Amid the Chaos, Red Sox Have Quietly Developed Young Core for Future

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 7, 2015

Getty Images

At roughly the midpoint of it all, the Boston Red Sox's 2015 season is so far one for the "Disappointing" file. This team was supposed to be better than the 91-game losers of 2014, and right now it's on pace to be just slightly better.

But hey, you've gotta love those silver linings, and the 2015 Red Sox have crafted one of those by succeeding in an area where the 2014 Red Sox failed: Amid all the chaos, they've at least found success with a youth movement.

This is true of three guys in particular. Mookie Betts, 22, looks like a star center fielder. Xander Bogaerts, also 22, looks like a top shortstop. Eduardo Rodriguez, also-also 22, looks like an ace left-hander. According to notable theories in the field of "Duh," these are three very good things to have.

These two could be a useful tandem for years to come.
These two could be a useful tandem for years to come.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

But Boston's youth movement isn't limited to them. He may be older at 27, but Brock Holt has been good enough as a Ben Zobrist-esque utility man to earn an All-Star nod. And though he hasn't made an immediate impact, 23-year-old catcher Blake Swihart has teased his potential as a franchise cornerstone.

Even without context, this should be music to the ears of Red Sox Nation. But with context, it begins to sound like gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh to the tune of angel trumpets and devil trombones.

The Red Sox tried for a youth movement last year, of course, and it didn't work. Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. responded to high hopes by sinking to uncharted depths. And though Betts eventually arrived to tease some hope later in the year, by then it was much too late.

It's no wonder the Red Sox went into the winter determined not to bank on their youth again. They spent a lot of money to add Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval to a lineup that already included core veterans like Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli. They also brought in Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson to join veteran right-hander Clay Buchholz in the rotation.

It is a cruel twist of fate, indeed, that all of the new additions have been varying degrees of disappointing. And even among the incumbent veterans, only Pedroia and Buchholz have pulled their weight.

If you want to look at the 2015 Red Sox and focus on the negatives, there you go. But if it's the positives you want to accentuate, we'd better talk some more about the kids.

Xander Bogaerts looks like the franchise shortstop the Red Sox have been searching for ever since Nomar Garciaparra left town.
Xander Bogaerts looks like the franchise shortstop the Red Sox have been searching for ever since Nomar Garciaparra left town.Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Of the young Red Sox who have broken out in 2015, the least surprising is Betts.

It was Betts, after all, who was arguably the biggest bright spot of the Red Sox's 2014 season. A meteoric rise through the minors eventually led to regular playing time beginning in early August, and that's when he embarked on a 42-game stretch in which he hit .303 with an .844 OPS, four homers and six stolen bases, all while flashing potential in center field despite being a recent convert to the position.

Then came a red-hot performance in spring training, one that had everyone singing all sorts of praises for Betts to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports. Shane Victorino, for example, even went so far as to compare Betts to one of the game's great center fielders: Andrew McCutchen.

And now, that comparison doesn't seem too far-fetched.

Top 5 CFers by rWAR
PlayerTeamrWAR
Mike TroutLAA4.9
Mookie BettsBOS4
Lorenzo CainKCR4
A.J. PollockARI3.7
Kevin KiermaierTBR3.6
Baseball-Reference.com

In 2015, Betts has shrugged off a slow offensive start and is now hitting .283 with a .799 OPS, nine homers and 13 steals in 81 games. His defense in center field rates as somewhere between good and very good. Overall, Baseball-Reference.com's Wins Above Replacement says Betts has been one of the game's great center fielders.

Above all, it's Betts' well-rounded athleticism that stands out as the key reason for his success. At the same time, it's been reiterated many times over that he's also a top-notch student.

As Red Sox skipper John Farrell told Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald: "The one thing we've come to know with Mookie in the last year-and-a-half is when something has happened inside of a game, he learns, he applies what he's learned from the experience that's just happened, positive or negative."

As good as Betts has been, however, it says a lot that Bogaerts has arguably upstaged him.

For much of 2014, Bogaerts' play was downright cringe-worthy. He hit just .240 with a .660 OPS, and was a mess defensively at both shortstop and third base. After he had played a starring role in the team's run to the World Series in 2013, suffice it to say the Red Sox were expecting more from his rookie season.

Well, they're getting their wish in Bogaerts' sophomore season. He's hitting .302 with a .752 OPS, making him one of the American League's best offensive shortstops. And after he was forced to third base and generally thrown for a loop by the delayed re-signing of Stephen Drew in 2014, he's looked much more comfortable on defense as a full-time shortstop.

For that matter, "more comfortable" describes Bogaerts in general in 2015. In the words of Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald, he's exuded "abundant confidence" and "sounds far more self-assured than a year ago."

The one thing missing from Bogaerts' game is power, as he's underperformed his power potential by hitting only three dingers. But to this end, the Red Sox's resident expert on power advises patience.

"A guy like him, he's probably going through the same thing I went through,” said Ortiz to Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal. "I manned up around when I was 26. That was when I really started developing everything. ... The power will come at some point. He's going from one step to the other."

