After enduring a season with the worst-hitting outfield in baseball, the Red Sox have an embarrassment of riches: Hanley Ramirez, Rusney Castillo, Mookie Betts, Shane Victorino, Allen Craig, Daniel Nava, and Jackie Bradley Jr. All seven are bonafide starting Major Leaguers, but only two are guaranteed left-hand hitters: Nava and Bradley. Victorino has resumed hitting from the left side, but his jury is still out.
Given that Bradley has not proven he can hit Major League pitching, Daniel Nava has virtue as a back-up outfielder. Nava has shown some of the flair he wielded at the plate in 2013, and he is stronger from the left side of the plate. The fickle hand of fate points to Nava.
Allen Craig and Shane Victorino pose the most delicate of dilemmas. What to do with two once-been All-Stars who can not keep their bodies intact for half a season at a time? “Clutch” comes to mind when we think of both of these journeymen. Late innings and the fireballing reliever comes in to polish off the bottom of the line-up: who do you call? Craig from right and Victorino from the left. They manufacture hits against the worst odds and revive the sagging hopes of Red Sox fans. Would Nava or Bradley rise to that occasion? Doubt it.
Ultimately one of these players will be expendable because another team wants them, a team with an extra third or fourth slot starting pitcher. Package a minor league pitcher with one outfielder and you could have another arm in the rotation, someone to pick up if Joe Kelly or Clay Bucholz go down with arm problems. This is an unkind fate for a veteran like Craig or Victorino, but fate favors the young in baseball.
Fate also favors the left-hand bat, because the Red Sox are set from the right side. The projected starting line-up has two from the left side–Ortiz and Sandoval. Not enough to face the likes of Masahiro Tanaka and Corey Kluber. This favors Nava, Bradley, and Victorino as the reserve outfielder. One of these is guaranteed a spot on the Beantown squad.
In the next two weeks fate will gather up two of these brilliant candidates and toss them into oblivion or even a starting role on another stage. The Red Sox have seen this coming. Maybe their best move is yet to happen.
When Will Middlebrooks came up in 2012 I was an enthusiastic promoter, willing to displace Kevin Youkilis for the next Red Sox power third baseman. He killed the ball for a month, got injured, and hasn’t been the same since then.
No one wants to see a career undermined by injury, but I think the Red Sox have given Middlebrooks ample chances to prove he can hit again. He can’t. He works the count better than he used to, but the result is the same, strike outs, weak fly balls, ground into double plays. He can’t even hold up the eighth position in the batting order.
The thing is, you reserve the lower third of the order for the good-field-no-hit guys, the catcher, the center fielder, sometimes the shortstop. The Red Sox have good young prospects at all those positions. So I smile when Jackie Bradley, Jr. strikes out four times in a game, because he steals 2-3 hits per game in center field. I nod when Dan Butler or Christian Vasquez have an oh-fer day, because I know they are protecting the base paths from reckless base runners. Xander Bogaerts, he’s only 21 and the official can’t-miss guy in the organization.
Middlebrooks? He’s the third out at the bottom of the order, who can easily be replaced by Brock Holt. His swing is sapped. His sun has set. He embarrasses himself every time he comes to the plate. In a faltering line-up, he is the one guy I do not expect to get his swing back and carry the team again. He is capable in the field, but no more so than three guys in the Red Sox organization who can hit better.
Brock Holt, Mookie Betts, and Garin Cecchini could be filling this position. They all look like they have a future with the Red Sox. Will Middlebrooks does not.
Sorry, Will. I defended your honor for two years. Now you are the Youkilis of 2014.
Utterly shocked to find my call for the youth movement answered in the month leading up to the All-Star break, but this is how the Red Sox now respond to talent surging up from Triple A. They did the same last year, giving Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, Rubby DeLaRosa and Xander Bogarts a shot at making the team. Workman and Bogarts made a difference down the stretch, justifying the faith of the parent club.
Now come the killer B’s: Bogarts (again), Bradley, Betts and Brock (Holt), bringing some bravado to the flagging Red Sox. With the exception of Bogarts, they are all risks. The club can afford them, because it have nothing else on the bench. I’m really hoping most of them prove themselves before Shane Victorino and Will Middlebrooks come along to take their place. They are, after all, the future of a team that reached its prime in 2013. Victorino is a winner, but a very fragile one, and Middlebrooks has almost used up his “Get Out of Jail Free” cards.
While they were at it, they decided to bring on Christian Vasquez and ditch A. J. Pierczinski, thinking this would at least be a defensive upgrade. Vasquez is a bigger risk because he also has to gain the confidence of a pitching staff used to veterans calling their games. So far he has looked up to the task, and how could he have a better mentor than David Ross?
Think of the future if Vasquez, Bogarts and Bradley fulfill heir potential: the Red Sox solid up the middle for another decade. Traditionally this has not been the strength of the team. Their catchers and shortstops have always been known for hitting more than fielding. Those positions have been a revolving door for a decade. A strong presence up the middle would transform this team.
