Why 2021 could prove to be pivotal year for Red Sox infield prospect Antoni Flores

In the summer of 2017, the Red Sox made infielder Antoni Flores one of their top priorities, as they signed the Venezuelan prospect for a hefty sum of $1,400,000 that July, which would go on to make him the third-highest paid international addition of that particular signing class for Boston.

Flores initially rewarded the Sox for their investment in him the following year in both the Dominican Summer League and Gulf Coast League.

Over 15 total games and 57 total plate appearances between the two affiliates, the young infielder, primarily playing shortstop, went 18-for-53 (.340) at the plate to go along with one home run and 14 RBI.

The reason Flores only managed to play in 15 games, in 2018 was due to the fact that he missed six weeks of action from mid-June until late July due to “general soreness.”

Upon returning and getting promoted from the DSL to GCL, Flores played in just two games before pulling his hamstring in early August, which wound wind up costing him the rest of the season.

The fact Flores was able to put on an impressive showing at the Red Sox’ fall instructional league that year in the wake of suffering that hamstring injury was certainly encouraging, but more red flags arose in 2019.

Entering the year regarded by SoxProspects.com as Boston’s No. 7 prospect, Flores struggled mightily in his first exposure to non-rookie-league baseball in the United States.

Playing in 55 games for the short-season Lowell Spinners, the then-18-year-old posted a dismal .193/.293/.227 slash line over 208 plate appearances while striking out 28.4% of the time. He also committed 10 errors in 410 defensive innings at shortstop, which would signal a transition to second base.

According to SoxProspects‘ director of scouting Ian Cundall, “scouts really soured on Flores” following his first full professional season, “as he showed a poor approach and limited offensive ability while simultaneously struggling in the field.”

Unfortunately, Flores would not get the chance to bounce back in a traditional manner in 2020, as the minor-league season was cancelled in June due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, Flores, like most other Red Sox minor-leaguers, had to wait until the 2020 installment of fall instructs to try to continue on with their development.

Alas, a long break from organized baseball did the right-handed hitter no favors, as he continued to underwhelm in Fort Myers this past fall.

Per Cundall, Flores, now 20 years old, “again struggled and now seems to have moved to second base primarily. The athleticism he showed in the Fall Instructional League in 2018 is gone, and his speed has regressed to the point where he was consistently timed at 4.6 seconds down the line, which is a 20 on the 20-80 scouting scale.”

FanGraphs‘ Eric Longenhagen added on to this, writing last month that though he wished Flores’ disappointing 2019 was more of an outlier, it may have very well been the start of a negative trend.

“Flores was generating Willy Adames comps during the Fall of 2018, and has since regressed physically and technically,” Longenhagen wrote. “He no longer looks athletically capable of playing the middle infield and has continued to struggle with the bat.”

While Longenhagen still has Flores as his No. 43 prospect in the Red Sox farm system, he notes that “he’s in danger of slipping off the list entirely next year unless he performs statistically and looks more athletic early in the year.” 

SoxProspects projects Flores, who does not turn 21 until October, will start the 2021 minor-league season with Low-A Salem.

Before the 2021 season begins, though, there is still the minor-league portion of spring training — which will likely start later than usual this year — to look forward to.

Between the time fall instructs ended and the time in which minor-league spring training eventually starts up, it appears as though the Sox have given Flores some homework to do.

“Antoni has been working on his agility and quickness a lot this offseason,” Red Sox assistant general manager Eddie Romero, who played a significant role in Flores signing with the organization, told BloggingtheRedSox.com via email. “He’s made a lot of strides in the past few months, so we’re looking forward to seeing him in spring training.”

On that note, 2021 could prove to be a monumental year for Flores in terms of development and career trajectory.

Not only is the 6-foot-1, 190 lb. infielder looking to buck the trend that has seen his stock take a hit in recent years, but he is also Rule 5 eligible for the first time come December.

If he were to make an impact with Salem, or whichever affiliate he played with this year, Flores could be added to the Sox’ 40-man roster if Boston believes in his potential enough to not want to see him scooped up by another club.

If Flores were not to be added, which does seem unlikely at this point given the fact that other prospects such as Jarren Duran, Jeter Downs, Thad Ward, and Gilberto Jimenez will be in need of protection, then as previously mentioned, an opposing team could pick him up if they felt he was ready to make an impact at the major-league level.

That, too, seems unlikely, but there’s a reason why Flores was once considered one of the top prospects in the Sox’ farm system. The talent is still there somewhere, and so is a relatively high ceiling given his age.

