Alex Speier joins the Globe as a sports reporter in 2015 after 13 years covering the Red Sox for the Boston Metro, New Hampshire Union Leader, and WEEI.com.
Jon Lester may have a number of good years — perhaps even his best — in front of him. But his prime years, the ones upon which any team would feel most confident betting, are a thing of the past.
That indisputable notion is neither an indictment of the contract that Lester received from the Cubs nor a comment on what the Red Sox did or did not do wisely in their unsuccessful negotiations with him. Rather, it highlights a startling gap in the Boston roster that has loomed over the team’s decisions dating to the 2013-14 offseason, with a sizable imprint on the club’s moves over the last five months.
For years, the Red Sox featured a core of homegrown players in their primes, the years when they stood the greatest likelihood of performing at an elite level. The emergence in a short span of players like Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Clay Buchholz — whose birthdays span 12 months in 1983 and 1984 — gave the Sox for several years a bedrock of players in their mid-to-late 20s like few in the big leagues.
The group offered the foundation for perennial championship visions, an expectation of significant production around which the rest of the roster could be built.
|July 2014||Projected 2015|
|C||C - Christian Vazquez (23)||C - Christian Vazquez (24)|
|1B||1B - Mike Napoli (32)||1B - Mike Napoli (33)|
|2B||2B - Dustin Pedroia ** (30)||2B - Dustin Pedroia (31)|
|3B||3B - Xander Bogaerts (21)||3B - Pablo Sandoval ** (28)|
|SS||SS - Stephen Drew (31)||SS - Xander Bogaerts (22)|
|LF||LF - Daniel Nava (31)/Jonny Gomes (33)||LF - Hanley Ramirez (31)|
|CF||CF - Jackie Bradley Jr. (24)||CF - Rusney Castillo ** (27)|
|RF||RF - Brock Holt ** (26)/Shane Victorino (33)||RF - Mookie Betts (22)|
|DH||DH - David Ortiz (38)||DH - David Ortiz (39)|
|SP||SP - Jon Lester ** (30)||SP - Clay Buchholz ** (30)|
|SP||SP - John Lackey (35)||SP - Justin Masterson ** (30)|
|SP||SP - Clay Buchholz ** (29)||SP - Wade Miley ** (28)|
|SP||SP - Jake Peavy (33)||SP - Joe Kelly ** (27)|
|SP||SP - Rubby De La Rosa (25)||SP - Rick Porcello ** (26)|
But by the trade deadline in 2014, that core of prime-age players had yielded to the sort of 7-10 split that is something slightly better than hopeless but nonetheless suggests little cause for optimism.
On one side, the Sox looked increasingly like a team of players on the downslope of the mountain. Pedroia, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Lester, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, and of course David Ortiz were all 30 or older at the start of the year. Buchholz turned 30 during the 2014 season.
“We knew [entering 2014] that there was going to be a chunk of the roster that was into their 30s and late 30s,” said Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington. “Some of those guys performed and some of them didn’t. I guess we weren’t really surprised in the aggregate about how that group did.”
On the other side, at the base of a career Kilimanjaro and facing a long uphill climb to the intersection of potential with actual performance, were the team’s pre-prime players: Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Will Middlebrooks, and even less projectable young prospects such as Christian Vazquez, Mookie Betts, Blake Swihart, and Henry Owens, along with a gaggle of others yet to secure a big league foothold.
As the season unfolded, the team discovered that its view of how pre-prime players would perform had missed the mark.
“The offensive degree of difficulty, the difference between Triple A and the big leagues, seemed to be bigger than it used to be,” said Cherington. “That player making the jump to the big leagues or maturing in the big leagues seems to be facing an even stiffer task than they might have five or six years ago.
“Each guy is different, obviously. Even if the defense and base-running value is there at a young age and you can use that to make up for some perceived lack of offense in a young player and still build a good team, that kind of gets wiped out if the offense is just nonexistent.
“That’s probably the area that we just didn’t see clearly enough and we learned something from.”
A roster divided
The mixture of too young and too old yielded a volatile combination. Typically, a sustainable championship blueprint relies most heavily on players in the middle of their primes, the building blocks of twentysomethings like Pedroia and Ellsbury and Lester.
