Third of a four-part series on the struggles of major league prospects.
For every Jose Abreu, the 27-year-old Cuban defector who mashed his way to AL Rookie of the Year honors in 2014 without ever spending a day in the minors, there are far more stories of either failure or slow progress when baseball prospects get called up to the major leagues.
For most teams, prospects remain the foundation of roster-building. Yet the environment in which prospects are arriving in the big leagues is more daunting than it's been for years.
Is there a way to erase the transition between Triple A and the big leagues?
"We'll never get around that," said Tampa Bay hitting coach Derek Shelton. "They haven't gotten around that for 150 years. If you figure out that formula, call us. We'll hire you. There's no way to figure that out. It's a human game."
The Red Sox endured a painful reminder of that sentiment in 2014 while watching Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Will Middlebrooks endure struggles of varying degrees that became uncomfortably pronounced.
"You're not going to define [what kind of big leaguer a player is] in the first year and you're probably not going to define it in the second year," Shelton said. "You have to give it at least two years, maybe into the third year."
Yet teams don't always have the luxury of time. Particularly in places like Boston, where the Red Sox face a perennial expectation of contention, it can be difficult to live through the multi-year view of player development at the major league level.
"Our job is to figure out a way to lop off a year of that, to lop off four months of that, and to increase the learning rate, the information absorption rate, and the ability to make adjustments," said Sox assistant general manager Mike Hazen.
It's one thing to say that, quite another to do it. Officials and coaches from the Red Sox and other teams freely acknowledge that there are limits to what can be accomplished through the programs implemented by the club.
Still, while watching the 2014 season unravel, the Sox confronted the question repeatedly about whether there was anything they could do to better prepare their young players for the big leagues.
More time in Triple A?
Ultimately, Xander Bogaerts (60 games in Triple-A), Jackie Bradley Jr. (80 Triple-A games prior to 2014), and Will Middlebrooks (85 Triple-A games over parts of three years from 2011-13) performed in 2014 (or at least for significant stretches of 2014) like players whose offensive games would have benefited from more time in Pawtucket. Their struggles – and difficulty escaping black-hole slumps – raised the question of whether the Sox proved too aggressive in promoting and committing to their young players, particularly given some of the success stories the Sox have seen after remaining patient.
Dustin Pedroia remained in Triple-A for 162 games over more than a full calendar year before reaching the big leagues. Brock Holt, one of the team's biggest surprises in 2014, had 134 games of Triple-A experience from 2012-14 (with some major league stints interspersed) before he emerged as an everyday, do-everything player in the big leagues for the Sox.
"If you're at a given level [for a full year], there's clarity to different points in the season of when things went well, when they fell off, what did they do to get out of that. The constant is, you're at one level, one place," said Sox manager John Farrell, formerly the director of player development with the Indians.
It's interesting to note that of the top six offensive performances by rookies in the last three years, three came from players who skipped Triple A entirely (Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig). The other three were by players who spent two dozen or fewer games at the highest rung of the minor league ladder (Trout, Danny Santana, Bryce Harper).
The Sox might be more cautious about bringing up a player who blitzes through the minors without hitting prolonged adversity. But given that half of the top 16 rookie offensive performances in the last three years have come from players with 24 or fewer Triple A games, the Sox will remain flexible on the subject of seasoning.
"It's something we talk about. I don't know there's a policy that applies to everyone," said general manager Ben Cherington. "Whatever led to the results [in 2014], we can learn something from but we can't allow it to push us too far in another direction where we're not believing what we see in front of us and we're not willing to give opportunities to someone who deserves it and someone we think can thrive."
Making some round trips on I-95
There are times when a player performs well enough in the big leagues that it seems unjust to send him back to Triple A. But there can be benefit to the process of yo-yoing on multiple occasions between Boston and Pawtucket, whether processing success or adversity.
Mike Trout showed notable improvement from one call-up to the next following the two times he was sent down. Betts performed better in each of his three big league stints in 2014. Kevin Youkilis used an unwanted 2005 stretch in Pawtucket to learn how to progress from the Greek God of Walks into a future middle-of-the-order slugger.
Save for Pedroia, virtually every Red Sox position prospect from 2004 to 2013 was sent back down to Triple A at least once after their big league debuts. Though the Sox believe there's significant value to learning from adversity in the big leagues, players can also benefit from demotions that permit them to recalibrate.
"Part of the transition to me is not absent an up-and-down, and maybe a couple of times. A player is going to come up and get exposed, learn some things firsthand, go back down, and apply some of that," said Farrell. "It's kind of like shifting gears a little bit. Each time you go, you're shifting a gear. To say you go from first gear to overdrive, that's a rarity."
The Sox worry about overloading their rookies with information in their earliest exposure to the big leagues. For that reason, the staff and front office collaborated last year on what bench coach Torey Lovullo called "a little program … we can hand to the players who are getting called up to just help them transition in to just be a good major league teammate."
The cheat sheet includes things like team rules, how to read a scouting report, and work expectations. The goal is to give rookies the information they'll need to be able to speak the same workplace language as veteran players and coaches.
"What these young players find out is they're not invisible. Young players come up here and everyone is watching what they're doing with a very keen eye," said Lovullo. "What major league players try to do with young players is choose topics or choose conversations to help bring them along. We're trying to promote those conversations daily with managers and coaches and players."
Determined efforts, uncertain outcomes
The Sox engaged in organizational soul-searching in the face of the struggles of their young players last year.
"We reevaluate our scouting and development processes every year based on updated information. I don't think based on a few performances or recent activity you look to markedly change your direction. I think you end up chasing your tail in that case. You end up removing any constants you have in what you do really well. You end up with a bunch of variables and hope. And hope doesn't work," Hazen said.
This is the challenge of an organization committed to player development. There are beliefs and assumptions about what works. But there is no simple way to look at the struggles of 2014 and to suggest that there's a clear-cut player development strategy that would overcome the massive challenges faced by some of the Sox' young players last season.
"If anyone thinks they know it all about player development," sighed Farrell, "they're wrong. There's no template. There's a framework but not an exact template."