In the post-trading deadline world that the Boston Red Sox now occupy, it's best to watch games with an eye on 2015 rather than the scoreboard.
The Sox still boast plenty of talented players, to be sure. But there are going to be many rough stretches in the coming weeks as young players are allowed to take their licks and sink or swim at the major league level.
It's a process we've seen all season long in regards to Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr., and we're going to see even more post-prospects attempt to make adjustments at the MLB level now. In fact, there are nearly as many "open" positions and roster spots for 2015 as there are set ones, and prospects, young players and veterans are already auditioning for next year.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the three most prominent positional battles Red Sox players are fighting right now as we try to ascertain what this team might look like on Opening Day 2015.
Third Base: Will Middlebrooks vs. Brock Holt
In 2012, Middlebrooks was a promising young rookie hitting .285/.325/.509, serving as one of the lone bright spots on a team that was floundering until he succumbed to injury. We saw glimpses of a player we thought could be the third baseman and No. 5 hitter of the future.
In 2014, the role of spark plug third baseman has fallen to Holt, who's perhaps the most incredible story on the Sox this season. The 26-year-old has hit .297/.344/.414 in 362 PA, playing every infield and every outfield position for Boston for at least four games.
Holt will likely still see some time in the outfield moving forward, but with Yoenis Cespedes playing every day and Daniel Nava and Jackie Bradley Jr. also clamoring for playing time, third base is perhaps Holt's best option moving forward. That puts him in direct competition with Middlebrooks for the rest of 2014.
It may be tempting to suggest pairing Middlebrooks and Holt in a strict platoon, but that won't fully answer our questions about whether "WMB" can be a significant part of the organization moving forward.
Middlebrooks has hit just .195/.290/.329 in the majors this season, but he's only received 93 PA thanks in part to injuries. That being said, his .231/.277/.375 line in Triple-A is hardly inspiring.
The memories of Middlebrooks in 2012 are sweet, but we have nearly 500 PA of evidence since then suggesting he's not an everyday major league player. The next seven weeks could be the last time he gets a shot to prove otherwise in Boston, and it's only fair to give him as much playing time as possible before casting him aside.
However, it's not really fair to take away that playing time from Holt, who's trying to shake the "super sub" label and prove that he deserves to be in a lineup every day.
While his overall line is still quite impressive, Holt has hit just .264/.312/.345 over his last 20 games, suggesting the league has adjusted to his red-hot start. Holt's also had just four extra-base hits during that span, and he hasn't stolen a base since Jun 17.
It will be difficult for Farrell and crew to juggle playing time for both WMB and Holt from here on out, and the newly acquired Kelly Johnson will need to see a handful of PA too. But at this point, it's likely that one of Middlebrooks or Holt will start 2015 as Boston's regular third baseman, and the Sox should have a better idea of who should sit atop the depth chart by season's end.
Center Field: Jackie Bradley Jr. vs. Mookie Betts
Just Thursday, Betts was sent back down to Triple-A Pawtucket to make room for Johnson on the 25-man roster. That might lead you to think that the battle for center field has been decided, but that may not be the case.
We're only three weeks away from rosters expanding in September, and when that happens, Betts will be back in Boston. If Bradley isn't hitting better by then, he could lose substantial time to Betts down the stretch.
You need only watch Bradley play defense for a few innings before you understand why the Sox have been so patient with him this season. He's a legit 70 or 75 defender on the 20-80 scouting scale, with plus-plus instincts, a great arm and enough speed to track down balls in the gaps.
Red Sox fans are used to good center field defense between the likes of Johnny Damon, Coco Crisp and Jacoby Ellsbury, but Bradley is something else altogether.
Yet as good as Bradley's been in the field, he's been equally bad at the plate. The 24-year-old is hitting just .216/.288/.296 in 359 PA, striking out in 28.4 percent of his appearances. He did hit .278/.325/.347 in July, but he's been tough to watch in recent weeks.
Betts, meanwhile, just keeps raking. He's hitting .321/.408/.496 in 157 Triple-A PA after torching Double-A earlier this season, and he's held his own in 44 MLB PA too. He has more power, more speed and a significantly better hit tool, and it's hard to imagine a scenario in which he'd be worse at the plate than Bradley's been for most of the year.
What we don't know is how good Betts can be defensively. He's new to the outfield, and while he has the speed to play center field, he lacks Bradley's arm and doesn't have great instincts in the outfield yet.
But while center field is a defense-first position, Bradley's going to need to become at least a competent hitter if he wants to remain in the lineup. If Bradley keeps playing like this, Betts could leapfrog him on the 2015 depth chart next month.
Rotation: Brandon Workman vs. Allen Webster vs. Anthony Ranaudo
For better or for worse, Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly and Rubby De La Rosa have three rotation spots locked up for the remainder of the season. Spots four and five are open to a three-way battle between a trio of young, right-handed back-end starter candidates: Workman, Webster and Ranaudo.
Workman occupies one spot right now, and while he has the most MLB experience, he also has the lowest ceiling of this trio. The right-hander put up a 4.97 ERA in 41.2 innings at the MLB level last season, but his FIP was down at 3.43, and he struck out 26.1 percent of all batters he faced. He made three starts in 2013 as opposed to 17 relief appearances.
2014 hasn't gone as well for Workman. The 25-year-old has a 4.31 ERA supported by a 4.51 FIP in Boston, and his strikeout rate has fallen to 18.2 percent. Workman's also walking more batters, inducing fewer ground balls and allowing more fly balls, which is generally a recipe for disaster in Fenway Park.
Webster has the highest upside of the trio, but he is also the least consistent by a long shot. His fastball/changeup combination inspires visions of a No. 3 starter, but he lacks a reliable third pitch and his command can desert him at a moment's notice.
The 24-year-old has pitched quite well in Triple-A this year, posting a 3.10 ERA in 122 innings and cutting his walk rate from a year ago. He's missing fewer bats than ever, though, and he's completely fallen apart at the major league level once again this season. It's fair to question his composure on the mound.
Ranaudo represents the middle ground between Workman and Webster: He has more raw talent than the former, but he is perhaps more ready to slot into a major league rotation right now than the latter. The LSU product has had a tremendous year in Triple-A, posting a 2.41 ERA in 119.1 innings and drastically cutting his walk rate since a mechanical adjustment in early June.
His stuff is most certainly inferior to Webster's, and he lacks Workman's impressive curveball. But Ranaudo is composed on the mound, generally knows where the ball is going now and can get major leaguers out when he keeps his fastball down in the zone.
While this trio is competing for two spots right now, it's more likely that there will be room for just one in the rotation when the 2015 season begins. If Workman and Webster keep struggling, I'd expect Ranaudo to replace one or the other on a more permanent basis by the end of August, and he could be best positioned to see starts in April of next season.
With additional arms like Henry Owens, Matt Barnes and Edwin Escobar chomping at the bit in Triple-A, one of Webster, Workman or Ranaudo had best separate himself from the pack soon if he wants to profile as a significant part of Boston's future.