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Sunday, September 21, 2014

The End Could Very Well Be a New Beginning for the Boston Red Sox

At 68-88, and firmly entrenched in last place in the American League East, the Boston Red Sox are close to wrapping up a pretty painful 2014 season. The sting is particularly acute because of last year’s World Series win. However, some of the signs that the team is flashing over the last few weeks of the lost campaign could very well mark a new beginning for the franchise.

Having dealt ace pitcher Jon Lester earlier this season, and stalwarts David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia aging, it’s clear the Red Sox need an infusion of young talent to help solidify a new identity. Fortunately, the team is flush with prospects, and has had a whopping 15 players aged 25 or younger appear in at least one game this season. The results have been mixed but some of these players have given signs about what their future in Boston may be.

21-year-old shortstop Xander Bogaerts has hit just .237 with 12 home runs and 20 errors this year. However, having hung in at such a young age and finishing strong down the stretch has done nothing to sway the belief that he is a long-term impact player. In his last 21 games, the right-handed hitter has batted .317 with four home runs and 13 RBI, showing that he is still adjusting and developing—exactly what you want to see from someone his age.

Infielder/outfielder Mookie Betts made his major league debut earlier in the season. After initial ho-hum production, he has emerged as perhaps the team’s most valuable player down the stretch—hitting .285 with five home runs, 15 RBI and six stolen bases in 46 games. Including his time in the minors, the diminutive 21-year-old has hit a combined .329 with 16 homers, 80 RBI and 38 steals. His ability to play multiple positions makes him a strong candidate for a big role with the 2015 team.

Since being a 2011 fifth-round draft pick, Betts has simply gotten better and better with each passing year. In four professional seasons, he has played at seven total levels, and at each stop has done the near impossible of adapting and developing his game almost immediately. It’s difficult to ascertain what his major league future will be, but at this point he appears to be at the very least a solid contributor for years to come—with the potential to be much more.

One youngster whose play has increasingly negatively impacted his Boston future is third baseman Will Middlebrooks. The 25-year-old right-handed hitter battled injuries earlier in the year, the third time in as many seasons to start his career. Unfortunately, when he has been on the field, he has not been able to get on track and come close to matching the high expectations he earned during his rookie season in 2012 when he hit .288 with 15 home runs in just 75 games.

To the contrary, the only consistency Middlebrooks has shown has been an inability to get anything going. In his last 51 games, he has hit a disappointing .181 with no home runs and just 14 RBIs—while striking out 63 times. He has been given a chance to get his once promising career on track but it seems increasingly more likely his time in Boston may be coming to an end.

Finally, although they are too old for the prospect group, the Red Sox are seeing positive returns from two mid-season outfield acquisitions in Yoenis Cespedes and Rusney Castillo. Both natives of Cuba, the two appear to be linchpins of the team beyond the end of the disappointing 2014 campaign.

The 29-year-old Cespedes was the key piece obtained in the Lester trade, as his right-handed power was a commodity sorely lacking in the Boston lineup. He has shown that he may have been worth the steep price of the veteran lefty, as he has hit .262 with five home runs and 30 RBIs in 45 games since switching teams. In addition, his powerful throwing arm, as evidenced by his 15 2014 outfield assists, will be a lethal weapon in the short left field in Fenway Park.

Having not played organized baseball since 2012 because of political reasons in his native Cuba, the 27-year-old Castillo was signed to a seven year contract worth over $70 million last month. Despite an arsenal of raw skills that include great speed and defensive prowess, there is still not enough known about the right-handed hitter to be able to gauge his true ceiling. However, he has been thrown into the fire from the get-go, playing briefly at several minor league stops during their playoff seasons, and now getting a chance at the big league level over the final few weeks.

Castillo has four singles in 16 at-bats with Boston thus far—hardly earth-shattering numbers. The real key has been his ability to look like he belongs after such a long layoff, which is very encouraging for his future. He is a lottery ticket in the truest sense of the term, and 2015 appears to be when he will receive an extended look to see if will pay off or a wasted chance.

The 2014 season may be very disappointing on paper for the Red Sox but there are positives to be gleaned out of the wreckage. Although the impending end of the season is a merciful relief in some ways, it is also marking the beginning of a new dawn for the team and its fans.

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