The temptation for most teams that win the World Series is to bring back the same players and go for it again. Unless age or injury mandates change, why mess with what works?
But the Red Sox didn’t try to retain free agent center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, not even when the Yankees became his primary suitor. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was gently prodded out the door and the Sox passed on chasing shortstop Stephen Drew.
The Red Sox took the emotional capital gained by winning the Series and invested it in the future, letting expensive free agents go to create opportunities for young players this season and in those to come.
There was a financial component, too. Filling those spots with less expensive players will enable the Red Sox to have the kind of roster and payroll flexibility all teams cherish and only a few have.
General manager Ben Cherington, a serious sort, actually laughed when asked if he would have pursued the same strategy had the Red Sox lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the Series and left a feverish fan base wanting more.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “It’s hard to answer that hypothetical, but I know that prior to last season the model we were trying to build is one that would have included integration of young players over time.”
“We didn’t know exactly when we would have the opportunity to start doing that, but we knew we wanted to do it. I think it would have happened regardless of the outcome of last year.”
It was a plan based on history. Starting in 1980, the Sox studied baseball’s most successful franchises and found that, on average, the best teams worked young players into their rosters, an average of two a season. Not every team or situation was the same, but the common denominator was an infusion of youth.
The Red Sox built their 2013 team with a series of short-term free agent signings that turned a last-place team into a champion. That kind of good fortune doesn’t happen very often. Not since the 1991 Minnesota Twins had a team vaulted from last place to a championship.
The Sox needed a better long-range plan than walkoff wins and lucky beards. With fewer premier players entering the free agent market, it had to center on development as being more than just a goal.
“In our conversations we think of this as a never-ending building mentality,” manager John Farrell said. “We’re always building and we’re building to be the best team possible this year and how do we sustain that year over year.
“That all sounds well and good, but it means that there’s a lot of commitment to young players.”
Putting plan in motion
The Sox will demonstrate that commitment this season by playing 21-year-old Xander Bogaerts at shortstop. Will Middlebrooks, a 25-year-old third baseman, is getting a second chance after a rocky 2013.
Righthander Brandon Workman, who wasn’t invited to major league spring training and pitched the eighth inning of the Series clincher, is a key member of the pitching staff at age 25. The Sox also believe Jackie Bradley Jr. will play a significant role in their outfield over the course of the season.
“I’ve been around here a few years and this is the most young talent I’ve ever seen at spring training,” second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “There’s a big difference.
“Teams have different philosophies. But I like that we’re trusting in our young guys now. The key is for them to stay healthy so we can get them the heck up here. There are a lot of them.”
That’s not idle chatter. Baseball America put the Red Sox second in its minor league talent rankings, Baseball Prospectus has them fourth, and ESPN analyst Keith Law placed the Sox fifth. Law graded eight Red Sox players among his top 110. The Orioles, Yankees, Rays, and Blue Jays have a total of 14.
Red Sox fans may not see righthander Matt Barnes, third baseman Garin Cecchini, lefthander Henry Owens, righthander Anthony Ranaudo, catcher Blake Swihart, and righthander Allen Webster until later this season or next. But they’re coming and more are behind them.
The Red Sox have prospects on par with teams such as the Twins, Cubs, and Astros, noncontenders who have benefited from high draft picks in recent years.
“It’s good for Boston and bad for the rest of us,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said.
Cashman speaks from experience. When the Yankees started their dynasty in 1996, it was built around talented, young players such as Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada.
The “Core Four” of Jeter, Pettitte, Posada, and Rivera collected World Series rings in bunches. Only Pettitte ever played for another team.
“You can’t make it a game for young players unless they play,” Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said. “The idea of having young players playing such pivotal roles and watching their careers develop and escalate and watching them perform at higher and better levels is one of the most interesting dynamics in the game.”
It was something the Red Sox once embraced, then let slip away.
Starting in 2002, when Theo Epstein was in his first year as general manager, the Red Sox drafted and developed Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Jed Lowrie, Jonathan Papelbon, and Pedroia over a period of five years.
Buchholz, Ellsbury, Lester, and Pedroia were part of two championship teams, Papelbon and Lowrie one.
