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Monday, May 19, 2014

Why the Struggles of the Boston Red Sox's Youngsters Are a Good Thing

The Boston Red Sox have enjoyed a veritable embarrassment of riches over the past decade, winning three World Series titles and somehow still possessing one of the most highly-regarded farm systems in all of baseball. Despite all the positivity, the 2014 season has been quite the grind thus far, with the young players on the roster sitting squarely in the spotlight when any discussion about what is going wrong comes up. Surprisingly, not only are these struggles a good thing, they are just what is needed to help sort out who should be part of the future and who should think about renting instead of buying.

In particular, Boston has three young players who were given roles as regulars this season but have not yet put all the components together to fully establish themselves as future cornerstones. This includes:

-25-year-old third baseman Will Middlebrooks is in his third big league season but is very much a study in progress. A tremendous rookie season in 2011 was derailed by a wrist injury. He battled physical ailments and inconsistency last year, even spending time in the minors to get himself back on track.

In 2014, Middlebrooks has appeared in 21 games, hitting just .197 with two home runs and nine RBIs. He is already on his second disabled list stint of the season, most recently suffering a fractured finger that will keep him out for an indeterminate amount of time. His powerful right-handed swing is tailor-made for cozy Fenway Park. On the other hand, his difficulty staying healthy, and an aggressive plate approach that has resulted in a lot of strikeouts and few walks have prevented him from emerging as the hot corner mainstay.

-21-year-old shortstop Xander Bogaerts made a splash in the majors last fall, playing well in a late-season call-up and then batting an impressive .296 in the playoffs, which earned him major playing time (including subbing for Middlebrooks at third base) in the World Series.

So far in 2014, Bogaerts has had a few challenges in the field (4 errors) and is hitting a rather pedestrian .269 with two home runs, seven RBIs and 38 strikeouts in 41 games. However, a closer look indicates that everyone should be quite pleased with his progress. He has an excellent .369 OBP; his 108 OPS+ is nearly identical to last year shortstop starter Stephen Drew’s 111, as pointed out by Ron Juckett; and the best part is that he is just a few years removed from sitting in daily home room.

-Finally, there is outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. After a disastrous 2013 that saw him hit just .189 in a variety of trials in Boston spanning 37 games, it appears he is much on the same track this year. In 41 games, the left-handed batter is hitting .205 with 13 RBIs and 43 strikeouts.

Fortunately, it’s not all bad news for Bradley, as the 24-year-old plays a spectacular defensive outfield and has 16 walks and 10 doubles, with the latter number placing him second on the team behind only second baseman Dustin Pedroia.

All three of the aforementioned youngsters arrived with much-discussed pedigrees and high expectations. Although none of them have become stars or are putting up video game numbers, it is way too early to start considering them lost causes. What’s needed most is patience and the comfort with the idea of mediocrity in the interim- both for the players and the team as a whole.

After finishing a putrid 2012 season with a 69-93 record, the Red Sox went out and hired a new manager in John Farrell and reshaped their roster with players known for their high character and ability to keep a light and fun clubhouse. Some homers and eternal optimists may have thought them contenders from the outset, but in reality it was tough to peg them as more than an entertaining 85-win team. The fact that they went on to win the World Series is a classic example of playing with house money.

Coming off such success, the team and its fans are obviously hungry to keep the good times rolling. Unfortunately, that may not be congruent with the development of these youngsters, whose progress should be considered vital for the future. Even if only one or two of them reach their full potential, the Red Sox will come out ahead.

Prospecting in baseball is usually a crapshoot, as some sure shots fizzle while stars can come out of nowhere. If a team makes a true commitment to a youth movement, then it is difficult to put time constraints on when everything is supposed to come together. In baseball, some of the best learning can come from the tough times. Repetition and learning from mistakes are powerful tools in honing the fine edges of a player, and the Red Sox three are sharpening their blades as we speak.

The Red Sox kids may be going through some growing pains now, and are doing few favors in contributing to a favorable 2014 outcome, but in the long run it could all be for the best. With the heady days of 2013 still visible in the rear view mirror for fans it may be difficult to accept a detour, but in the end it may be the best way for Boston to get where it needs to go when it comes to long-term success.

Statistics obtained from

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