The Salem Red Sox will open the 2018 Carolina League season home tonight with a 7:05 pm game against the Buies Creek Astros. Salem will have a seven game homestand to open the season, with the Wilmington Blue Rocks coming in for three Monday.
The Sox open the season with a prospect-watcher’s dream pitching staff, a collection of Boston Red Sox system sluggers, and nine of Baseball America’s top 30 Boston prospects on their Opening Day roster for the 2018 season.
The starting rotation boasts three of the top 10 prospects in the Red Sox system, according to Baseball America. Righty Tanner Houck enjoyed a stellar career at the University of Missouri before the Red Sox drafted him 24th overall in the 2017 draft, and he struck out more than a batter per inning in his pro debut to justify BA rating him as the organization’s third-best prospect entering the 2018 campaign. Right behind him in the rankings is No. 4 prospect and fellow right-hander Bryan Mata, who won’t turn 19 until May 3. The Red Sox challenged the Venezuelan-born righty in 2017, sending him to the full-season Greenville Drive for his second professional season. Despite being 17 on Opening Day, Mata posted laudable numbers, going 5-6 with a 3.74 ERA in 17 starts.
Bringing the heat from the left side is No. 6 prospect Darwinzon Hernandez, who owns BA’s favorite fastball in the Red Sox system. Hernandez used his mid-90s heater to great effect in 2017, racking up 116 strikeouts in just 103.1 innings for Greenville. Salem has another 2017 draftee in the rotation with righty Jake Thompson, a fourth-rounder out of Oregon State University and BA’s number 13 Red Sox prospect. Thompson was named a 2017 first-team All-American by five separate groups, and earned a spot on the final list for the ABCA’s Dick Howser trophy for the best collegiate baseball player. Previous winners include Salem alumnus Andrew Benintendi, Red Sox great Jason Varitek, and current Boston ace and 2012 American League Cy Young Award winner David Price.
Roniel Raudes, a 20-year-old Nicaraguan, will get the ball on Opening Day against the Buies Creek Astros. The righty was named Red Sox Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2016, going 11-6 over 24 starts for Greenville with a 3.65 ERA and 104 strikeouts against just 23 walks. He spent all of the 2017 campaign with Salem, going 4-7 with a 4.50 ERA in 23 starts in his age-19 season. He’ll look to improve on those numbers and use his outstanding changeup and excellent control to anchor the Sox staff, and he enters the season ranked 29th in the organization by Baseball America.
On the dirt, Bobby Dalbec ranks among the top position-player prospects in the organization, and for good reason. The 6’4 third baseman was a two-way star for the Arizona Wildcats, and was clocked with a mid-90s fastball off the mound. After Dalbec got the pitching start in the 2016 College World Series title game against Coastal Carolina, the Red Sox tabbed him in the fourth round of that year’s draft. Dalbec socked 13 homers for Greenville in just 78 games in 2017, and can follow in the footsteps of 2017 Salem third-sacker Michael Chavis with a breakout season. He’s ranked 16th among Red Sox prospects by Baseball America.
The roster returns 10 players who saw time for Salem in 2017, including Raudes and catcher Jhon Nunez. The athletic backstop belted his first career homer in 2017, spending the entire year with Salem. Lately, he’s drawn rave reviews from catching evaluators, and is poised for a strong campaign. He’s joined behind the plate by Boston College product Nick Sciortino, who’s thrown out nearly 38% of would-be base-stealers in his two pro seasons.
A trio of outfielders also return to Salem, with Trenton Kemp, Chris Madera, and local boy Kyri Washington patrolling the expanses at Haley Toyota Field. Washington returns to the Roanoke Valley with an eye on improving on a disappointing 2017. The native of Farmville attended nearby Longwood University, and began to blossom in 2016 with 16 homers in 103 games for Greenville. However, he struggled with injuries in 2017, playing in only 18 games for Salem. Madera earned a reputation as one of the top defensive outfielders in the Carolina League in short order in 2017, as he split the year between Greenville (48 games) and Salem (59 games). Despite less than half a season played for the Red Sox, he racked up 10 outfield assists and excelled in center and in right. Kemp suffered much the same fate as Washington in 2017, appearing in only 33 games for Salem before having his season cut short by injury. He showed a potent bat in that brief audition, batting .316 with 10 doubles, two homers and 15 RBI.
Beyond Raudes, three other members of Salem’s 2017 pitching staff return to the Blue Ridge. Matthew Gorst went 7-5 with a 2.75 ERA in 36 games between Greenville and Salem, and didn’t allow a run in seven of his nine outings with the Sox. Converted catcher Jordan Weems is the longest-tenured player on the roster with seven years of minor league experience between catching and, more recently, pitching. The righty had his first full season as a pitcher in 2017, and went 6-2 with a 4.10 in 24 appearances (one start) for Salem. Daniel Gonzalez was outstanding between Greenville and Salem in 2017, posting a stellar 12-3 record and 2.78 ERA in 116.2 innings. He made six starts for Salem, going 5-0 with an amazing 1.31 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio over 5:1.
There are plenty of other new faces on the Red Sox roster in 2018. Second baseman (and last year’s third-round draft pick) Brett Netzer enters 2018 as Boston’s No. 18 prospect in the eyes of Baseball America, and he’ll start the year with Salem despite playing just 48 games for Greenville and the Lowell Spinners in 2017. He’s shown terrific instincts, earning Red Sox Minor League Base Runner of the month honors in July 2017. Dominican-born shortstop Santiago Espinal begins his third pro season after a successful career at Miami Dade College, and has shown strong defensive potential. Carlos Tovar will push both Netzer and Espinal for playing time, as he’s shown ability at both middle infield positions. Over at first base, slugging Jerry Downs appears ready to challenge the high fences of Haley Toyota Field; he crunched three homers and nine doubles in only 34 games for Greenville in 2017.
Tyler Hill will try to drive Carolina League pitchers crazy with his combination of power and speed. The 22-year-old outfielder cracked 19 doubles and nine homers for Greenville in 2017, and led the South Atlantic League and the Red Sox organization with a whopping 42 steals in just 50 attempts. Fellow outfielder Ryan Scott graduates to Salem after a 2017 campaign with Greenville in which he hammered 20 doubles, four triples and 14 homers.
Other relief arms include Dominican righties Algenis Martinez and Joan Martinez (no relation), who both feature mid-90s heaters and mid-80s sliders out of the pen. (Baseball America considers Joan Martinez the 24th-best prospect in the system.) Jared Oliver held opponents to just a .153 batting average for Lowell and Greenville in his first full professional season. Venezuelan righty Hildemaro Requena impressed for Greenville in 2017 with an 11-3 record and a 1.98 ERA in 32 games (eight starts), showing he could navigate the jump from the short-season leagues. Hunter Smith was solid in 36 relief appearances for Greenville, posting a 3-3 record and 3.45 ERA in 73 innings. Salem opens the campaign with three players on the disabled list: righty reliever Austin Glorius, and catchers Roldani Baldwin (BA’s No. 15 Boston prospect) and Eddy Reynoso.
Friday and Saturday games will begin at 7:05 pm, with a 6:05 pm Saturday start and a 2:05 pm game Sunday. Monday through Wednesday games against Wilmington will all be 7:05 pm starts, then the Sox head to Winston-Salem for four.