MINNEAPOLIS — Being patient for young players to develop can be a slippery slope. It certainly is where the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox are concerned.
They want to allow the young guys to develop, but is there a point where they can’t keep going with them? Is there a point where they jeopardize their chance of repeating as champion because they’re taking too much of a hit with young players?
These are discussions that go on internally in the Red Sox organization and openly by the media and fans.
How long can they carry players hitting in the low .200s and/or underperforming defensively when they have a veteran pitching staff that may not be together after this season?
CBSSports.com’s Jon Heyman asked chairman Tom Werner to respond to the question, “Will you stick with the Boagerts/Middlebrooks left side of the infield?” Werner responded to Heyman, who reported on Twitter, “For the moment.”
That wasn’t a ringing endorsement. But Werner is simply stating what so many people are thinking aloud.
“I don’t think there is a breaking point,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “These are our guys. We fully acknowledge there was going to be peaks and valleys but we still go back to the abilities each possess and work ethic. Those ingredients will allow them to perform and create that dependability.
“Will [Middlebrooks] is searching a little bit. We need them to perform to their abilities and to be the team we fully believe we can be. They need to feel the support of our staff to help them get through times when they’re not clicking. We’re giving them the opportunity to work through it,” Farrell said.
This is a defending championship team. It’s used to having top-of-the-line players at every position. Now, Jackie Bradley Jr. has replaced Jacoby Ellsbury. Middlebrooks has had parts of three seasons at third. Xander Bogaerts replaced Stephen Drew at shortstop.
These are important positions being manned by two rookies and a young player who hasn’t found himself.
As David Ortiz points out, “Every night, no matter who we’re playing, they’re bringing their best against us. You can see it every night. It’s different when you’re the defending champions. So we have to find a way to get this thing going in the right direction and start getting over .500 and pull away.”
For that to happen, don’t the Red Sox have to have better performances from three young players manning important positions?
Are the Red Sox saying these players will stick no matter what? Are they willing to forego the short window they have to win again for the sake of allowing these talented young players to find themselves? Can they do both?
We also wonder how long will it be before the veteran players start to question whether these players are carrying their weight.
“The only thing I want to see is that there’s a process and a method to what they’re doing,” veteran Shane Victorino said. “I want them to be the best player they can be every day. I don’t care if they’re hitting .200 as long as they’re understanding what they’re trying to accomplish on a daily basis.”
An interesting perspective comes from first base coach Arnie Beyeler, the longtime minor league manager who managed Double A Portland and Triple A Pawtucket for the Red Sox.
“The mental toughness is a big thing with these guys making that transition to the big leagues,” Beyeler said. “And then they have the added pressures of fitting into a clubhouse, blending in with a veteran team here who knows how to play and who knows how to prepare, who won a championship. Being a young guy trying to fit in. Being a young guy trying to produce. It’s different up here.
“You can do all you can do to prepare for this moment and our organization does so many great things to help that transition. But until they get up here and experience it firsthand and learn the pressures of the daily grind here, you just can’t simulate that anywhere,” Beyeler said.
“Up here, the gloves are off. Everybody is extremely talented and everybody has a way of knowing what it takes to succeed,” Beyeler said.
Beyeler said it’s understandable young guys struggle. As the Triple A manager he saw players come up, struggle, and go back down. His job was to prepare them to go back up.
It’s a game of adjustments. These young hitters have never seen the array of offspeed stuff they’re subjected to. Until they figure it out, they will struggle. In Middlebrooks’s case, he’s had trouble hitting the fastball. He was hitting .194 (6 for 31) with 1 homer, 2 walks, and 11 strikeouts. He’s seen 138 fastballs, 92 for strikes, 61 swings, 13 misses, 20 in play, 14 chases, and 31 called strikes.
Most young players struggle with offspeed, but they can catch up to a fastball. But Middlebrooks gets overpowered.
Beyeler managed Angels outfielder Mike Trout in the Arizona Fall League.
“I got calls from people around baseball that said you might have been the last man to see Mike Trout fail,” Beyeler kidded.
Indeed Trout struggled that season in the Fall League, but he certainly hasn’t struggled much since (though recently he’s been in a slump).
“Every kid is different. Trout was an extremely confident player. Xander is that type of kid. Very confident. Jackie is struggling a bit at the plate, but he works so hard on his game and tries to get better.”
Farrell sees improvement in Bradley despite the .212 average he finished Wednesday night’s game with after going 0 for 4.
“In Jackie’s case, his approach is improving with each game,” Farrell said. “He’s trusting what his eyes are telling him inside a given game, how certain pitchers are going about an attack plan and taking note of the hitters prior to his at-bat. We’re seeing that grow. And yet, we know that that’s all part of that process of becoming established major league players.”
Every player eventually has to carry his weight.
“We’ve got an accountable group,” Beyeler said. “They work hard every day. They’ll get better. It’s going to happen. It would be nice to be able to flip a switch and say he’s going to be ready in a month. He’ll be ready next week. It would be nice to be able to be the guy that can pick who’s going to make it and who isn’t. But I don’t think that guy exists.”
The organization and the system did a great job getting these players in position to be major leaguers. The hype machine was huge for all of these young players, but now there’s reality to deal with.
Over the coming weeks we’ll see if the hype was warranted.
In an AL East that could remain there for the taking for quite a while, the Red Sox still have a chance to take it. But so much of that will depend how quickly the young guys can flourish on a team that needs all nine players in the lineup to do their part.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.