentage (.446) and walks (103), Natale's momentum has slowed considerably at Portland. His plate approach remains magnificent (47 walks and just 18 strikeouts in 241 at-bats), but Natale is hitting just .253 with 17 extra-base hits and 41 RBI. Such production would be acceptable for a middle infielder, but Natale is the man without a position: He's made more than 20 starts at three positions (26 at designated hitter, 23 at first base and 21 at second base) but doesn't have the power associated with a DH or first baseman and doesn't project as a second baseman further up the chain. His on-base skills and versatility will always assure him of a job as an organizational player, but his odds of reaching the majors are longer than they were a year ago. STOCK: Dropping

16.) Tommy Hottovy, P: The biggest mover in our rankings last winter—Hottovy was ranked 43rd in 2006—hasn't been able to build off his breakthrough season in which he led all Sox minor leaguers with 163 innings and ranked among the top 10 in all three pitching "triple crown" categories. Hottovy, currently on the DL with a sore forearm, is 2-8 with a 5.30 ERA and had allowed 136 baserunners in 86 2/3 innings at Portland. He's struck out 50 batters—he whiffed 122 last year—and has allowed opposing batters to hit .292 against him. He'll probably get a chance at Pawtucket sometime next year, but at 26 this year, Hottovy needed another big season to establish himself as a viable big league prospect. STOCK: Dropping

15.) Chad Spann, 3B/1B: The knock on Spann was always his defense, but in addition to committing 15 errors in 67 games at third base, he also struggled badly on offense this season at Pawtucket, where he hit just .222 with 13 extra-base hits and 72 strikeouts in 230 at-bats. The Sox sent him back to Portland, where he ranked among the EL's top 10 in batting average last season, to get his bearings, and he hit .320 in his first six starts. He also made four starts at first base as opposed to just one at third base in that span, suggesting a position switch may be in the offing. Spann's struggles—and the position change—make his future with the Sox murky. He can be a six-year minor league free agent at the end of the season, and while he's still got time to develop—he won't turn 24 until October—Spann's heading for a crossroads. STOCK: Dropping

14.) David Pauley, P: Just how much deeper is the top of the Sox farm system this year than last? Pauley was promoted straight to the majors after going 2-3 with a 2.39 ERA in 10 starts with Portland. This year, he's 6-3 with a 3.99 ERA and a .251 opponents batting average at Pawtucket, where he's lasted six innings or more in 12 of his 18 appearances (including one relief outing where he replaced the rehabbing Mike Timlin after one inning) and has improved his strikeout ratio (from 25 in 50 1/3 innings last year to 71 in 103 2/3 innings this year). But he's been passed over for spot starts in favor of Gabbard and Devern Hansack, an indicator his future is somewhere else. He could be trade bait this month, and after 27 appearances in Triple-A, there's not much more left to his development. STOCK: Rising

13.) Edgar Martinez, P: The catcher-turned-flame-throwing reliever looked like a possible closer during his first full season of pitching in 2005, but he has yet to be utilized exclusively as a closer over the last two seasons, suggesting his development is still a work in progress. Martinez is 2-3 with a 3.57 ERA and one save for Pawtucket, where he's thrown one inning or less just seven times. His strikeout rate remains impressive (7.54 whiffs per nine, down just slightly from last year's average of 7.70 whiffs per nine), but Martinez has already walked as many this year (18 in 45 1/3 innings) as he did last year in 59 innings. It looks as if he'll need another year at Pawtucket, and his grip on a 40-man roster spot could be tenuous. STOCK: Dropping

12.) Justin Masterson, P: A second-round pick last year, Masterson figured out Lancaster in a hurry. After going 3-5 with a 5.45 ERA and 1.67 WHIP over his first 12 starts, Masterson went 5-0 with a 2.12 ERA and a 0.68 WHIP over his final five starts with the JetHawks. He walked just one batter and struck out 20 over 34 innings in that span after walking 22 and whiffing 36 in his first 61 2/3 innings. And after lasting six innings or more just three times in his first 12 starts, Masterson went at least six in each of his last five outings. He didn't miss a beat in moving to Portland, where he threw 6 1/3 hitless innings in his debut and has whiffed 16 while walking only three in 12 innings over two starts. Masterson's long-term home may not be the rotation, but he's a legitimate big league prospect and his heavy sinker could make him quite a weapon out of the Sox bullpen as soon as late next year. STOCK: Rising

11.) Jason Place, OF: The Sox' emphasis on high school talent in the draft began last year with Place, a first-round pick last year who was the first high schooler selected by the Sox with their first pick of the draft since 1997 (that's a lot of firsts). He's shown flashes of his upside with nine homers and nine steals, each of which rank him second on Greenville. But Place has also shown how raw he is by striking out 111 times in 313 at-bats and batting below .200 in two different months (.179 in April and .198 in June). At 19, he's got plenty of time to put it all together, and the Sox will be patient with him. Don't mistake the "dropping" categorization here as an indictment of his talents, just a reflection that the first full year in what could be a six- or seven-year development process has been a rough one. STOCK: Dropping

Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at diehardmag@yahoo.com. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-501-5752.

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