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Alex Speier

What did Red Sox learn from prospect struggles in 2014?

Will Middlebrooks was traded to San Diego in the offseason, while Xander Bogaerts projects as the Red Sox’ every day shortstop in 2015.
Will Middlebrooks was traded to San Diego in the offseason, while Xander Bogaerts projects as the Red Sox’ every day shortstop in 2015.AP

First of four parts examining the struggles of Red Sox prospects in the big leagues in 2014 and their implications going forward.

Did the 2014 season break the Red Sox’ scouting and player development machine?

The winters following the 2013 and 2014 campaigns could not feel more disparate. In 2013, the Red Sox largely steered clear of the free agent and trade markets, content to let prominent free agents walk and replace them with talented homegrown players. This winter, the team loaded up on veterans at considerable expense.

It would be a mistake to pin the spectacular failure of 2014 entirely on the commitment to young players at key positions. Still, the struggles of Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Will Middlebrooks proved sufficiently glaring that this winter seemed like a repudiation of the homegrown strategy, particularly given the pronouncements of the individuals atop the team masthead.

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Consider the assessment of Larry Lucchino. Near the end of a 2012 season in which baseball witnessed the emergence of landmark talents such as Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, the Red Sox CEO/president, in an interview on WEEI, suggested the organization had followed too deliberate a course in the advancement of its prospects.

“We have taken a very conservative approach historically to the advancement of players in our minor league system. I think that’s just an undeniable fact,” Lucchino said near the conclusion of a last-place 2012 campaign. “I hope that as we focus more on scouting and player development in the next few years in particular, that will change – that there will be a presumption for slightly more rapid growth.”

Two years later, after another last-place finish that bookended a title, Lucchino’s view of the movement of prospects through the system seemed very different.

“We have younger players, who were perhaps not quite ready this year, at least that’s what the performance would indicate. But they are still immensely talented, young players,” Lucchino said, also on WEEI, at the end of 2014. “What we won’t do is make the same mistake we made this year, which is assume that so many of our young players were ready for prime time. We made the mistake, I guess we miscalculated, the preparation level.”

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Lucchino wasn’t alone in that view. At the top of the Red Sox food chain, the notion of an overreliance on young players in 2014 reverberated.

“You can’t win, you can’t put together a winning ballclub just through the minor league system,” Red Sox principal owner John Henry, who also owns the Globe, said in November in explaining the Sox’ plunge into the deep end of free-agent waters this winter. “To me that would be really risky.”

“I think we put too much emphasis on our rookies stepping in and performing up to major league baseball levels,” said team chairman Tom Werner.

How did that happen? How did an organization that displayed a seemingly precise sense of when to call up young players such as Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, and Jacoby Ellsbury (among others) endure such costly false notes last year? Why did players like Middlebrooks, Bradley, and Bogaerts get swallowed by a shockingly large chasm that seemed to divide Triple-A from the big leagues?

To understand where the Red Sox might go in terms of their prospect commitment, it’s worth revisiting some of the decisions that brought about last year’s struggles, to try to understand the context for and dimensions of those struggles in 2014, and to take stock of some of some of the ways the team might alter its approach to incorporating young players into the big league roster going forward.

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Anatomy of a youth movement

In the afterglow of their World Series parade at the end of 2013, the Red Sox recognized the combination of perceived necessity and opportunity. The veteran-laden title run represented a study in serendipity, a team receiving solid to spectacular returns on nearly all of the seven free agents it signed in a single winter.

Still, despite the unqualified success of that run, the team remained resolute that the championship would serve as a prelude to greater reliance on its top young players. Indeed, in some ways, the team felt emboldened in its commitment to youth as the foundation of sustainable success.

The World Series halo, the team believed, created multiple benefits for adding young players. First, it suggested a deep and talented roster that could absorb some of the inevitable growing pains that young players would endure. Secondly, there was an expectation that the scrutiny might be somewhat less harsh given the residue of good feelings from that title run.

Jackie Bradley was an exceptional fielder in 2014, but his performance at the plate was not great.
Jackie Bradley was an exceptional fielder in 2014, but his performance at the plate was not great.AP/Associated Press

The Sox felt that in Bogaerts, Middlebrooks, and Bradley, they had three players with a chance to be key contributors on a winning 2014 team. Those three also were ahead of the team’s stable of pitching prospects such as Henry Owens and Matt Barnes in terms of big league readiness. The team hoped to cultivate a young stable of lineup members before committing to young pitchers down the road.

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“We felt like as we looked toward 2014, 2015, and beyond, trying to build a team that could sustain a level of success, we felt at some point, we were going to have to integrate some young position players, and then at some point we were going to have to integrate some young pitching,” GM Ben Cherington explained. “We really didn’t want to do both at once if we could avoid it.”