Xander Bogaerts' Directional Splits
YearPull%Middle%Oppo%
201446.933.719.3
201533.235.231.6
FanGraphs

Big Papi seems to be on to something. Baseball America put Bogaerts' power ceiling at 25 homers a year, but right now he's clearly focused on honing his hit tool. He's cut down on his strikeouts and is doing a much better job of using the whole field. Hence, his .300 average.

If Bogaerts' development as a hitter eventually leads to more power, the Red Sox will get to enjoy the services of a rare breed: a shortstop who can hit, hit for power and field his position.

In the meantime, they're already enjoying the services of another rare breed: a power left-hander.

That's Rodriguez, who has shown all sorts of promise in his brief time in the majors. His ERA in his eight starts is a modest 3.69, but mainly because of two particularly bad starts. In the other six, he's allowed no more than one earned run.

As Red Sox media relations and baseball information manager Jon Shestakofsky noted, that's a bit of history:

A small sample size, to be sure, but definitely an encouraging one. And from the eye test, not an accident either.

Rodriguez has gotten by on a fastball that averages in the mid-90s, and a changeup and slider that Brooks Baseball says both draw whiffs roughly 15 percent of the time. That gives him three above-average pitches, and he's also demonstrated some good control.

In all, here's how Alex Skillin summed up Rodriguez in an article for Baseball Prospectus Boston:

Young pitchers are renowned for being fickle and unpredictable, but Rodriguez has all the ingredients one can ask for in a prospective major league starter. For a Red Sox team that hasn't exactly developed much in the way of good, young hurlers recently, Rodriguez represents one of the club's more intriguing youngsters in quite some time.

Next to the promise Betts, Bogaerts and Rodriguez have shown, it's easy to overlook Holt and (especially) Swihart. But here's a suggestion: Don't do that.

Jason Mastrodonato of MassLive.com reported over the winter that the Red Sox considered Holt too valuable to trade. It now looks like they had the right idea. Beyond giving the Red Sox good defense at multiple positions, he's rediscovered his form from the first half of 2014 to hit .295 with an .807 OPS.

And much more so than Holt's first-half success last year, Holt's 2015 success passes the smell test. His increased walk rate speaks to improved discipline, and he also entered Monday's action with the eighth-highest line-drive percentage among hitters with at least 250 plate appearances.

"He's almost become an invaluable guy to us," Farrell told Tim Britton of the Providence Journal in June, understating things just a bit.

This brings us, finally, to Swihart.

He doesn't come off looking like much of a difference-maker at first, as the rookie backstop has hit just .241 with a .602 OPS in 40 games without playing eye-catching defense. But he did look much more comfortable at the plate in his last 26 games before hitting the disabled list, hitting .279 with a .698 OPS.

As Steve Buckley of the Herald wrote, Swihart has done pretty well for a guy who was supposed to spend most, if not all, of 2015 honing his craft at Triple-A Pawtucket. He's also made an impression on his skipper, as Farrell praised Swihart for his intelligence, awareness and toughness.

Swihart came into the year as a consensus top-20 prospect.
Swihart came into the year as a consensus top-20 prospect.John Bazemore/Associated Press/Associated Press

"There are a lot of positives with Blake," said Farrell. "He may have arrived before his natural timeline would suggest, but he was thrust into it and did a good job."

All told, the Red Sox's youth-movement narrative couldn't be more different than it was a year ago. The 2014 youth movement looked like a failed experiment. But this year, the early results of the 2015 youth movement foretell a core of stars up the middle in Swihart, Bogaerts and Betts, an ace lefty atop their rotation in Rodriguez and, as a bonus, a true super-utility man in Holt.

If this is how things pan out, the Red Sox will be able to look back and say elite talent was among the roots that made this core possible. Holt aside, Betts, Bogaerts, Swihart and Rodriguez were all considered among the game's best prospects at one time or another.

Another of the roots will be maturity. Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo told Alex Speier of the Boston Globe in early May that Betts, Bogaerts and Swihart "play way above their years." And as Sean McAdam of CSN New England and others observed, Rodriguez recently displayed his ability to play above his years by quickly making a mechanical adjustment that fixed his tendency to tip his pitches.

Ironically, there may also come a day when the Red Sox can chalk up the success of their budding core to the 2015 team's most glaring failure: its veterans.

When asked to explain the difference between the 2014 youth movement and the 2015 youth movement, Farrell made a point to Speier about the 2015 team's veterans forming a strong backbone of support for the kids. Though they're obviously not as good, the 2015 Red Sox remind Farrell of the 2007 Red Sox team that Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury were a part of.

"There's a much deeper veteran presence with Hanley, Pablo [to go with] a healthy Dustin, David, Mike Napoli," said Farrell. "There's a stronger core group than maybe we've experienced before. This is probably more reminiscent of when Pedey and Ellsbury came up versus maybe a year ago."

That 2015 has seen the Red Sox develop a young core of players to build their future around is obviously a blessing. But if it's true that this blessing might not exist at all without the club's veterans, then what appears to be the 2015 Red Sox's biggest curse could actually prove to be a blessing in disguise.

Even if this season does ultimately go into the books as a failure, the Red Sox may one day look back on it as a season where they wouldn't have changed a thing.

 

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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