In the coming weeks, NESN.com will profile some of the more noteworthy prospects in the Red Sox system, utilizing insight and analysis from industry experts who know the players best. Next up: Bryan Mata, the organization’s top pitching prospect.
The Red Sox’s struggles in 2020 mostly can be attributed to subpar performance on the mound, where Boston’s inability to develop starting pitching in recent years was more evident than ever.
The good news: Help seemingly is on the way, as the Red Sox have a few hurlers in their system who could crack the major league rotation in the not-too-distant future.
The bad news: There’s a level of uncertainty surrounding those pitchers, as well, especially now that top prospect Bryan Mata is dealing with a slight tear in his ulnar collateral ligament.
The Red Sox are hoping Mata’s UCL injury, discovered earlier this month at spring training after the right-hander felt triceps soreness, won’t require surgery. The concerning reality, however, is pitchers with UCL tears often undergo Tommy John surgery or other elbow procedures, and there’s currently no timetable for Mata’s return to the bump.
“The doctors and the physicians feel like it’s small enough that we think with treatment and doing that, he should be fine,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora told reporters on March 6. “Obviously, it’s going to take some time. There’s no timetable. There’s going to be a few checkpoints throughout the process. And if he’s disciplined and follows everything that we are set to do, the hope is for him to come back. But like I said, no timetables.
“As you guys know, he’s very important for us. It’s a tough one. At the same time, we do believe he’s going to bounce back and he’s going to be OK.”
For now, the Red Sox will keep their fingers crossed. In the meantime, let’s evaluate Mata’s standing in the organization, keeping in mind the 21-year-old’s recent injury obviously could impact his 2021 season and overall trajectory to some extent.
Interestingly enough, it was an injury that led to Mata signing with the Red Sox as an international free agent in January 2016. The Venezuelan had been slated to sign with the Brewers in July 2015, but a groin issue led to Milwaukee backing out of the deal. Now, it appears the Brewers’ loss is the Red Sox’s gain.
The Red Sox haven’t been shy about pushing Mata, as he’s been promoted aggressively since landing with the organization. He was the youngest pitcher (19) in the 2018 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game, reached Double-A Portland in 2019 at age 20 and spent 2020 at the Red Sox’s alternate training site at age 21 after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the Minor League Baseball season.
Mata, who participated in the 2020 Fall Instructional League, went 3-1 with a 1.75 ERA, a 1.09 WHIP and 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings in 10 starts (51 1/3 innings) with High-A Salem in 2019. The strong effort helped earn him the aforementioned promotion to Portland, where he went 4-6 with a 5.03 ERA, a 1.45 WHIP and 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings across 11 starts (53 2/3 innings).
Mata’s rapid ascent comes despite him suffering various injuries throughout his minor league career, including a back ailment in 2018, shoulder soreness in 2019, a hamstring issue in 2020 and now the UCL tear.
It also coincides with a significant body transformation for the righty, who’s currently listed at 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds.
“He’s very big — not fat, but he’s grown a lot over his Red Sox career, and that’s hard on a pitcher,” Ian Cundall, SoxProspects.com director of scouting, recently told NESN.com, prior to Mata’s injury. “When these guys sign, they’re 16, 17 years old, and by the time they make the big leagues, they’re 22, 23. Your body changes a lot in those six years, and he’s undergone a massive physical change.
“When he signed, I believe he was listed at 150 pounds. And now he’s listed at 240. So we’re talking about somebody who’s gained 60, 70, 80 pounds in the last six years, and that takes a toll when you’re trying to relearn your delivery basically every year based on your body changing. He’s someone who’s really had to really make a lot of tweaks mechanically over his career.”
Mata, who turns 22 in May, is considered the Red Sox’s top pitching prospect by most outlets, including SoxProspects.com, MLB Pipeline and Baseball America. The Athletic’s Keith Law is slightly less bullish, placing fellow pitchers Jay Groome and Thaddeus Ward ahead of Mata in his pre-2021 Red Sox prospect rankings.
So, what exactly makes Mata the consensus No. 1 pitching prospect in the Red Sox system?
Well, generally speaking, Mata has excellent stuff, highlighted by a fastball that can reach triple digits and a slider that’s quickly becoming a real weapon. He also throws a curveball and a changeup, giving him a potential four-pitch mix that could keep him in a starting role.
“His stuff is insane,” Cundall said. “If you see him on, he’ll make hitters look foolish. He’s got kind of a tough delivery to pick up. His fastball’s got a ton of movement. And he’s throwing it high 90s with now a good slider. He can get some really bad swings, and now it’s just kinda harnessing that.
“Now, it’s the more nuanced aspect of the game. He’s made the big changes, he’s got the raw stuff. Now, it’s just fine-tuning everything and just kinda melding it into a package that can go out there and throw six innings every five days or six days, depending on how the schedule works.”
Triple-A pitching coach Paul Abbott in September called Mata the “most exciting” prospect in the Red Sox organization and “one of the most exciting guys in baseball, period.”
High praise, obviously. But not unfounded when you consider the strides Mata has made with his pitch repertoire and his delivery, the latter of which has evolved as he’s filled out physically.