Bogaerts had been one of the team’s best hitters – arguably better than anyone not named David Ortiz – in the ALCS and World Series. He represented a potential star. The team’s commitment to him in 2014 was absolute.

Middlebrooks had shown immense big league potential in 2012, then displayed it anew in flashes late in an otherwise difficult 2013 season. The Sox thought he was approaching a point where he had enough big league experience to establish himself, even if some of his struggles in 2013 suggested a need for caution.

Bradley hadn’t enjoyed big league success, but his amateur and minor league track record (which included a solid offensive performance in Triple-A in 2013) suggested someone whose bat was close to big league ready and whose glove was elite.

The Sox didn’t imagine all three would succeed immediately. Realistically, the team thought one player might thrive, one might successfully tread water and another might fall short of expectations.

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Anatomy of a failed youth movement

Given the possibility for failure of one of those prospects, and the reality that prospect development is hard to predict, the team recognized a need to have built-in depth behind players without track records. In a way, the failure to add that very trait may have represented the most glaring offseason mistake of 2013-14.

The only real depth move the team made was to bring on Grady Sizemore – who hadn’t played a baseball game in two full years – to compete with Bradley in center. But given Sizemore’s missed time, that move merely added another layer of uncertainty on top of the uncertainty about Bradley’s performance.

Meanwhile, the team was somewhat unprotected on the left side of the infield should Bogaerts or Middlebrooks slump. (Ultimately, the addition of Stephen Drew was meant to address that need, but like Sizemore, his months off rendered him an uncertainty.)

Two pillars of the team’s success in 2013 – veterans with well-established track records and depth at every position – were abandoned for 2014. Consequently, Bogaerts, Middlebrooks, and Bradley ended up shouldering a degree of responsibility for the team’s struggles that young players rarely must withstand, even though a number of the team’s veterans were likewise underperforming their track records.

Bradley, it’s worth recalling, wasn’t supposed to start the year in the big leagues. Sizemore won the center field job in spring training and the Sox optioned Bradley to the minors. However, with Shane Victorino getting injured on the final day of spring training, an opening emerged, and Bradley took advantage of it, hitting well enough in April (.244 with a .344 OBP, a .372 slugging mark and numerous timely hits) and playing brilliant defense to the point of winning a role as the everyday center fielder.

Though pitchers dominated him in May and June, the Sox wanted to give him time to adjust. He showed enough in a three-week span bracketing the All-Star break to earn more playing time, particularly given that the team’s fall from contention meant a need to evaluate players for opportunities in 2015 and beyond. It wasn’t until August that Bradley’s struggles became so severe that he was demoted to the minors, at a time when he was becoming an afterthought for the team’s roster planning for the start of 2015.

Middlebrooks never found his stride in 2014. He endured injuries, and when healthy, he looked overmatched by big league pitching arsenals, chasing one slider off the plate after another. He was dealt for backup catcher Ryan Hanigan this winter.

Bogaerts’ struggles remain something of a puzzle. He was emerging as one of the top offensive shortstops in the game through early June. But at approximately the time the Sox re-signed Drew, Bogaerts endured a horrific two and a half month slump that exceeded anything the team could have imagined.

The team wrestled with the question of whether to send him down to the minors. But the lack of viable shortstop alternatives (aside from Brock Holt, who ended up playing everywhere) and a belief that the shortstop would not wilt in the face of adversity resulted in the decision to keep him up, a decision that was ultimately – albeit belatedly – rewarded with a strong final five weeks of the season to finish with respectable numbers (a .240 average, .297 OBP, and .362 slugging mark along with 12 homers in 144 games).

But while the cumulative view of Bogaerts’ year was one of successfully treading water as a potential prelude to swimming, Middlebrooks (.191/.256/.265) and Bradley (.198/.265/.266) became the first Red Sox teammates since 1907 to have a batting average of worse than .200 with OBPs and slugging marks below .300 (minimum 200 plate appearances). Neither is a part of the team’s plans for Opening Day in 2015, Middlebrooks is no longer with the organization, and team owners pointed prominently to the struggles of youth as a key part of the team’s 2014 failure before committing about a quarter of a billion dollars to Rusney Castillo, Hanley Ramirez, and Pablo Sandoval.

That said, the Sox aren’t abandoning the commitment to young players. Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Christian Vazquez are all expected to be key members of the team in 2015.

But there may be a greater sense of prevailing caution about realistic expectations for those players, with a sense that the commitment to youth must manifest itself in different ways going forward.

“We have to take something from it, ask ourselves questions and learn something from it, whether it’s in a question about how much time is being spent in the minor-leagues or at a certain level or is there something in the transition that we can do better or differently or a combination of things,” said Cherington. “We haven’t come up with a silver bullet to say we’re going to do this next year, and then this will fix the problem. We still believe in our young players, but we have to learn something from what’s happened.”

Coming Wednesday: How big is the gap between Triple-A and the big leagues?


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.