Red Sox store impressive weapons at Triple A as surprising Brandon Walter makes the jump

When Chris Hatfield got his first glimpse of the Red Sox’s future, he pretty much missed it. It was almost exactly a year ago, in the seventh inning of a Class A game in Virginia, and when Hatfield noticed that even professional scouts had put away their radars, he too felt free to ‘stop plotting pitches and letting your mind wander.

“I admit,” he said, “I wasn’t paying much attention to it at the time.”

Hatfield runs SoxProspects.com, an in-depth source for Red Sox minor league player news and analysis. His site lists and provides scouting reports on every player in the Red Sox system, so he’s conditioned to care about virtually everyone.

But Brandon Walter? At this time last year? When he was a 24-year-old 26th-round pick, throwing long relief from a Low-A bullpen? Why bother?

“It was a great lesson for me,” Hatfield said. “That you can’t just disconnect like that, because you never know where the next pop-up type might come from. It’s obviously way beyond pop-up status at this point.

The only way Walter could be further than that would be if he pitched at Fenway Park tomorrow. But give it a few months, and it might get there.

On Monday, the Red Sox promoted Walter to Triple A. A year ago, he was a complete stranger in the Salem bullpen, and now he’s in the Triple-A rotation with numbers so dazzling the leagues majors seem within reach. Through nine Double-A starts this season, Walter had a 2.88 ERA with 68 strikeouts and three walks. Three! Last season he finished with 132 strikeouts and just 20 walks.

“He (throws hits) with all of his pitches,” Red Sox minor league pitching coordinator Julio Rangel said. “He keeps everything in the zone and the amount of movement he gets on all his throws (stands out). … He has a good feeling to control the ball, which really helps when you have a lot of movement.

Movement is the keyword, because Walter has moved. A year after Hatfield all but ignored him, Walter now ranks sixth in SoxProspects.com’s organizational rankings. Baseball America also has him sixth in the system, and AthleticismKeith Law ranked him eighth at the start of the year.

“It worked to gain strength and speed during the pandemic,” Law wrote, “and is now up to 97 mph with a four-step blend that features a plus slider and at least a medium shift. There’s some effort for delivery, and he controls command, but he hides the ball well and it’s a rough look for left-handed hitters.

Walter’s promotion came two weeks after 23-year-old Brayan Bello (No. 4 in Law’s ranking) was also promoted from Double A to Triple A, and it came two days after Josh Winckowski made his major league debut at Fenway Park. Worcester’s rotation already has Kutter Crawford (who was on the Red Sox’s opening day roster) and Connor Seabold (who currently suffers from a pectoral strain but has a 2.45 Triple-A ERA this season ).

“It’s a really good feeling when you have five guys who are lucky enough to be starters (in the major leagues),” Rangel said.

It’s the surest sign yet of the Red Sox’s improved minor league rotation depth. It’s largely unproven, of course, but the Red Sox haven’t had top-level options like this in years. First-round pick Tanner Houck is already making an impact in the major leagues, the Triple-A rotation is running out of room, the Double-A rotation still has Jay Groome and Chris Murphy turning heads, and now Bryan Mata is putting his name back in the mix. Following Tommy John’s surgery, the 23-year-old made his third extended appearance in spring rehabilitation on Monday and sat back in the 90s with his fastball. He could pitch one more time at the minor league complex, Rangel said, or he could be ready to jump into Salem’s rotation in a few days. Either way, the Red Sox are seeing so much upside rotation that they’re avoiding — for now — any temptation to rush Mata as a two-inning reliever.

“No, no, no, I don’t think that’s the plan yet,” Rangel said. “We want to make sure we slow it down and build it the right way. We build it as a starter. Once he’s ready in the upper tiers, go from there.

The development program seems to be working. Winckowski and Seabold were modest business additions. Crawford was a 16th round pick and Murphy a sixth round pick. Groome was a first-round pick whose development was repeatedly derailed by injuries. Mata and Bello were low-bonus international signings who exceeded their initial expectations. Bello’s fastball is now in the mid-90s with a nasty change and an emerging sinker that sometimes moves so much that Bello struggles to exploit it. Once he gets used to it, Fenway Park might not be out of the question.

“He’s close,” Rangel said. “I’m not saying he’ll be close in a week or anything like that, but I think by the end of the season we hope he’ll be ready, or maybe even before. let him be ready.”

Of all the surprises, though, it’s Walter who really seems to have come out of nowhere. The southpaw had Tommy John surgery in college but came back well enough for the Red Sox to take an end-of-round flyer in 2019. Sent home for the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown, he returned in 2021 as essentially a different pitcher. . Stronger. Better velocity. More movement.

Intrigued by his transformation, the Red Sox initially assigned him to their Low-A bullpen, but after two months realized his dominant ground mix could work as a starter. After two starts for Salem (eight innings, 15 strikeouts, one walk), Walter moved to High-A Greenville where he had a 3.70 ERA for the year and a .60 ERA in his three last departures. This season, he’s incorporated more four-seam fastballs up the box, and now he’s in Triple A after just 23 pro starts.

“When he goes there, he competes really well,” Rangel said. “He attacks the area consistently all the time. He just has this mentality on the mound that he tries to beat the opponent. Obviously his shots are moving really well so that helps a lot, but that’s just the mentality he has. He always attacks.

Over the past year, Rangel said, Walter has “essentially forced his hand.” He’s been too good to ignore and too consistent to hold back. It’s one thing to rack up strikeouts in a Class-A bullpen. It’s another thing to do so in a top-tier rotation where even the big-league coaching staff can’t look away. And soon, those young arms might be needed. The Red Sox are thin on the pitching staff, a reality once again brought home by their 10-0 loss on Monday. They need options. And unlike last years, now they have them.

“It’s very different from 2019,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “We were very thin, or (pitching prospects) were at lower levels. Now that we are talking about Double A (and) Triple A, they are just down the street. You never know if they’re going to have an impact this year, but obviously going forward they’re going to have a lot of impact and help us get a lot done in Boston.

(Walter Photo: Tom Priddy/Four Seam Images via AP)

Martin E. Berry