Nobody needs a bounce-back year more than 20-year old outfield prospect Cole Brannen. 2017’s second-round pick is perhaps the most gifted athlete in the entire system and has one of the highest ceilings of any prospect. However, 2018 was a season to forget for Brannen. The athletic center fielder entered 2018 as the Red Sox sixth-ranked prospect but his rough season brought him all the way down to 19. Does the lefty have what it takes to bounce back and climb his way back up the prospect rankings?
Red Sox Prospects: Cole Brannen
Brannen has all the tools to be a legit prospect in the Red Sox system. The 20-year old is probably the fastest player at any level, including the majors, and is a fantastic baserunner. He can turn doubles into triples, singles into doubles, and ground balls into singles. He has the potential to steal on any given pitch and excels at taking the extra base on balls in play.
This speed, combined with one of the better arms in the system, gives Brannen has massive ceiling on defense. Brannen has fantastic reflexes and is adept as chasing balls off the bat which, combined with his speed, give him Gold Glove potential.
In theory, Brannen is also a great hitter. While he doesn’t project much power, he’s supposed to be a great contact hitter capable of putting balls in play. Additionally, Brannen showed great plate discipline in high school, walking 26 times in 82 at-bats back in 2017. He was an on-base machine in high school, posting a .439/.756/.975 slash line during his final year before going pro.
What To Work On
Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of Brannen to work on. While his defense and baserunning has transferred to the next level, his hitting hasn’t even come close. Brannen has played 108 games with the Red Sox, posting a wholly underwhelming .169/.261/.205 slash line with an accompanying 45 wRC+. This means Brannen has been 55% worse than the average minor league hitter. Considering he’s yet to play above the short-season Lowell Spinners, that is outright terrible news.
The peripherals don’t tell a better story. While his career .261 BABIP is lower than average, that small batted ball luck doesn’t explain away all his struggles. Additionally, his plate discipline is nothing like what was scouted in high school. Brannen’s walk rate is just 10.4%, while his strikeout rate is an unfortunate 31.1%.
Brannen has the skills to become a major league hitter, he just hasn’t put it together yet. While his progression is obviously discouraging, it’s far too early to give up on him as a prospect. Some prospects take longer to develop than others, and that’s especially true of high school prospects. Brannen played the majority of 2018 as a 19-year old, so he still has plenty of time to grow at the plate.
Cole Brannen has one of the highest ceilings in the entire farm system. He’s perhaps the fastest player at any level and will always be a borderline elite fielder and baserunner. However, Brannen has a long way to go before he’s major league ready. The 20-year old simply hasn’t been able to hit his weight since joining the Red Sox, which is obviously not a good thing. If he’s ever to reach his potential, he’ll need to show something at the plate against Low-A competition.
If he does, it will be laughable that he was ever ranked 19th in the system. However, there’s no guarantee he ever finds his swing. He could be the next Michael Chavis, who needed a few years to figure it out, or he could be the next Trey Ball, who just never could put his natural talents together.
Even if he never finds his swing, Brannen could still probably find his way into the majors as a late-inning bench piece. His glove and baserunning are already major league ready, and he could be a great pinch-runner or defensive substitute. Considering the Red Sox used Blake Swihart as their primary pinch-runner in their World Series run, this is role the Red Sox need to fill.
Whether Brannen finds his swing or not, it’ll be a long time before he’s up in the majors. So much of his development depends on him finding his swing, so it’s hard to project a timeframe for when he’d come up. However, the absolute earliest it would be is late 2020 as a situational bench piece. If everything breaks right, he could compete for a starting position in 2021.