Success invariably spawns conversation about blueprints, which invariably spawns conversation about imitation. Right now, the Royals represent a franchise worthy of emulation.
Even with the Red Sox having beaten the Royals in two of three games over the weekend, Kansas City – one year removed from coming within a Bumgarner of winning the World Series – now possesses the best record in the American League. Despite the limitations of playing in a small market, it appears the Royals have arrived at a roster design capable of sustaining contention for multiple years, based largely on a lengthy building process that has now yielded a number of homegrown talents.
The Royals have asserted themselves as the class of the American League at a time when the Red Sox have been, over a two-year span, the worst team in the American League, owning a .438 winning percentage since the start of the 2014 campaign.
Yet as much as the overall performance of the Red Sox has fallen below expectations, the struggles have been largely with the veterans in their lineup and rotation.
But the Sox have a trio of young players who may be coming into their own, offering the possibility of long-term success rather than the year-to-year roster remakes and performance swings. In 22-year-olds Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Eduardo Rodriguez, the Red Sox are witnessing the laying of a rarely seen foundation that suggests future promise.
Betts is eight games into a remarkable run that offers a reminder of what he showed last year and in spring training. He’s 19-for-32 with a .594 average, .606 OBP, 1.094 slugging percentage, 1.700 OPS, three homers, eight extra-base hits, and, for good measure, a steal in his last eight games.
What had been a year of mediocre numbers now looks very different, with the 22-year-old posting a .277 average, .329 OBP, and .453 slugging mark for in 2015. With defense that has graded as above-average and the ability to impact the game on the bases (11-for-13 in stolen base attempts), Betts currently leads the Red Sox with 2.8 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
While Betts’ season has been a bit of a roller coaster, Bogaerts has settled into a fairly steady performance this year. In the last 20 games, he’s hitting .350 with a .366 OBP and .475 slugging mark, bringing his season totals to .292/.329/.404. Meanwhile, he’s experiencing something of a defensive breakthrough, grading as an above-average defender. He’s been worth 2.0 WAR.
There’s more than half a season to go, so it remains to be seen where Bogaerts and Betts end up. After all, a year ago, Bogaerts looked like he was ready to start playing like a star through two months, only to see his season crumble through late August.
Still, if the performance of those two 22-year-olds is not a mirage, then the Sox have a rare tandem of young performers. To put what Bogaerts and Betts are doing in some context: Even if they experience a leveling or decline from their current levels, if both finish the year with a WAR of 3.0 or better, they’d become just the 16th positional teammates since 1901 to do so in their age 22 season or younger. No team has had such a pairing since 1991.
|1928||New York Giants||3||Shanty Hogan / Freddie Lindstrom / Mel Ott||1||1|
|1991||Detroit Tigers||2||Milt Cuyler / Travis Fryman||0||0|
|1982||Minnesota Twins||2||Tom Brunansky / Kent Hrbek||1||1|
|1977||Montreal Expos||2||Andre Dawson / Ellis Valentine||1||0|
|1970||Cincinnati Reds||2||Johnny Bench / Bernie Carbo||4||1|
|1968||Oakland Athletics||2||Reggie Jackson / Rick Monday||3||2|
|1967||Boston Red Sox||2||Tony Conigliaro / Reggie Smith||1||0|
|1966||Houston Astros||2||Joe Morgan / Rusty Staub||0||0|
|1963||Milwaukee Braves||2||Denis Menke / Joe Torre||0||0|
|1959||San Francisco Giants||2||Orlando Cepeda / Willie McCovey||1||0|
|1954||New York Yankees||2||Andy Carey / Mickey Mantle||4||2|
|1940||Boston Red Sox||2||Bobby Doerr / Ted Williams||0||0|
|1910||Boston Red Sox||2||Duffy Lewis / Tris Speaker||2||2|
|1910||New York Giants||2||Fred Merkle / Fred Snodgrass||3||0|
|1909||Detroit Tigers||2||Donie Bush / Ty Cobb||1||0|
It’s no guarantee of success to have two players who are achieving that kind of success at the early age of a Bogaerts and Betts, but it’s a fairly favorable formula. In the six-year window starting with the two players performing at a 3-WAR level (running through the start of what is conventionally considered players’ primes):
■ 11 of the 15 teams reached the playoffs at least once;
■ 5 of the 15 reached the playoffs multiple times in the six-year window;
■ 6 of the 15 won the World Series at least once in those six years;
■ 3 of the 15 won the World Series at least twice in those years.
Again, there’s nothing about having young players performing at a high level that guarantees October runs. After all, the 1991 Tigers were the last team to enjoy a pair of young position players performing along the lines of what the Sox have seen from Bogaerts and Betts.
But while Detroit enjoyed a couple of seasons of contention with Travis Fryman and Milt Cuyler, they never reached the playoffs, in part because Cuyler’s rookie year proved a fluke. With that in mind, while the Sox can recognize the promise of both the performances they’re seeing from Bogaerts and Betts and the aptitude that both have demonstrated, they show some caution about getting carried away.
“They’re in the process of [figuring out how to make adjustments] and they’re doing great,” said Dustin Pedroia, who spent almost all of his age 22 season in Pawtucket before a season-ending callup in 2006. “We’re finding out right now [how advanced they are]. It’s the middle of the season. Let it play out, chief. No expectations. Let them play. They’re not the next this, they’re not the next that. Let’s see what they are.”
The sense of restraint is understandable. Nonetheless, if Betts and Bogaerts are setting the baselines of sustainably strong performances – at a time when Rodriguez has achieved historical markers of dominance in his first handful of big league starts – then the Sox may be getting a look at their next core around whom to build, the successors to the Pedroia-Jacoby Ellsbury-Jon Lester group that started making its mark in the big leagues in 2006 and 2007.
And, in their own way, there’s at least a chance that the Sox may be a bit ahead of the curve drawn by the Royals, who endured years of losing with their current core before their breakthrough in 2014. After all, Kansas City has had just one position player since 2000 – catcher Salvador Perez in 2012 – who has had a season of 3.0 WAR or greater prior to his age 23 season.
That does little to alter the immediate reality faced by the last-place Red Sox, or the sense of a roster puzzle that hasn’t aligned. Nonetheless, there are at least a couple of very large pieces that offer the possibility of a more complete – and impressive – picture in the future.