Integrating youth, Red Sox believe in their system
Club understands importance of steady growth, assimilation of prospects
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Success -- wild, enthralling, beard-bearing and city-strengthening success -- didn't alter the course of caution and strict sensibility by which the Boston Red Sox now operate.
If anything, it only strengthened the organizational stance that this is not just a baseball team but a baseball business, one that must be sustained and supported by consistent assimilation of young, cost-controlled talent into the lineup, lest the bid for blockbuster acquisitions set them down the same regrettable path that led to 2012 and all it entailed.
And so you stroll through Spring Training camp and see projected starting shortstop Xander Bogaerts, all of 21, doing his running drills alongside the likes of Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz. You see a couple dozen reporters and cameramen crowded around the locker of Jackie Bradley Jr., the presumed starting center fielder who is so young that he actually made reference to "growing up watching" Grady Sizemore, making even those of us in our early 30s feel suddenly ancient.
You see these things because the Red Sox believe in their system as much as their stars.
It's why they opted, unlike a certain behemoth from the Bronx, not to chase established talent in an inefficient free-agent market but rather to trust the cream of a well-regarded Minor League crop.
"We recognize that our goal is to be as good as we possibly can be in 2014 but also 2015 and 2016 and beyond," general manager Ben Cherington said. "To do what we want to do, year in and year out, there has to be integration of young players. We're not going to force that unless we're reasonably confident those guys can contribute right away."
At this point, it's hard to say how much the Red Sox will rely on those contributions.
Not that they can afford any outright holes in the lineup, of course. But in the grand view, Ortiz's continued winning battle over Father Time, Mike Napoli's avoidance of any hip hurdles, the continued success of Pedroia and Shane Victorino, the potent platoon of Daniel Nava /Jonny Gomes, etc ... these will be the primary determining factors in Boston's ability to build upon a 2013 season in which it was the only Major League team to score more than 800 runs.
We caught a wonderful glimpse of how Bogaerts can impact even an experienced, World Series-caliber lineup last October, and the Red Sox are encouraged not just by Bradley's skillset but the way he maturely handled his first bout with baseball failure after his early-season demotion to Triple-A Pawtucket last year.
Still, the Red Sox know patience is a virtue with young players. They might still wind up re-signing Stephen Drew, who would seemingly buy them ability to ease the pressure on Bogaerts and 25-year-old third baseman Will Middlebrooks, whose power to all fields is a rare weapon but whose consistency has not been a strength. And the early returns on the meager investment in Sizemore, whose appearance in Thursday's exhibition will be his first game action since 2011, are encouraging.
For now, though, with Drew still dangling on the open market and Sizemore's ability to handle the rigors of game abuse after microfracture surgery on both knees an open question, the Red Sox figure to have a regular lineup in which the third baseman, shortstop and center fielder currently have a combined 817 big league plate appearances among them (most of those, of course, from Middlebrooks).
There could be times, therefore, when the player development backgrounds -- and the patience that line of work entails -- of manager John Farrell, bench coach Torey Lovullo and hitting coach Greg Colbrunn will be of pivotal import.
"It might temper the here and now," Farrell said. "Because let's face it, at field level, you're concerned with how you're going to win today. But having that experience, maybe there's more of a readiness to take a step back and see there's more of a broader picture you have to take with individual guys. Hopefully that lends itself to patience, and hopefully your patience is rewarded."
The Red Sox hope to reap the rewards that an injection of youth provides in a game that staunchly polices what players put into their bodies and asks so much of its athletes in the brutal grind of a 162-game schedule.
It certainly doesn't hurt that Bogaerts and Bradley are so highly regarded in the scouting community -- Bogaerts for his calm, power, bat speed and topspin, Bradley for his speed, defense, quick hands and instincts. In a market in which the Red Sox could have chased their own homegrown superstar in Jacoby Ellsbury or stretched to meet the demands of Drew after he turned down their qualifying offer or went all-in on a Shin-Soo Choo or Carlos Beltran or whatever else the market had to bear, the Red Sox instead heaped a great deal of faith upon their farmhands.
"When you're given a chance," Bogaerts said, "you've got to grab onto it."
Bogaerts is young, but he stood out among standouts at last summer's Futures Game, made an instant impact in the American League Championship Series when Drew scuffled and already carries himself with the self-assured stature of a superstar here in camp.
Bradley, meanwhile, has an affable-yet-absolute air of confidence to him, talking about last year's struggles at the Major League level (he hit .189 with a .280 on-base percentage in 107 plate appearances) not with a sense of betrayal but with a sense of respect for what that experience taught him.
"You are going to struggle," he said. "That's good. That way I'll be able to overcome it. Going through those battles and fights is only going to make me better."
Everybody -- the Red Sox included -- knew Boston was rushing Bradley on the heels of his sensational spring last year. The key is that when Grapefruit League stardom gave way to April reality, he did not use the stumble as reason to sulk. He hit .275 with a .374 OBP in Pawtucket.
"A lot of players go back and struggle for a while, because it's kind of a jolt to the system," Cherington said. "He went down, made those adjustments and still performed, knowing he was not a finished player."
Even Middlebrooks, who had early success at this level before his 2013 went astray, has embraced his unfinished state. He's been the classic early arriver here in camp, eyeing redemption with due diligence in the cage, as the outside world speculates about his security.
"He knows nobody has seen the best version of Will Middlebrooks yet," Cherington. "There's a level he hasn't gotten to yet."
The Red Sox got to their prescribed level last season with an oft-cited formula of not doling out contracts of outrageous length and only targeting players who properly fit their expected clubhouse culture. That's the free-agent end of the business model. The other equally important end is to keep the fire burning down below and to show faith in youngsters who prove themselves worthy of it.
"There are going to be situations where we extend or sign a player to a bigger contract because we think it fits what we're trying to do," Cherington said. "But we know that providing opportunity for emerging players is also important to our short- and our long-term goals. So we just have to do the best of both in the way that makes the most sense for Boston."