As much as the Red Sox hope that the turn from 2020 to 2021 brings a change in results, their mission is largely similar to the one that guided them throughout last season’s last-place debacle. The pursuit of long-term, sustainable success requires the ongoing repair and replenishment of a young talent base.
“Good organizations that want to sustain competitiveness over time and avoid the valleys always focus on where their talent base is at, where their pipeline is at,” said Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “If you ever stop worrying about the future entirely, you’re sort of dooming yourself to not have a very good one.
“If our goal is to be competitive as much as possible and ideally always, then some part of our energy always has to be focused on making sure that pipeline is strong.”
Given that, it’s worth asking: How did a team ranked by Baseball America with a top-six farm system entering each of the 2013-16 seasons end up , by the end of 2019, compelled to deal one of the greatest talents in franchise history as the first step of what proved a season-long selloff?
Some factors — most notably, those who went from prospects to big leaguers and trades that depleted a teeming pool of talent — are obvious. Yet the forces that contributed to the organizational swing extend well beyond that.
Prospects grew up
Two waves of prospects positioned the Red Sox with an elite farm system for much of last decade. Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Christian Vazquez, Matt Barnes, and Travis Shaw were part of a group that advanced together through the system, getting their footing at a time when the Red Sox turned over their core while finishing in last place in 2014-15.
They were joined in the subsequent years by Andrew Benintendi, Yoan Moncada, and Rafael Devers, who broke into the big leagues when the Sox were contending annually for American League East titles.
Even after the Betts trade last February, the Red Sox had an Opening Day lineup of mostly homegrown talents — Vazquez behind the plate, Bogaerts and Devers on the left side of the infield, Bradley and Benintendi in the outfield — but those players are now established, having accumulated enough big league service time to reach arbitration eligibility or free agency.
The trades they made
Under former president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, the Red Sox traded 36 players (according to Baseball Reference), including 31 who either were minor leaguers or had yet to exhaust their rookie eligibility between the end of the 2015 season and the end of 2019. Of those 31, 19 have contributed in the big leagues with their new teams.
“These trades and these players that were used allowed us to put together arguably the greatest team and roster in the history of the organization and led us to a World Series championship [in 2018],” said Red Sox vice president of scouting Mike Rikard. “That’s the name of the game.
“[But] when you take 30-plus players out of the farm system of an organization, of course that’s going to lead to gaping holes in your depth.”
The trades they didn’t make
While the Red Sox traded aggressively to address needs at the big league level, they largely declined to make deals with the longer view in mind, whether dealing for prospects or young big leaguers with untapped upside. In so doing, they did not take advantage of a critical roster-building tool used by competitors.
In recent years, the Yankees bought low on Luke Voit and Aaron Hicks, both of whom became key contributors at a low cost for multiple years. The Dodgers have hit big when dealing veterans for prospects (Yasiel Puig and Alex Wood for Jeter Downs and current top prospect Josiah Gray) or making upside plays (Zach Lee for Chris Taylor).
The Rays have largely built their roster through trades, sending Chris Archer to the Pirates for Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow, and prospect Shane Baz, and making the prospect swap that sent pitcher Matthew Liberatore to St. Louis for postseason sensation Randy Arozarena.
A draft downturn
In theory, the Red Sox hoped to backfill the gap created by trades through the draft and international market. But the trades came on the heels of what has been an extremely unproductive period.
In 2011, the Red Sox set themselves up for years to come with the draft selections of Betts (fifth round), Bradley (first round), Barnes (first round), and Shaw (ninth round), a class that to date has yielded 72.2 Wins Above Replacement.
The subsequent five years, however, proved fallow. The 2012-16 draft classes have produced just 12.9 WAR, 26th in the big leagues.
From the same five drafts, the Cardinals (78.1), Astros (67.9), A’s (65.6), and Dodgers (60.0) produced immense impact, yields that played key roles in championships by Houston and Los Angeles and formed the nucleus of an Oakland team that has reached the playoffs in three straight years.
How did the Red Sox go from the immense success of 2011 to the light return of 2012-16, during which only one signed player to date (2015 first-rounder Benintendi) has produced at least 2.0 career WAR?
