OAKLAND, Calif. — Young players can give a team such energy when they’re going well and they can also create such a void when they’re going bad.
The Red Sox decided they were going to make young players a big part of their 2014 team. They wanted to build and contend at the same time, knowing they would meet up with the downside as well as the joyous upside.
They have endured Will Middlebrooks’s struggles, Jackie Bradley Jr.’s inability to hit offspeed stuff, Xander Bogaerts having a tough time at shortstop and now at third while also in the midst of a slump that put him on the bench for Saturday’s matinee against the Oakland Athletics.
Prior to the game, manager John Farrell was pumping up Mookie Betts, who has been tearing up minor league baseball and who could see his way to Boston before too long.
There’s nothing like the energy of a young player when they’re going well, but on the flip side they can sap your energy if they’re going poorly.
One thing you can say about Bogaerts is that he should be an impact offensive player when he gets it together. He may, in time, improve his defense at third base and become above average, but the likelihood of him being Manny Machado probably isn’t very high.
It’s easy to correlate his recent offensive decline to a positional switch. After all, his last game at shortstop was June 1, when he was hitting .296. In his first 22 at-bats after moving to third base he had seven hits. Since then, he’s gone 4 for 43.
Related to his defensive switch?
“Of course not,” said Farrell, who met with his 21-year-old rookie before Saturday’s game. “He’s perfectly able to separate the field from the batter’s box. He’s just going through a rough patch at this moment, both at the plate and in the field.
“He’s made a couple of throws at third that have gotten away from him. And I don’t believe there’s any residual effect from moving positions. I don’t believe Xander lets those things enter into his mind-set.”
The Red Sox have made this as simple as they can for Bogaerts.
Farrell is even more convinced the right thing to do was insert Stephen Drew back at shortstop and put Bogaerts at a less taxing position at third.
“Stephen has really stabilized our defense,” Farrell said. “He’s done exactly what we hoped he would do and Xander, we believe, has done a nice job moving over and very accepting of what’s best for the team. We believe in Xander and we feel he’s going to be very good major league player for a long time. The slumps, the down times, we knew that our young players would have them but we also feel we could reap the benefits when things were going well.”
And things will go well again for Bogaerts.
Bogaerts feels he’s very close to having hits start to fall. He will always tell you that shortstop is his first love and that he hopes to return to his favorite position down the road. Right now, the Red Sox just want him to be the best third baseman he can be.
But to correlate a positional move to hitting performance is something Bogaerts and his teammates feel is a stretch.
“I don’t understand how anyone could even think that way,” said one Red Sox player. “So you’re telling me that people actually think that when you step into the box that you’re saying to yourself, ‘Oh, my God, I’m not a shortstop anymore!’ Just to think that is kinda crazy, isn’t it? Do people know anything about baseball?”
Bradley has had difficulty with the offspeed pitches and the balls down and away. Lately he’s been better. Maybe it’s taken this long for him to make the adjustments that every young hitter needs to make. There was so much excitement about Bradley when he first came up.
The same excitement Farrell had in his voice in reference to Betts, he had about Bradley and Bogaerts.
And Farrell would rather have caught himself Saturday to not create those overblown expectations for Betts, which could wind up coming back to haunt a player when he’s going bad.
Betts, 21, is a second baseman, a small guy at 5 feet 9 inches, who has now played center and right field in Pawtucket. His hitting has been off the charts whether it be at Double A Portland (.355/6 HRs/34 RBIs/22 steals) or Triple A Pawtucket (.324/2/12/4 steals).
We’ve seen the excitement created by Brock Holt, an older rookie, but a rookie nonetheless. So can Betts create that Jacoby Ellsbury type of excitement that he did in 2007? But what if you call Betts up and he struggles like Bradley? Or struggles like Bogaerts is struggling right now? How deflating would that be for a team already in need of a lift?
And so it comes back to the team needing a spark. They need outside help, a fresh look. Someone who can be inserted in the middle of the order and perform consistently.
The Red Sox have been scouting Matt Kemp, but Dodgers GM Ned Colletti says he’s not for sale right now. Anyway, Kemp has been more of a downer than an upper in the Dodgers clubhouse over the years.
How much can the Sox rely on younger players to bail them out? Is that fair to them? Doesn’t it put added pressure on the kid? Isn’t it bad enough to come up a young player in Boston and be put in that pressure-cooker environment?
So you experience the good and the bad with young players. What you don’t want is the ugly.
There’s a strong sentiment developing in the Red Sox clubhouse, that despite three straight losses in Oakland, they’re not far away from turning this around to become a second-half force.
It’ll take an offensive spark.
Does that come from young players such as Betts, Bradley, or Bogaerts? Or does it need to come from a fresh face outside the organization?Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.