Fourth of a four-part series on the struggles of major league prospects.
As they watched the profound growing pains of several young players struggling to find a toehold against big league pitching in 2014, general manager Ben Cherington and other members of the Red Sox front office had a consistent message. Those struggles, they suggested, reflected as much, and perhaps more, on the construction of the roster than on the players themselves.
After the season, Cherington called it “a disappointment across the board. I personally wouldn’t put it on any one corner, other than starting with myself. But I don’t believe 2014 was a referendum on young players. It was a lesson learned and we can take things from it.
“We just underperformed across the board. And now we’re trying to build a winning team and one that can hopefully sustain a level over time, and young players are going to be a part of that.”
If they weren’t already aware of it, the Red Sox are now painfully familiar with the impact of relying on players who are graduating to the big leagues. No matter how impressive the prospect, it’s virtually impossible to expect that he can deliver production immediately.
The Red Sox vowed to examine their player development strategies to see if they could find a way to smooth some of the drastic transitions from Triple A to the majors. But, ultimately, they also recognized that there’s no alchemy to turn a top prospect into an instantly productive big leaguer.
The value of undertakings such as the rookie development program and the merits of spending more time in Pawtucket are the stuff of guesswork. There’s no way to know the impact of those strategies.
There are, however, elements that the front office can control: the number of not-yet-established players upon whom it relies, and the players with whom it surrounds those young players.
Part of the challenge for the Sox as they examined the struggles of Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Will Middlebrooks was to determine the degree to which those three were sinking because they were trying to establish themselves as a group rather than individually. The issue became even more pronounced with the transition to other unproven players such as Brock Holt, Christian Vazquez, and Mookie Betts.
The youth movement reached such unexpected dimensions that in some corners of the club, the team was jokingly referred to as the “Boston PawSox.” No team in the American League used more rookie position players than the Red Sox (12). No team in the AL had more games played by rookie position players (552). No team entrusted more plate appearances to rookies — in fact, no team came within 300 of the Red Sox.
The young players couldn’t be hidden; there’s only one 9-hole in the lineup.
Bogaerts, Bradley, and Middlebrooks endured the sort of sustained, months-long slumps that had never plagued the likes of Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury. But then, Pedroia and Ellsbury made their debuts under very different circumstances.
A prevalence of youth on the team, said assistant GM Mike Hazen, “was something that didn’t exist when we were transitioning [Pedroia and Ellsbury]. In a lot of cases, it was one or two at a time.
“We still saw some hiccups around there. [Clay Buchholz] is a good example, but he had that with an entirely veteran team around him. Maybe that’s something we need to put a little more weight on going forward.
“You’re always going to have young players, but is there a tipping point in volume? Maybe not. Maybe this was just an outlier from an offensive standpoint.”
Certainly, the Red Sox want to avoid repeating the missteps of the 2014 roster construction. They had little depth to open the season, no one like an Alex Cora who complemented Pedroia in 2007 in a partial platoon that allowed the eventual Rookie of the Year to catch his breath.
They were thin in center field once they installed Bradley there, and their depth acquisition (Grady Sizemore) no longer looked defensively adequate for the position (and struggled offensively after two years away from the game). There was no fallback to take the heat off of Bogaerts save for Holt, who was used to cover what seemed like several simultaneous holes in the lineup.
The Sox had banked on the possibility of making an in-season move to compensate for the struggles of one of their young everyday players. But the midyear signing of Stephen Drew proved an inadequate remedy after the shortstop had spent so much time away. He accelerated rather than slowed the crumbling foundation around the young players.
Red Sox officials feel that they threw too many young players into the fire at once while failing to offer adequate depth behind them. The result was an unexpected offensive meltdown.
Mindful of the elements that played into that, the Red Sox charted a different offseason course this winter. With the additions of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez in the middle of the order, they attempted to bolster the lineup to permit greater latitude for young players to struggle, to create an environment in which a slump such as the one Pedroia endured in April 2007 could take place without compromising the team’s performance.
Meanwhile, with the much-discussed outfield crowd, the Sox have amassed the sort of depth that was devastatingly short in supply last year. With players such as Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, Allen Craig, and even Bradley on the roster, the Sox have the sort of options with untested players like Betts and Rusney Castillo that didn’t exist last year.
There are fallback possibilities should Betts or Castillo struggle. There are fallback options should Betts and Castillo struggle. There are reasons to think that Betts and Castillo are positioned for success, but — in a departure from the way the team was put together in 2014 — there is no assumption by the Sox that they will avoid the same trap door that claimed Bogaerts.
Such a depth strategy is prudent given the team’s anticipated reliance on youth. Bogaerts, Vazquez, Castillo, and Betts all remain relatively unproven at the big league level. But there is a very real chance that all four will be in the Opening Day lineup. Despite the struggles of 2014, it’s apparent that the Sox are not backing away from entrusting significant responsibilities to their young players — in 2015 and beyond.
“We want to win. We want to win quickly,” said Cherington. “We know in order to win consistently year after year after year, young players are going to have to be part of that, and we just have to figure out a better way to build teams that allow for young players to integrate.”
Whether or not they’ve done so will soon become apparent.
Minding the gap: A four-part series on baseball prospects
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.