The echo of metal cleats meeting the pavement grows louder as a cluster of white jerseys makes its way into the clubhouse. The excitement from the field pours into the locker room as the Portland Sea Dogs celebrate another late regular-season victory, taking them one step closer to their first playoff berth since 2014. Instantly players retreat to their lockers to begin their normal post-game routines but are halted by the appearance of Brian Abraham, the Director of Player Development for the Boston Red Sox.
After everyone gathers and falls silent, Abraham begins to announce congratulations are in order for three players who are joining the prominent list of Red Sox minor league award winners. The first round of applause sounded with David Hamilton earning Base Runner of the Year, followed by Ceddanne Rafaela as the Defensive Player of the Year, and finally, Niko Kavadas, who garnered Offensive Player of the Year honors during his first full season with the organization.
“When my name was called among the accolades that night, I was in complete shock,” Kavadas said. “That moment in the locker room was really cool and it gave me an extra vote of confidence.”
Kavadas name is now placed alongside notable Boston greats including Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Dustin Pedroia as winners of the award
The Granger, Indiana native was selected by the Red Sox in the 11th round, 316th overall in the 2021 MLB Draft. He quickly proved his true worth after moving up the farm system at a remarkable rate in 2022, finishing the first half of the season at the Class-A level in Salem, and making his way to Portland on August 18th. He settled in quickly during his 24 games in Sea Dogs uniform, hammering two home runs, 18 hits, and achieving a .370 OBP.
Listed at No. 21 on the most recent edition of the Red Sox Top Prospects list, his talent is highlighted by not only his size and strength but his consistency at the plate. Kavadas began demonstrating these impressive skills at a young age.
One of the first coaches to take notice of his rare talent was Jesse Woods, who moved across the street from the Kavadas family in 2013 to start a career as an Assistant Baseball Coach and Recruiting Coordinator at Notre Dame. At the time, Kavadas was entering his freshman year of high school.
“Whether I was watching him play wiffle ball in the front yard, or for his high school or travel team, he was always hitting the ball with such power,” Woods said. “I was able to not only witness his talent but learn more about the all-around competitiveness he possessed."
During his high school career, Kavadas helped lead the Penn Kingsmen to a state championship as a sophomore and state runner-up as a senior. Additionally, he competed for the San Francisco Giants scout team and was a member of Lids Team Indiana.
Despite his success on the high school field, he was not heavily scouted by collegiate programs. Though, that did not stop him from pursuing an opportunity at the next level. After expressing early interest in staying close to home, he made a verbal commitment to play for the Fighting Irish during the summer of 2016. A dream Kavadas has been chasing for as long as he can remember.
“I grew up less than 15 minutes from Notre Dame's campus, so it is basically in my backyard,” Kavadas said. “I have been going to Frank Eck Stadium to tailgate and watch baseball since I was about five years old.”
Landing a spot on the roster as a preferred walk-on, Kavadas got to work right away.
As a true freshman, he competed in 47 games, getting 38 starts on the year. Taking it a step further, he posted the third- best batting average and the second-best on-base percentage for the program.
“No one is typically looking for a preferred walk-on to be outstanding right out of the gate,” Woods said. “But Niko came in and performed just as much if not more than the guys who were heavily recruited by several other programs while in high school.”
Since completing his rookie season, Kavadas only continued to build on his accomplishments.
In his second year with the Irish he was one of two players to start all 54 contests, notched his first career grand slam, and led the squad with 12 home runs - the most since Trey Mancini hit 12 in 2012. His superb stats earned him a spot in the prestigious Cape Cod League with the Harwich Mariners, where he left his mark with 10 home runs and was named to the All-Star team. As an upperclassman, he started all 13 games of the season that was cut short due to the Coronavirus. Regardless of losing the majority of his junior campaign, Kavadas was eligible for the 2020 five-round MLB Draft. But, never received the phone call he was hoping for.