The final “B” is Brock Holt. What a great name for a baseball player or maybe a quarterback or a decathalon champion! He may not be the second coming of Jacoby Ellsbury, but he fills the lead-off spot with flair. He looks like trouble at the plate and he is. He is patient and aggressive, shows some speed and can bunt. He has played every position except pitcher and catcher since coming up to stay, and those positions don’t seem out of reach. He brings what the Red Sox have so badly lacked in the first half of the season: confidence and energy.
And this is what we see in the newest Red Sox recruits: confidence and energy. Yes, Bogarts is looking a little shell-shocked lately, but no one doubts what he can do. John Farrell treats them all like they belong here, and soon most of them will know that. Maybe Victorino will send someone packing, but time is on the side of the Killer “B” ‘s (and “V”). Whatever happens to the Red Sox this year, the next generation has arrived.
Jackie Bradley, Xander Bogarts, Brock Holt, Brandon Workman, Rubby DeLaRosa: the future. Jake Peavy, Chris Capuano, Edward Mujica, Felix Dubront, David Ross, A.J, Pierczinski: the past. With the right combination of youth and experience, the Red Sox were World Champions in 2013. With the past overtaking the future, they are in an agonizing tailspin.
At this point we can say the Red Sox are in transition, and it is time to bring on the future. Whether it is too late to contend in the American League East is still open to conjecture, but the retreads the Sox have brought in to make the transition are thin with wear. Bring on the future.
The Red Sox began courting the future in 2013 when they brought up Brandon Workman and Xander Bogarts for the stretch run. Actually Workman was a sub in the pitching rotation earlier, but he pitched with confidence and aggression from the start. He came up attacking the strike zone and has proven himself as a Major Leaguer since then. Bogarts took no one by surprise, but he showed amazing poise in the post-season. The Red Sox did not shy from using both of these young talents in the World Series.
This year they committed to Jackie Bradley, despite his weak hitting, and when the hitting began to gel, sent Grady Sizemore packing. Brock Holt is going to displace either Daniel Nava or Will Middlebrooks, because he is the answer to the lead-off question. Holt has improved every time he came up from Pawtucket and finally proved he was indispensable. Rubby DeLaRosa finally proved he could control his awesome stuff and looks like he might stay with parent club this time. Every one of these players might be languishing in Pawtucket, if the Red Sox were dazzling the American League East, but they have been utterly beatable in the first half of the season.
So 2014 has become the transition year both for the Sox and their young talent. They might even consider bringing up one of their young catchers and let one of the old guys prepare them for the big time. Both Ross and Pierczinsky are liabilities at the plate, but could mentor a young catcher to take over in 2015.
To make room for Workman and DelaRosa, the Sox could send Dubront to the bullpen, release Peavy and give Bucholz one more chance at the rotation. Bucholz deserves a chance to pitch healthy to see if he can return to his 2013 form. Peavy’s skills are in decline. The chances of his rebounding from his dismal start are slim to none.
So bring on the future. Let’s give the new Red Sox a chance to develop and see what happens. How much worse could it be?
The big story of Spring Training is the rehabilitation of Grady Sizemore as a starting center fielder and the sitting of Jacoby Ellsbury with a calf ailment. There’s a long season ahead, but the results of letting Ellsbury go and signing Sizemore has to be Ben Cherrington’s coup of the spring. And ultimately the decision to send Jackie Bradley, Jr. to Pawtucket for seasoning figured shrewdly into the equation.
How can you anticipate that a physically broken player will return to All-Star form and an up-and-coming young star will need more experience before he breaks into a championship line-up? It is the kind of baseball acumen that makes champions. At this early juncture, you have to admire what John Farrell and his boss have wrought.
Ellsbury may yet be the league’s Most Valuable Player and more power to him. But his fragility had to figure in the Red Sox’ reluctance to give him the long-term contract. He only played two seasons in which injuries did not seriously impede his performance, and he was hurt in those seasons, too. He and Sizemore may share stints on the disabled list in 2014, but the difference is that Ellsbury will get hundreds of thousands for those days, while Sizemore will make hundreds of thousands for the entire year.
The Red Sox made a similar switch with Chris Capuano and Franklin Morales, two injury-plagued lefties. Morales was traded back to the Rockies after spending a year rehabbing his arm and then walking himself off the mound in the World Series. He was always a few inches off the plate, the difference between dominance as a reliever and a liability in the mid-innings.
Capuano returned to his home state with a history of shoulder injuries, but a strong record in the National League, both as starter and reliever. Like Sizemore, he was a long shot to make the team. Like Sizemore, he came in shape and worked his way into competition. He beat out the young arms like Drake Britton and Allen Webster. He comes north in a pivotal role as reliever and spot starter. Will he survive the long 162-game trek? No one knows, but from this perspective another shrewd move by the Red Sox management.
A year ago, the Red Sox performed a similar feat signing the physically-suspect Mike Napoli and the aging Koji Uhehara. More calculated risks, which made the difference between also-rans and champions. It appears they have a method to their madness. They find low-profile and physically-battered players and turn them into stars.
Or, to coin a phrase, “To sign big stars is human, To rehab the old ones, divine.”