Having written all that, it’s fair to say that 2021 could be a ‘make-or-break’ type year for Flores. We will have to wait and see how he performs.

(Picture of Antoni Flores: Kelly O’Connor/sittingstill.smugmug.com)

Red Sox pitching prospect Bradley Blalock reflects on unique 2020 for minor-leaguers, looks ahead to 2021

This year was supposed to serve as Bradley Blalock’s springboard into professional baseball.

After being selected by the Red Sox in the 32nd round of the 2019 amateur draft, the right-hander made just four appearances (three starts) in the Gulf Coast League on account of how much he had pitched earlier in the spring while still in high school.

2020 was going to be the year in which Blalock formally introduced himself as a legitimate pitching prospect, but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic prevented that from fully happening.

Rather than pitch a full season at one or multiple minor-league levels, Blalock was limited to just the fall instructional league in terms of throwing in front of team officials.

The 20-year-old hurler recently spoke with BloggingtheRedSox.com about how this year has gone for him as well as a number of other topics.

“Once I got [to fall instructs], I definitely started working,” Blalock said. “Got to pitch in two intrasquad games. First one, just threw one inning but it was a little rough since I got hit around a little bit. In my second outing, I pitched six innings — went six up, six down — so it was definitely really exciting to do that in front of everyone that was there. And my third one, I was supposed to throw three innings on the last day, but it got rained out. But, I was able to throw a bullpen, so it was good.”

While fall instructs this year were certainly different from fall instructs the year before, Blalock has enjoyed his time with the Red Sox organization thus far. The Georgia native signed with the club for $250,000 last July as opposed to attending Kennesaw State University.

“It was a personal decision for me,” Blalock said of his choice to go pro out of high school. “Me and my family talked about it, and we thought that was the best decision because you don’t know if three years down the road, you’re ever going to get that opportunity [again]. You might get hurt or something, so we just took a chance and we love it so far. I do.”

As a 32nd round pick, Blalock could have signed with Boston for just $125,000, that round’s assigned slot value, but he actually managed to sign for double that amount last summer.

“We just did some negotiations and we found a price that worked for both of us: me and the Red Sox,” said Blalock. “So we definitely came to an easy deal, quick deal on that.”

Even before signing with the Sox, Blalock started to garner at least a little major-league interest starting his junior year of high school in Loganville, Ga. He provided some insight on what that whole process was like.

“I didn’t really talk to a lot of pro scouts my junior year,” Blalock said. “I talked to one [with the Minnesota Twins] and we built a close bond. My senior year, I definitely had a lot more attention. Had to fill out a couple questionnaires that I had to fill out from each team.”

One of those interested teams was obviously the Red Sox, and their interest in Blalock gave the righty the chance to get to know his eventual signing scout Brian Moehler, who covers Georgia and South Carolina for the team as an amateur scout.

“Once I met him, we built a close bond,” Blalock said of Moehler. “He was the one that was really talking to my dad, because I don’t have an agent right now so my dad’s really my agent. So, we built a close bond and we talk a couple times every month.”

The Red Sox viewed Blalock, who originally committed to Kennesaw State as a two-way player, as a pitcher from the get-go. That likely had something to do with his pitch selection, which the 6-foot-2, 190 lb. righty broke down in-depth.

“In high school, I threw a four-seam fastball, a slider, a changeup, and a knucklecurve,” he explained. “When I got to the GCL, I didn’t bring the slider along because my curveball was definitely my better offspeed pitch as the year advanced. So, I had my fastball, curveball, changeup — but my changeup wasn’t really there so I was really just a two-pitch guy.

“After instructs last year, they were like ‘Hey, let’s work on a changeup,'” Blalock continued. “So, all instructs and all offseason I worked on getting my changeup back to where it needed to be. I came into spring training with a four-seam fastball, a knucklecurve, and a changeup. And during spring training — during my bullpens — my curveball was always down for a strikeout pitch. It was like an 0-2 or 1-2 pitch, so we working on trying to get that and land it for a strike.

“But then I realized I need something better that I know I can land for a strike,” he added. “So I talked to [Lowell Spinners pitching coach Nick Green] and [performance pitching coordinator] Shawn Haviland about going back to my slider and figuring that back out. During quarantine, I worked on getting my feel back for my slider. They were excited, and I brought that into instructs with me.”

While he was able to hone his pitch mix in the weeks leading up to fall instructs thanks to tools such as video and Rapsodo, Blalock also continued to use training methods inspired by Driveline Baseball, which is something he has done since his freshman year of high school.