“I thought I had done a lot of really good work in the Cape Cod League, and throughout the shortened season,” Kavadas said. “When I did not receive a call I felt disrespected and it really put a chip on my shoulder going into my senior year.”
The chip on his shoulder led him to a monstrous spring, where the two-time captain helped the Irish to its best season in 20 years. Under the guidance of head coach Link Jarrett, Notre Dame finished the season just one win short of a College World Series berth. Kavadas added four All-American awards to his resume, including two first-team honors and first-team All-ACC awards, making him one of the first Irish players to do so since joining the conference in 2014. He was named to the USA Golden Spikes Midseason watch list and became the first Irish player to earn multiple first-team All-American honors in the same season since Steve Stanley in 2002.
He capped off the spring by graduating with a bachelor's degree from the Mendoza College of Business.
With the 2021 MLB Draft underway in June, Kavadas waited for the phone call of a lifetime back at his family’s home. However, the wait began to imitate the previous year, as days one and two passed in silence. Finally on day three during the start of the eleventh round, Kavadas’ phone rang.
“I was really frustrated that I had fallen to the third day and even thought about returning to Notre Dame to use my last year of eligibility,” Kavadas said. “But when a historical organization like the Red Sox comes knocking on your door, it is hard to say no to that opportunity.”
Boston was one organization consistent on Kavadas’ trail since his junior year. Alonzo Wright, the Midwestern area scout for the organization, met Kavadas in December of 2020 and immediately saw him as a solid target to pursue.
“Witnessing his awareness for the game paired with his confidence and maturity is just something you don’t see all the time,” Wright said. “He and I talked once a week during his senior season, but didn’t ever harp on the fact that he didn't get taken in the five-round draft.”
Traveling straight from Indiana to Boston’s training complex after inking his first pro contract, Kavadas participated in seven contests in Fort Myers with the Red Sox rookie-level complex team before moving up to Low-A Salem for the final two home stands of the year.
Picking up where he left off, he returned to Salem to make his full-season debut the following April. Staying true to himself, Kavadas immediately went to work and managed to produce stellar results across the board at all three levels of competition.
Performing through 59 games in Southwest Virginia, he collected 15 home runs, 55 hits, 48 RBI, was named the Carolina League Player of the Month for June and landed a spot on the League’s All-Star team at the completion of the season. Traveling around 300 miles to Greenville at the end of June, Kavadas carried over his outstanding efforts at the plate. He amassed 10 home runs, 37 hits, and 28 RBI through 37 contests before flying to Portland for the remainder of the season. As a Sea Dog, he competed in 24 games and helped the squad achieve a spot in the playoffs.
Strictly playing at first base, he closed out the year by becoming the organization's leader in slugging percentage posting a .547, earning a .443 OBP to rank second among all Minor Leaguers with at least 300 plate appearances, and accumulating a 19.8 percent walk rate that ranked him 10th in the category. This put him in the running for a nomination in Boston’s minor league awards.
“The nominations came down to about three to four players after many conversations had by the staff around mid to late September,” Abraham said. “Niko became our clear-choice winner after evaluating his unique skill set in terms of his power and eye at the plate.”
It came as no surprise to many, especially his former coach and neighbor, that Kavadas was the front-runner for this distinction.
“I wasn't surprised in the slightest and my initial thought was it's about time,” Woods said. “I’m glad to see him finally get the recognition he deserves since he didn’t get it on signing day in high school, or on draft day in college”
His first full "offseason" began with a pre-game ceremony at Fenway Park to receive his Offensive Player of the Year honor just days before joining the esteemed Arizona Fall League as one of seven athletes representing the Red Sox on the Scottsdale Scorpions.
Once the fall league concluded, he made the trek back to his home state to enjoy a few rounds on the golf course and celebrate the holidays with family before gearing up for his second spring training.
“I will head back to Fort Myers sometime in January,” Kavadas said. “That’s when I will sit down and think about writing out my list of goals I am going to set out to achieve for the 2023 season.”