By now, fans of the Boston Red Sox are done being upset every time the Olde Town Team loses a game. That phase passed long ago, and it has since been replaced with a phase that calls for Sox fans to say things like "Oy..." and "Yeesh..." every time the Sox drop another game.
And just when they think it can't get any worse, somebody comes along and points out that the Red Sox have lost 90-plus games for the first time since the 1960s. For that matter, the Red Sox finally clinched last place in the AL East on Tuesday when the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Minnesota Twins.
Ready for the good news?
Well, such as it is, the 2012 season finally comes to a close on Wednesday. When it does, the Red Sox will go from being in a holding pattern of suckitude to being in repair mode, effective immediately. First they'll look to cut away the bad parts (see Valentine, Bobby), and then they'll look for ways to make the Red Sox good and respectable again.
There's a chance that the Red Sox will go for broke and gear up to contend again in 2013 this offseason, but the general vibe surrounding the organization suggests that general manager Ben Cherington and his staff want to take their time and make sure they do things right.
If the Red Sox do end up taking the road more patiently traveled this offseason, the emphasis on the 2013 season will be as much on getting the club's prospects ready to contribute as it will be on winning at the major league level.
And herein lies more good news: If the Red Sox's master plan is to go with a youth movement, they're in pretty good shape. Their farm system is right about where they need it to be.
Here's a rundown of why Boston's minor league system can help the big club climb out of the hole it's in.
The Red Sox Don't Need Many Bats, But the Bats are Down There
It's hard to watch Boston's offense go to work these days, as the Red Sox have only been fielding about two or three (sometimes four) quality major league hitters on a daily basis. The rest of their lineup has generally consisted of spare parts.
It's not all bad, though. The Red Sox are going to finish this season as one of the top-10 run-scoring teams in Major League Baseball, and they still rank in the top 10 in team batting average for the time being.
Going forward, signs point toward the Red Sox remaining a strong offensive team. Jacoby Ellsbury may be traded this offseason, but guys like Dustin Pedroia, Will Middlebrooks and Jarrod Saltalamacchia will be back next season. If you ask Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe, David Ortiz and Cody Ross will probably be back as well, maybe even on multi-year deals.
One assumes that Cherington will hit the free-agent market for some bargain bats as well. If he's lucky, he'll find one or two more Cody Rosses for the 2013 lineup.
It's anybody's guess who will still be around when the 2014 season rolls around, but by then the Red Sox may not have to worry about patching holes with free agents and aging veterans. They have a couple of youngsters down on the farm who could be ready to start.
The two young hitters the Sox have who generate the most intrigue are shortstop Xander Bogaerts and outfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. Both of them showed up on Baseball America's midseason rankings of the top 50 prospects in baseball, and both of them are starting to generate lofty expectations among people in the know.
One such person would be Mike Andrews of SoxProspects.com (via ESPNBoston.com). Though he grants that Bogaerts may need to be moved from shortstop, Andrews thinks he could be a "future perennial All-Star." Since Bogaerts posted a .948 OPS upon being promoted to Double-A this season, Andrews may be right.
Bradley, meanwhile, projects as Boston's future center fielder if Ellsbury does leave town. He doesn't have Ellsbury's blazing speed, but he's a good contact hitter with decent speed who could hit for power as he continues to fill out (as Ellsbury eventually did).
Both Bogaerts and Bradley are probably going to start the 2013 season at Double-A, but they should move up to Triple-A before long. There's therefore a chance that they could each crack the major league level before the end of the season.
Starting roles in 2014 are obviously far from assured, and goodness knows that they're not the only young hitters in the organization worth following. But if Sox fans are looking for the players with the most star potential, Bogaerts and Bradley are out there and their major league debuts aren't far from becoming reality.
What the Sox Really Need Is Arms, and They Have Arms
Starting pitching was Boston's downfall in 2011, and it was the club's biggest Achilles heel this season. Sox starters have an ERA over 5.00 for the season, and there's unfortunately not a ton of hope for the immediate future.
The not-so-immediate future, on the other hand...
Maybe the best storyline that popped up down on the farm this season was the emergence of right-hander Matt Barnes, who was the 19th overall pick in the 2011 draft out of UConn. He impressed with a 2.86 ERA in 25 starts between Single-A and High-A, and by the middle of the season he had generated enough buzz to check in all the way up at No. 13 in BA's midseason rankings.
The scouting reports on Barnes read like a Boston fan's sweetest dreams come to life. He has a fastball that tops out at 98 miles per hour and a curveball and changeup that still have room to get better. He's a taller pitcher too, meaning there's less concern of long-term injury woes.
Andrews thinks Barnes will open the 2013 season at Double-A Portland, putting him just a couple stops from the majors. He could break into the majors by the end of 2013, and he may be competing for a rotation spot come spring training in 2014.
Barnes isn't the only intriguing pitching prospect worth keeping an eye on. In Allen Webster, they got a quality right-hander from the Los Angeles Dodgers that a lot of teams were after at the trade deadline. He's already dabbled in Double-A, and will probably start next season at Triple-A.