The “player development machine” Epstein vowed to build never seemed to run out of power.
But over the four years from 2006-09, that changed. Only Daniel Bard and Middlebrooks made significant contributions to the Red Sox from those draft classes, although hope remains for lefthander Drake Britton, outfielder Alex Hassan, and catcher Christian Vazquez.
Four first-round picks during the period — Caleb Clay, Ryan Dent, Kris Johnson, and Jason Place — were busts. The Red Sox used other top prospects as trade chips, dealing away Reymond Fuentes, Nick Hagadone, Casey Kelly, Justin Masterson, and Anthony Rizzo for veteran players like Victor Martinez and Adrian Gonzalez who stayed only a short time in Boston.
Those mistakes helped lead the Red Sox into a three-year playoff drought and a disastrous 69-win season in 2012.
“We talked about development all the time. We felt strongly about it,” said Cherington, who became general manager when Epstein fled for the Chicago Cubs following the collapse of the 2011 team. “But, candidly, there were probably some moments where we drifted away from that.”
Said assistant GM Mike Hazen: “We had prospects, but when we had to make a choice between an older guy or a younger guy, we went with the older guy. A lot of that had to do with the major league staff at the time and who they trusted.”
Once Cherington got the keys to the now-sputtering machine, the Sox stopped shedding prospects with a few exceptions.
Outfielder Josh Reddick and two prospects were sent to Oakland for closer Andrew Bailey before the 2012 season. The Sox then used defensively gifted shortstop Jose Iglesias in a three-team deal to land pitcher Jake Peavy last July.
The Bailey deal was another mistake. Reddick became a power-hitting Gold Glover for Oakland and Bailey spent much of his two seasons on the disabled list.
But Peavy helped the Red Sox win the World Series and Iglesias could miss this season with stress fractures in both legs.
Cherington also changed the direction of the organization with the hiring of Farrell, a former pitching coach with a background in player development. With the exception of bullpen coach Dana LeVangie, all of Farrell’s coaches also had development experience.
Youth is served
In all, the seven coaches have 27 years of minor league managing experience and 30 years of minor league coaching experience. Their skills have made it easier for the front office to call up players who still need polishing.
“You can never let teaching opportunities go by,” Farrell said. “I think we all recognize that players have needs in some way and it’s up to us to help them in those areas with the common goal in mind not just to come to the big leagues, but to establish themselves and contribute.
“So our coaching staff has an integral role into transitioning young players which teaching doesn’t stop just because they come to the big leagues. If we didn’t have the history that we do to date with them as people and as players and didn’t feel as strong as we do about their abilities, we’d probably be looking at a different scenario.”
Bogaerts is the centerpiece of this strategy and for certain is a test case of its worthiness. The Red Sox haven’t committed to a 21-year-old position player to start a season since third baseman Glenn Hoffman in 1980.
Before that you have to go back to right fielder Dwight Evans in 1973.
“It’s not pressure because I know I’m ready,” Bogaerts said. “I don’t think it’s unusual for me. I know we have a lot of players in the minors who deserve the same chance. Guys know now that they will get a chance and not get traded. There’s excitement.”
Incorporating Bogaerts, Middlebrooks, and other young players into the lineup will require patience. Comparisons with Drew will be made within seconds the first time Bogaerts boots a routine ground ball. But the Red Sox are prepared to ride that out.
“These guys are good players. That’s the one thing that we need to make sure of, that the guys we are integrating into the team are good players,” Hazen said. “They all have good track records; maybe not with Boston just yet, but in the upper minor leagues. We believe in these guys.
“The big leagues require adjustments and they have to make those adjustments. We believe they will.”
A championship team will begin its defense looking much different — by design.
“This may be more than the norm for a team that’s just coming off the World Series. But we’ve gone through this exercise,” Cherington said. “If you narrow your field too much, then it’s less likely that people find the right young players to fit in. So that’s where I live.
“The preferred path is to continue to green light as much young talent as possible, knowing that gives the best chance to find the right young guys to commit to and integrate into the team and that gives the best chance to be as good as we can every year.”