Despite Early Struggles, Young Players Still Key for Boston Red Sox

Ben CarsleyContributor IMay 28, 2014

May 4, 2014; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts (2) during the fourth inning against the Oakland Athletics at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Jackie Bradley Jr. delivered what was perhaps the biggest hit of his MLB career on Tuesday night, driving in two runs on a single in the seventh inning of a 6-3 Boston Red Sox victory over the Atlanta Braves.

The hit, Bradley’s second of the game, was significant for a few reasons. It gave the Red Sox some breathing room in what would be their second consecutive victory following a 10-game losing streak. It came against a lefty pitcher, against whom Bradley had just nine hits in 58 plate appearances. And it came at a point in the game when John Farrell easily could’ve pinch hit for his struggling center fielder.

But the hit was perhaps most memorable because it was one of the few times that a member of the Red Sox youth movement truly came through in a big moment for Boston this season. And if the Red Sox are going to battle back into the playoff picture this season, their young players will need to answer the bell with considerably more frequency.

It might seem as though the Red Sox took too much of a prospect-heavy approach to building their 2014 team, and struggling young players are easy scapegoats to turn on in a season in which little has gone right for Boston. The struggles of Boston’s young players have been tough to watch at times, and there’s no question that the Sox improperly evaluated the readiness of some of their younger talents.

However, this is a team that truly took a measured approach to blending veterans and youngsters when the season began. Boston broke camp with Xander Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks, Brandon Workman and Jackie Bradley Jr. as the only players on the roster aged 25 or younger. And while Bogaerts, Workman and Bradley were technically rookies, each had some MLB experience under his belt already.

Make no mistake about it: The Red Sox erred in assuming that Middlebrooks’ true talent lay closer to his 2012 season than his 2013 campaign. They also made a mistake in assuming that Bradley was ready to hit MLB pitching, though they were quite right about his defense. You can also argue that they misjudged Bogaerts’ defense, but I think his growing pains at shortstop were simply a concession they were willing to make.

Regardless, only Bogaerts has truly answered the call through the season’s first two months. Middlebrooks has hit the disabled list twice and has been truly awful when on the field. Bradley is a defensive wiz in center field, but he is hitting just .201/.286/.289 through 168 PA. Both have been tough to watch for most of the season.

It can seem like the Red Sox were negligent in guarding against such outcomes, but that’s not truly the case. Let’s keep in mind too that the Red Sox could have elected to go much younger with this team during the offseason.

The Sox could have handed Bradley a job rather than challenged him with the Grady Sizemore signingremember that Bradley was only given a roster spot once Shane Victorino hit the DL. They could have skipped out on signing Chris Capuano and Edward Mujica and rolled with Workman and Drake Britton instead. And they could’ve turned to Brock Holt as their primary utility infielder, rather than trade for the disappointing Jonathan Herrera.

Sure, not all of these decisions worked out. But Boston made a conscious effort to surround the young Bogaerts-Bradley-Middlebrooks core with veterans. Truthfully, it’s been a mix of injury and ineffectiveness from that veteran core that’s the real reason the Red Sox own a 22-29 record after 51 games.

Victorino, Mike Napoli and Felix Doubrontresponsible for a collective 12.3 fWAR last season, according to FanGraphsare all on the DL recovering from various ailments. It’s already the second DL stint of the season for Victorino, whose defense and well-rounded offensive skill set are sorely missed.

Regression from Jake Peavy, Daniel Nava, David Ross and Craig Breslow has come at a time when the team can ill-afford collapses from its reliable veterans. And there’s been perhaps no more disappointing member of the Red Sox this year than Clay Buchholz, who ranks last in the majors in ERA among qualified starting pitchers.

And so there’s some irony that the Red Sox, with their veteran core battered, bruised and largely ineffective, will need to lean on their youth to an even greater extent if they want to become a competitive team once again.

We’re already seeing early reinforcements with the likes of Holt and Workman, but several more prospects and minor leaguers could make a big impact on this team before the year is over.

With Buchholz a DL candidate thanks to an injured knee, according to The Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham, we could see Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa or Anthony Ranaudo take his place. Given the way Buchholz has pitched this season, it could be a move that lasts for much of the year, too.

Struggling relievers Mujica and Breslow could end up on the DL in favor of youngsters like Britton or De La Rosa. And Triple-A bats like Bryce Brentz, Christian Vazquez and Travis Shaw could get their first cups of coffee in the majors before the year is over, too.

Yet the real cause for optimism among the next wave of Red Sox prospects comes from two names that most Sox fans know well by now: Mookie Betts and Garin Cecchini. Neither is truly ready to step into an MLB lineup right now, but the Sox face few other options, and the talent of these two players is undeniable.

Nov 2, 2013; Surprise, AZ, USA; Boston Red Sox infielder Mookie Betts against the East during the Fall Stars Game at Surprise Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Betts is just learning now how to play the outfield, but if he acclimates quickly, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we could see him in left field at Fenway before the year is over. The Sox are generally conservative with their prospects, and Ben Cherington is on record as saying Betts is not yet a candidate for the major leagues. But if he keeps up his current .363/.451/.568 pace and Boston still needs an outfielder in July or August, that could change.

Cecchini’s path to the majors is a bit more muddled after the signing of Stephen Drew, but he’s the most MLB-ready bat the Red Sox have in the minors right now, even if his defense and power have yet to fully mature. Should Drew become injured or should Middlebrooks fail to regain any foothold in the majors upon his return, we could see Cecchini, who’s an OBP machine, in Fenway this year, too.

It’s also possible that Boston’s youth could save the season indirectly by being involved in a trade for a key player at the deadline. Such are the advantages of having an excellent farm system.

Regardless of how the next wave of talent makes an impact on the major league roster, it’s clear that the Red Sox will also need better health and improvement from its veterans if they wish to regain relevancy this season. But it could be that Boston’s younger players are the ones who save the season this time around, even if the early results from some members of that young core are less than encouraging.