PORTLAND, Maine — Brayan Bello was a big deal here this spring.
Boston’s top pitching prospect debuted at the Double-A level in mid-June of last year and had impressive moments through the end of the season. But in the beginning of 2022, Bello did something special every time he took the ball for Portland.
In his first start of the year, he struck out 10. He allowed exactly two runs and no more than four hits in each of his next three outings. On May 5, he tossed a no-hitter. Over the next two starts, he gave up a total of two runs while striking out 15. And that was it – he was off to Triple-A Worcester, 4-2 with a 1.60 ERA and a 0.83 WHIP.
As big a loss as that might seem for the Double-A club, Portland’s pitching staff began the season with so much talent that the question isn’t how Bello’s departure will hurt the Sea Dogs, but which starter will fill his shoes as leader of the pack.
Left-handers Brandon Walter (Boston’s No. 8 prospect), Chris Murphy (No. 10) and Jay Groome (No. 11) combine with Bello and righty Victor Santos to dominate the Eastern League leaderboards. And they show no signs of slowing down. Taking Bello’s turn and pitching a night ahead of schedule, Murphy fanned six and allowed a run over five innings last Tuesday. The next night, Groome turned in six shutout frames.
“To give credit to the guys, they’ve come in and they’ve bought into what we’ve been asking them to do, which is … throw all their pitches in the strike zone,” Sea Dogs pitching coach Lance Carter said.
Carter vigorously disagrees with the common New England refrain that “the Red Sox can’t develop pitching,” and sees it as a belief that won’t be tenable for long even for the most skeptical fan.
“There’s guys coming,” he said. “I don’t think any of that has ever been something that us as an organization – especially us as the pitching group – have ever thought. I think that’s for [media] and people that watch and have their opinions, and they’re entitled to those opinions. But that’s never been the feeling amongst our pitching group, that we can’t develop Major League pitchers.”
The long-term success of Groome could do as much as anything to dispel that notion. Groome was the No. 12 overall pick of the 2016 Draft but was limited by injuries and the pandemic to 66 innings over his first five years of pro ball. He’s already evolved from a fastball-dependent thrower into a less predictable pitcher, adding a quality slider last year and continuing to develop a changeup.
“As far as the evolution of my game, I think all the physical attributes are there if not better,” he said. “I’m 6-6, 265 pounds, so I know I have the physical attributes. But the mental attributes [I’m] always trying to work on, controlling what I can control, because this game really is mental.”
Unlike Bello and Groome, Murphy (a 2019 sixth-rounder) and Walter (picked 20 rounds after Murphy) were mostly unheralded until each had his own breakout campaign last year. Walter, a sinkerballer who features heavy movement on all three of his pitches, has seized on the opportunity to pitch in a rotation alongside some of the organization’s top prospects.
“You just learn from what the guy before you did,” he said. “It does help that we have three lefties in the rotation. Maybe if Murph or Groome threw first, I can kind see of how they attacked those guys, and whether they had success or not, I can make adjustments for myself or kind of just copy their blueprint.”
Carter has seen the members of the staff benefit from the success of the others in another way.
“I have always believed it’s contagious,” he said. “You see one guy in the rotation doing well, and you want to do well. Same thing in the bullpen. That helps up your game, trying to compete not only with yourself but to keep up with the group.”
With Bello already advancing to the highest rung of the Minors, by the end of next year, “keeping up with the group” may mean contributing in the Majors.