As John Farrell surveyed the head table, he couldn’t help but notice: The demographics of the Red Sox have changed.
At the recent Boston Baseball Writers Awards Dinner, the longest-tenured members of the Red Sox weren’t present – no David Ortiz, no Dustin Pedroia. Yet there was still immense promise – 23-year-olds Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts, 22-year-old Eduardo Rodriguez, and 20-year-old Yoan Moncada were joined by “elder statesmen” like 25-year-old Jackie Bradley Jr. and 27-year-old Brock Holt.
“You look back on 2015, our young players are the ones that carried this team, to the extent that they did and we’re going to continue to build around them,” said Farrell. “[Bogaerts and Betts are] two of the more exciting players not just on our roster but also in the game. … We’re talking about two young healthy middle-of-the-diamond players that are top of the order hitters – that’s a pretty unique set of talents.”
Hyperbole? Perhaps not, at least as Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein sees it.
“I think their young position players are really underrated,” Epstein – whose Cubs are likewise brimming with young talent – said last week. “There are some elite-level performers there that can go out and carry the team.”
Betts (6.0 Wins Above Replacement in 2015) and Bogaerts (4.6 WAR) represent a foundation rarely seen in baseball. According to baseball-reference.com, the 2015 Red Sox were just the 16th in history to feature two or more players with a season of 3.0 WAR or better at age 22 or younger, and one of just three (along with the 1970 Reds and the 1909 Tigers) to feature multiple players with a 4.0 WAR or better in that age demographic.
What’s more, Bogaerts and Betts became the first middle-of-the-field teammates (catcher, shortstop, second base, or center field) to produce a WAR of 3.0 or better at such a young age.
In short, players like Bogaerts and Betts – along with catcher Blake Swihart, whose modest 0.4 WAR at age 23 failed to capture his second-half progress, in which he hit .303/.353/.452 – give the Red Sox a foundation upon which they hope to build.
“They’ve already started to establish themselves at the big league level, and in some cases established themselves,” said Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. “If you can have those players grow up together, and be together as your core for a long time, I think it’s very unusual and it’s a positive. In addition to that, there are some other players we’re not even talking about that are still younger, and then you’ve got some real good young talent in the minor league system. So if you do things well and things turn out, you have a chance to build a foundation for a long time.”
As much as the Red Sox offseason focused on the addition of veteran talent – particularly pitching anchors David Price and Craig Kimbrel – the team is likely to go in whatever direction the young talent leads it.
That reality makes it worth asking: Is it fair to assume that better days are ahead for the team’s young players? While there’s plenty of uncertainty surrounding players like Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval and Bradley and Rusney Castillo, are Bogaerts and Betts safe bets to steady the lineup given what they already demonstrated at such an early age?
General manager Mike Hazen, while praising his young players, offered a measure of caution.
“Look, there’s nothing that says these guys are going to continue on a linear path upward,” said Hazen. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Indeed, history suggests that even for elite young players, the arrow doesn’t always point up. Bogaerts and Betts became the 74th and 75th middle-of-the-field players ever to post a WAR of 3.0 or better in their age 22 season.
Of the previous 73 (a group that included 26 Hall of Famers), decline at age 23 proved a common occurrence.
While 27 of the 73 players (37 percent) maintained their level or improved, 46 (63 percent) suffered some decline at age 23, with half of those players enduring declines of 2.1 wins or more. On average, the group of players who were worth three or more wins at age 22 saw their value drop by 20 percent (and 1.0 wins) at age 23.
|Improved by 2.0 WAR or more||4 (5.5%)|
|Improved by 1.0 to 1.9 WAR||12 (16.4%)|
|Improved by 0.0 to 0.9 WAR||11 (15.1%)|
|Declined 0.1 to 1.0 WAR||11 (15.1%)|
|Declined 1.1 to 2.0||12 (16.4%)|
|Declined by 2.1 WAR or more||23 (31.5%)|
|Average WAR change at age 23||-1.0|
|Hall of Famers||26 (35.6%)|
|Improved at age 23||13 (50%)|
|Declined at age 23||13 (50%)|
The reasons are numerous: Injuries, a normal dropoff in production, and position changes away from the middle of the field (as with Betts moving from center to right) can all diminish player value.
Regardless of the cause, the idea that players might be less valuable at age 23 than they were in standout age 22 seasons can’t be ignored. After all, 10 of the 26 future Hall of Famers on the list – players like Joe DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, and Tris Speaker) endured a decline in value at age 23 of a full win or more.
Yet even with a 20 percent decline in value, both Betts and Bogaerts would remain standout players. Last year, there were five shortstops besides Bogaerts to post a WAR of 3.5 or better in the majors. If Betts’ value falls 20 percent to a 4.8 WAR in 2016, that would still put him in the company of the top 33 position players in the majors last year, just below the likes of Andrew McCutchen.
In short, Bogaerts and Betts represent building blocks precisely because they stand a strong likelihood of being elite players even if they are not as valuable as they were a year ago.
If they improve, then the Red Sox will be positioned to withstand some of the uncertainty surrounding other members of their roster.
Of course, as the Red Sox are painfully aware, talented young building blocks alone aren’t necessarily sufficient to propel the team back into contention. After all, the breakout seasons by Bogaerts and Betts came in a season where Boston still finished in last place.
However, as the team eyes a reversal, there’s little question that its most compelling asset was found less in the players whom the Red Sox acquired over the winter than in the players who remain.
“Having those good young players is certainly more of a recipe of what you’re supposed to be looking for at the major-league level. I think it’s good we have that now,” said Hazen. “I think the game is going to continue to go in that direction so I think hopefully a little bit of jump that our guys are at the major league level, where other teams might be a little farther down the pipelines. It’s good to have good, young players. Those good young players have to come up here and figure out how to win and that’s our next step.”
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.