One pitcher who could make an impact in Boston a lot sooner than Barnes and Webster is Rubby De La Rosa, who reports say is one of two players to be named later who will join the Red Sox organization from the Dodgers organization after the season is over.
De La Rosa missed a lot of time recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he managed to find his way back into the majors with the Dodgers this season. He was once one of the Dodgers' top prospects, but they obviously had him pegged as expendable.
My colleague Mike Rosenbaum wrote back in August that the Red Sox could give De La Rosa a chance to earn a starting job in spring training, but another option for them is to use De La Rosa out of their bullpen. Given his mid-90s fastball and solid changeup, it's not hard to imagine him carving out a niche for himself in the bullpen down the line.
And that would be just fine with the Red Sox. They need impact relievers just as much as they need impact starters at this point.
In a perfect world, each of the three young hurlers discussed above will be members of the big club on a full-time basis by 2014. If this comes to pass, Boston's pitching staff will go from being a sorry mix of slouches and over-the-hill veterans to being a youthful staff with plenty of upside.
Now, in the event that the Red Sox somehow find themselves ahead of schedule in 2013...
Boston's Farm System Has Depth, And Depth Can Lead to Big Deals
Had you asked Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus before the start of the season, he would have told you that the Red Sox had the No. 12 farm system in all of baseball.
Now, this was before anybody knew that Will Middlebrooks would establish himself as Boston's future third baseman as soon as May. However, it was also before anybody knew that Bogaerts was for real and that guys like Barnes and Bradley were going to turn out to be studs.
When the 2013 rankings come out, there's a fair chance Boston's farm system will be ranked in the top 10 across the board.
So here's a question: What if the Red Sox actually turn out to be pretty good in 2013?
This eventuality would involve Clay Buchholz continuing to rediscover his 2010 mojo while Jon Lester and John Lackey round back into form. Felix Doubront would also have to establish himself as a capable starting pitcher. Offensively, everyone would need to be healthy and productive.
None of these things are that outside the realm of possibility. The 2012 Red Sox are living proof that a lot of bad things can happen, but you can look to the Oakland A's and Baltimore Orioles for proof that sometimes a lot of really, really good things can happen.
In the event that the Red Sox do happen to be a contending team in 2013, they can use their farm system not for developing, but for dealing.
They're set up to have the pieces to make competitive offers for any star players that may become available, and the best part of Boston's payroll dump back in August is that it will allow the club to take on a big contract in a trade if it really feels like going for broke next season.
Because the Red Sox have been burned in the recent past when they've traded prospects (i.e. David Murphy in 2007 and Justin Masterson in 2009), it may be hard to imagine them going this route. Even if they see a clear path to the World Series ahead of them, they may hold on to their top young players for the sake of keeping their brighter, younger tomorrow intact.
A big trade could very well go down, but the are good reasons why the Red Sox would choose to stand pat instead.
Signs Point Towards Boston's Farm System Becoming Even More Elite
Yes, I did hesitate to use the word "elite" in conjunction with Boston's farm system. I only allowed myself to get away with it because I think that word is fair game when it comes to potential top-10 farm systems.
As for why Boston's farm system promises to become "even more" elite, well, that's kinda the whole point for the organization going forward.
According to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, Cherington's top priority going forward this offseason is to fix the team's pitching from top to bottom. That means possibly going out and adding an established pitcher or two this offseason, but it also means rearranging how things are managed.
As Cafardo noted, the Red Sox have been lagging behind other teams in the scouting and developing of pitchers for years now. The idea going forward is for them to become more like pitching powerhouses like the San Francisco Giants, Oakland A's, Tampa Bay Rays and even the Baltimore Orioles. Their pitching numbers are mediocre, but they've turned a lot of mediocre arms into impact players at the major league level. That's not blind luck.
The success of Baltimore's pitching this season is largely owed to Rick Peterson, the club's "Director of Pitching." Abraham (see above link) thinks the Red Sox will go out and hire their own DoP this offseason, and part of his job would be to take good care of the organization's top pitching prospects.
That's a list that includes more names than just Barnes, Webster and De La Rosa. If the Red Sox can, they'd love to make something out of guys like Anthony Ranaudo, Henry Owens and Brandon Workman.
This Director of Pitching would also be charged with identifying arms the Red Sox should target in the draft, and that's an area where they could do some real damage in 2013. A 90-loss season is never fun, but one benefit of such a season is that it puts the afflicted team in line to draft in the top 10 in the ensuing June draft.
As Ben Nicholson-Smith of MLBTradeRumors.com pointed out on Monday, the Red Sox have already clinched a top-10 draft pick in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft. Per Baseball-Reference.com, this will be Boston's first top-10 draft pick since 1993, when they drafted Trot Nixon with the No. 7 overall pick.
If the Red Sox are serious about refurbishing the club's pitching, the smart money is on them taking a pitcher with their top-10 pick in 2013. They may even have a shot at 2011 first-rounder Mark Appel, who chose not to sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates this summer after he was picked eighth overall in June.
Regardless of who they choose, things are set up for Boston's farm system to go from being very good now to being potentially great later.
If the Red Sox mean to join their company in the near future, they're most certainly on the right track.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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