“For me, probably the most exciting guy we have in our organization, and he’s one of the most exciting guys in baseball, period.”Triple-A pitching coach Paul Abbott on Bryan Mata
“I think he found some good stuff last year,” Cundall said. ” … He found a delivery that seemed to have worked for him (in 2019), and now it’s just about carrying that momentum and just finding consistency with it so that he can repeat it over five, six innings. I think that’s the biggest question mark, because we haven’t seen it.
“Last year, even when he was pitching at the (alternate training site), he was going four innings at most. We haven’t seen him try to turn a lineup over three times, have to hold that delivery for 70, 80, 90, 100 pitches, and that’s why he needs that time in the minors this year.”
The Red Sox have two prospects — corner infielder Triston Casas and middle infielder Jeter Downs — on most national top 100 lists. Mata is noticeably absent, largely because there’s a chance he’ll wind up in the bullpen if he doesn’t improve his command and control.
“He’s consistently in the top five of the system on pretty much every list. But he’s not even mentioned in the ‘others of note’ or the ‘just missed’ (in national rankings),” Cundall said. “And it’s that relievers this day in age, and we’re seeing it around baseball, just don’t have as much perceived value as fans think they do.
“MLB teams, when they’re looking for prospects, they want starting pitching prospects. That’s the name of the game. And you’ve seen the Red Sox, they have not been able to develop starting pitching prospects over the last decade.”
The Red Sox presumably will continue to develop Mata as a starter, changing course only if it becomes apparent he’s unfit for the role base on his limitations.
“His stuff is insane. If you see him on, he’ll make hitters look foolish.”Ian Cundall, SoxProspects.com, on Bryan Mata
Most-likely outcome: Back-end starter or reliever.
While there are times when Mata looks unhittable, there are other times when he struggles to find the strike zone. And that inconsistency from outing to outing, unless rectified, could limit his ceiling at the highest level and force the Red Sox to decide whether he’s better equipped to be a starter or reliever.
“It’s just gonna come down to, can he throw enough strikes and can he throw enough quality strikes,” Cundall said. “I think there’s a decent chance that he can get the control to a point, but the command is going to be an entirely different story. And it’s just hard when you have to get both of those things in line. Because he’s throwing 94-96 (mph); he’s up to 100 now. He’s got all those pitches, and you’ll see it (inconsistent) from outing to outing even.”
The overall quality of Mata’s four-pitch mix also could go a long way toward determining his long-term role. If his curveball and changeup prove usable in the majors, he should stick as a starter. If he’s forced to rely mostly on a fastball-slider combination, he’ll probably shift to the bullpen, where his velocity and limited repertoire can play up in short spurts.
Best-case scenario: Mid-rotation starter.
If the stars align, with Mata being able to repeat his delivery, navigate the strike zone more consistently and work deeper into games, then the Red Sox could have a legitimate impact starter on their hands. The stuff is that good.
“Consistency is going to be key,” Cundall said. “And that’s why, even when you talk to evaluators, it really depends on when they saw him. You’ll talk to some guys who are like, ‘Yeah, I think he can be a No. 3 starter.’ And it makes sense, you’re talking about a 65 (grade) fastball, plus slider, two other average secondary pitches. If you put that with even 45 (grade) command, that’s a potential No. 3 starter.
“But if you talk to another guy who saw him (at a different time) — there are games where he’ll walk five guys in three innings and you’ll look at it like, ‘Yeah, I love the stuff, but I just don’t see enough strikes.’ “
SoxProspects ranking: No. 3
Here’s their summation:
“Projects as a back-end starter, but delivery and command profile could ultimately push him to the bullpen, where his stuff could play in a late-inning relief role. Ceiling of a mid-rotation starter. Has a much better chance to start now after taking to his new slider and cleaning up his delivery. Changeup still needs refinement, but has the potential for a true four-pitch mix with two plus offerings. Has shown the ability to miss bats with all four pitches at various points in his career. After developing physically, harnessing command of his arsenal will be key for his development. Injuries are becoming a concern, particularly after 2021 UCL injury. Will need to continue to watch conditioning as he physically matures. Still is very young and is a very intriguing arm who still has a lot of pitching development left despite already reaching Double-A.”
Mata, who’s on the 40-man roster, appeared destined to debut with Boston in 2021, either as a starter or a reliever based on what transpires at the major league level over the next few months. How his UCL tear impacts that timeline remains to be seen, however, as the Red Sox undoubtedly will be even more cautious with the prized farmhand in wake of his diagnosis.
“Obviously we have to be patient and see how he reacts,” Cora said on March 6. “When you start talking about the UCL, obviously it’s something that we don’t feel comfortable, of course, because it’s the UCL. We’ve just got to be patient. And he has to be patient. He’s young enough that probably everything’s going fast for him right now. But he’s mature enough, too, to understand that these things happen over the course of your career.
“He did an amazing job in the offseason to get in shape and get his arm where it’s supposed to be. It’s an obstacle in his career. But we do feel like he’s going to bounce back and he’s going to be OK.”
Mata’s arrival in the majors might be delayed a bit, all things considered, but it’s nevertheless highly anticipated based on his development over the past five-plus years.