A few factors played into the falloff. Evaluators note that there is an element of randomness in draft successes and failures, and that every team endures misses in a sport where one out of every three first-rounders never reaches the big leagues and where four out of five never end up accumulating a career WAR of 10.0 or better.
Good scouting played a role in the Sox getting Betts in the fifth round in 2011, but luck was in play as he surpassed any projections to become a superstar.
Likewise, in 2013, luck played a role in a year when the Sox picked seventh but saw each of their top six prospects come off the board in front of their selection. The player they did select with the No. 7 pick, lefthander Trey Ball, went from throwing mid-90s with plus secondary pitches in high school to someone whose stuff ticked down significantly once he entered pro ball.
In 2012-13, the Red Sox selected five pitchers in the first two rounds: 2012 college first-rounders Brian Johnson and Pat Light, 2012 high school second-rounder Jamie Callahan, high school lefty Ball in 2013, and junior college righty Teddy Stankiewicz in the second round of 2013. All are currently out of affiliated baseball.
Other factors contributed to the draft struggles. In 2015, the Red Sox sacrificed two second-round picks to sign free agents Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. In 2017-18, following an AL East title, the Red Sox picked low in the first round. In 2019, after spending past the highest luxury-tax threshold in the 2018 title run, they had their top pick pushed back into the second round. Then in 2020, they lost their second-round pick as part of MLB’s penalty for the use of a replay monitor to decipher sign-sequence information in 2018.
Those lost picks and late draft positions left the Sox with one of the bottom-five bonus pools available to spend from 2017-20. So at a time when they had created a hole in their depth through trades, their ability to repair it through the draft was constrained.
The penalty box
In the summer of 2016, MLB penalized the Red Sox for attempting to circumvent international amateur bonus limits by stripping them of five prospects — most notably, outfielder Simon Muzziotti, now ranked as the No. 8 prospect in the Phillies system — and prohibited them from signing any players in the 2016-17 international amateur signing period.
The Red Sox are seen in the industry as a team that has gotten steady, solid yields from its international amateur scouting, both with prominent signees (Devers) and low-dollar discoveries (Darwinzon Hernandez, Bryan Mata, and many others), adding players who became either top prospects or key trade chips in virtually every signing class of the past decade. The loss of Muzziotti and inability to access that talent base in 2016-17 left a mark.
When the Red Sox reentered the international market in 2017, the top player they signed, catcher Daniel Flores, died of cancer just months into his pro career, a tragedy that continues to reverberate.
“We don’t throw this around lightly: He was a special player and better kid,” said assistant general manager Eddie Romero. “That was a massive loss. From a human standpoint, he’s one of the best kids we ever scouted.”
The combination of former prospects graduating to the big leagues, trades, draft misses, and resource limitations drained the Red Sox’ long-term talent base over time. The pattern was sufficiently concerning that it led to the dismissal of Dombrowski and the hiring of Bloom, whose first move was to deal Betts for the sort of young talents (Alex Verdugo, Jeter Downs, Connor Wong) who had been missing from the organization.
With that deal and subsequent ones during the season (Mitch Moreland to the Padres for outfielder Jeisson Rosario and infielder Hudson Potts; Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree to the Phillies for starters Nick Pivetta and Connor Seabold; Kevin Pillar to the Rockies for reliever Jacob Wallace), the Red Sox believe they’ve taken steps toward rebuilding their talent base.
Moreover, the advances made in 2020 by players such as infielder Bobby Dalbec, outfielder Jarren Duran, Mata, and first baseman Triston Casas have helped repair the pipeline holes.
But the depth of their young talent in the big leagues and upper levels likely still lags behind that of their AL East competitors. Even with hopes of fielding a contending big league team in 2021, the Red Sox see an ongoing need to keep building their base, a repair project that began, quite painfully, in 2020.
“I don’t think this is a process where you can ever look up and say, ‘OK, we’ve got this. We’re done,’ ” said Bloom. “I would say that over the past year we’ve made strides, but by no means are we where we would ultimately like to be.”