“At the facility I train at, it’s called Full Count Baseball, we do Driveline stuff,” he stated. “We have all the Driveline balls, shoulder tubes, wrist weights, and we have core velocity belts, which helps you get your core engaged.”

The use of Driveline’s weighted balls specifically seemed very important to Blalock, as he attributed them to his uptick in fastball velocity over the past few years.

“To think my freshman year, I was probably [sitting at] 75 mph,” Blalock said. Just to think that then I was like ‘Hey, I don’t even know if I’ll get to play college baseball.’ Just to continue to work, keep staying with the process, and using the weighted balls and the jaeger bands. It’s definitely been [something] I really like and I’m going to keep doing it.”

Blalock’s fastball, which today tops out at 95 mph, can be attributed to the proper use of weighted balls, weight lifting, and two to three long toss sessions per week. He still believes his four-seamer has room to grow, though.

“That still has room to grow,” Blalock said of his heater. “I’ve been working this offseason still trying to gain some velocity. I mean, it’s always good to try and get some more. One of the guys I work out with, he throws 99-100 mph, so I’m trying to get there with him.”

As for how Blalock will get there, the 2021 season serves as a good first step. Though it’s unclear which affiliate he will start the season with, Blalock does not necessarily care about which role — starter or reliever — he undertakes as long as it helps him contribute at the major-league level sooner.

“I just want to be able to help [the Red Sox] get to the World Series. Starter or reliever, I just want to be able to make it to the bigs and help the Red Sox get there, again.”

Blalock, who does not turn 21 until next December, is currently regarded by SoxProspects.com as the organization’s No. 35 prospect. He is projected to begin the 2021 campaign with the GCL Red Sox, though he certainly would not mind getting called up to Salem, or even Greenville, either.

Red Sox’ Seventh-Ranked Prospect Jay Groome Tosses Another Scoreless First Inning in Second Gulf Coast League Start

After making his first professional appearance in nearly two years on August 21st, Red Sox left-handed pitching prospect Jay Groom tossed a scoreless first inning once again in his second start with the Gulf Coast League Red Sox on Monday.

Facing off against the Baltimore Orioles’ GCL squad in Sarasota, Fla., the 21-year-old had a man on second with no outs following a leadoff single and stolen base, but he managed to work his way around the jam with a three-pitch strikeout and back-to-back first-pitch groundouts to retire the side in the bottom half of the first.

In total, Groome needed just six pitches, all of which were strikes, to work his second consecutive scoreless first inning in a contest the GCL Sox eventually dropped by a final score of 5-2.

Ranked as the seventh overall prospect in Boston’s system and third amongst pitchers behind right-hander Bryan Mata and left-hander Darwinzon Hernandez, Groome is working his way back after undergoing successful Tommy John Surgery in May of 2018.

With the Gulf Coast League regular season wrapping up on August 31st and the Sox’ GCL club already eliminated from playoff contention, it looks as though Groome’s last in-game action of 2019 will come against the Minnesota Twins’ GCL team this coming Saturday at JetBlue Park.

Red Sox’ Seventh-Ranked Prospect Jay Groome Punches out Two in 2019 Gulf Coast League Debut

Red Sox left-handed pitching prospect Jay Groome tossed a scoreless first inning for the Gulf Coast League Red Sox on Wednesday in what was his first professional appearance in nearly two years.

Facing off against the Atlanta Braves’ GCL team in North Port, Fla. earlier Wednesday morning, the soon to be 21-year-old hurler needed only eight pitches, all of which were strikes, to punch out two and yield one hit in a nearly-perfect frame of work.

Selected by Boston with the 12th overall pick in the 2016 amateur draft out of Barnegat High School in New Jersey, Groome had been out since the 2017 campaign, where he injured his throwing elbow late into the year and eventually underwent successful Tommy John surgery in May of 2018.

Before all that went down, Groome posted a 2.70 ERA and .125 batting average against over his first three professional starts and 6 2/3 innings pitched between the GCL Red Sox and short-season Lowell Spinners in 2016.

In 2017, the New Jersey native showed some signs of struggle, pitching to the tune of a 5.69 ERA and .234 batting average against through 14 starts and 55 1/3 total innings of work between Lowell and Class-A Greenville before being sidelined.

Per his MiLB.com page, Groome is on a rehab assignment with the GCL Sox, and given how the minor league season wraps up in under two weeks, it’s hard to imagine the lefty pitching anywhere else this year.

Despite all the time he has missed, Groome is still ranked as the No. 7 prospect in the Red Sox’ farm system, according to MLB Pipeline.