By the All-Star break, the Sox had just one such player — and an unestablished one at that, in 25-year-old Rubby De La Rosa — as either an everyday position player or rotation member. The team was not oblivious to the shortcoming.
“There’s no question that finding guys in that [25-30-year-old] age range is appealing,” said Cherington. “It’s a safer age range to be in if you’re investing in a player. To be clear, it’s not like we didn’t want that last year. It’s just, what were the alternatives? What were the possibilities? If we could build a team every year full of 26-30-year-olds, we would.
“But in some years, in some cycles, there are more possibilities, more players who might be in that age range who are available or obtainable for whatever reason. In some cycles, there are not. Even if there are, sometimes they’re the wrong position, sometimes they’re not interested in you or you just don’t match up for some reason.
“If you don’t have that, the bigger question — the bigger test of a front office and organization — is when you don’t have those options, having to find good production, how can you put together a winning team with players not in that age range? That’s what we tried to do going into 2014. We were unsuccessful.”
But as they crossed out one blueprint last July and started designing their 2015 roster, the Red Sox identified opportunities.
A look at the most productive offensive players and starting pitchers from 1984 to 2014 — a period that spans either side of the peak of the PED era — suggests that peak offensive value is found between the ages of 25-30, while starting pitchers most frequently make their impact between the ages of 24-29.
Revamping the team
Consider the chief roster-altering moves by the Red Sox that have reshaped the rotation and lineup since last July:
■ Traded RHP Peavy (age 33) for LHP Edwin Escobar (22) and RHP Heath Hembree (25) while creating a permanent rotation spot for De La Rosa (25).
■ Traded LHP Lester (30) and OF Jonny Gomes (33) for OF Yoenis Cespedes (28) while creating a permanent rotation spot for Brandon Workman (25).
■ Traded RHP Lackey (35) for OF Allen Craig (30) and RHP Joe Kelly (26).
■ Signed free agent OF Rusney Castillo (26).
■ Signed free agent 3B Pablo Sandoval (28).
■ Signed free agent OF Hanley Ramirez (31).
■ Traded RHP De La Rosa (25), RHP Allen Webster (24), and a minor leaguer for LHP Wade Miley (28).
■ Traded Cespedes, RHP Alex Wilson (28), and a minor leaguer for RHP Rick Porcello (26).
■ Traded 3B Middlebrooks (26) for C Ryan Hanigan (34).
■ Signed free agent RHP Justin Masterson (29).
In five months and change, the Sox took a roster that featured players who fell on either side of their prime years and populated it with two position players (Sandoval, Castillo) and four starting pitchers (Kelly, Miley, Porcello, Masterson) — almost all of whom (save for Castillo) have established big league track records — who fall into (or close to) the “golden age” category.
There are two exceptions. The most obvious is Middlebrooks for Hanigan, but the Sox were trading a player whose performance had gotten worse in his last two years and who had been rendered expendable by the addition of Sandoval.
The second is Ramirez, though it’s worth noting that (a) he’s just outside the peak years; (b) the decline among top offensive performers between the ages of 31-34 isn’t as steep as it is among starting pitchers of a similar age; and (c) he’s not just an above-average performer when healthy, but one of the more game-changing hitters in baseball, giving him more margin to retain value through his decline in production and health.
Lester, of course, possesses the same breathing room even if he declines as he enters his age 31 season. But will that be true when he’s 35 or 36?
The Sox were willing to explore that proposition in their efforts to retain him, but only to a clearly defined financial point (rather than the endpoint dictated by the market). Absent a return on the terms with which they felt comfortable, the team seemed ready to pivot and address its “Goldilocks problem,” moving beyond the too young/too old divide in pursuit of those who are in the “just right” stage of their careers.
That’s no guarantee of success, just as a too old/too young roster doesn’t necessarily doom a team (see: Tigers, Detroit).
“That age range appeals to us,” said Cherington, “but if we’re a good enough organization, we need to be able to find guys who can still perform and play outside of it.”
The Red Sox weren’t good enough to do that in 2014. Rather than subject themselves to the same cruel test in 2015, they embraced a drastic demographic shift for the coming year.
The results of that change remain unpredictable, but at the least, the Sox are following the odds rather than renewing what proved to be a futile attempt to defy them last season.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.