Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts

Rebuilding the Red Sox: The Case for Retaining the Core

As I sit here on my couch, the Red Sox are 78-81, tied with both Baltimore and Tampa for last place in the AL East. That, friends, is an accomplishment. More than that, it’s a triumph! On August 14th we found out easily the worst news we would receive this season: manager John Farrell had cancer. He would have to leave the team immediately for treatment. Since that day, perhaps in tribute to him, the Red Sox have gone 28-17. They’ve gone from 14 games under .500 to three games under. They’ve gone from being hopelessly outscored on the season to outscoring their opponents for the season. The Red Sox’s pythagorean record is now a winning record.

Forget the silliness of Rich Hill (fun as he his) and Craig Breslow as starting pitchers. Boston’s core starting pitching has been fine during the second half, and the team has the third highest scoring offense in baseball during that same time frame. This is the team Ben Cherington imagined, with maybe a bit of help (as opposed to a lot of hurt) from Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to put it further over the top. This is a good team. We can see that now. Whether Sandoval or Ramirez comes back and contributes next season almost doesn’t matter.

That’s because the thing that makes this team so strong and so full of potential at the same time is their young players. Mookie Betts has been worth five wins this season and it’s not hard to see that there is more in there. Does a seven-win season sound ridiculous? It should, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible from Betts. He’s that good. Bogaerts is another happy story. But even with the general lack of power, his improved defense has meant he can stay at shortstop, and from that viewpoint his power would be a welcome but unnecessary development. That said, it’s not hard to watch Bogaerts and see the power lurking within. When he gets a hold of one it looks so easy, so effortless, you start to ask yourself why he doesn’t do that all the time. Scouts seem to think, in time, he will.

Those are your cornerstones. But that’s not all. I feel like Bob Barker. There’s also Blake Swihart who could turn into another as soon as next season, and he’s closely followed by Christian Vazquez, Eduardo Rodriguez, Henry Owens and Jackie Bradley. Now imagine if Rusney Castillo figures it out! This is a hell of a starting point. There’s no team in the division with anything close to this kind of young talent with both the ability to win now and the ability to win more later.

There’s no team in the division with anything close to this kind of young talent with both the ability to win now and the ability to win more later.

Of course, the team isn’t perfect. A high-end starting pitcher would be nice at least for next season, though I continue to believe they could get by without one. The bullpen needs a series of upgrades as well, though even with Robbie Ross at the wheel the team has done alright over the past few months.

So here’s the problem. There’s a common perception that the Red Sox are going into an off-season that will contain big changes for them. New team president Dave Dombrowski is poised to shake things up, to make some moves and get things going for next season. Razzle-dazzle, ya know? The thing is, if you look at what has happened, the Red Sox’s recent play argues for fewer changes rather than more.

Gordon Edes of ESPN Boston recently quoted a source of his as saying a few years back the Red Sox could have had Giancarlo Stanton in trade. The cost would have started at Xander Bogaerts. Now a few years ago Bogaerts began the season in Double-A so he was a highly regarded prospect, but hardly a sure thing, hardly the kind of player a team builds around like he appears to us now. Asking for Xander isn’t an unreasonable demand and it’s a trade that you could reasonably support making from the Red Sox’s perspective back in 2013. But now? Kind of hard to imagine, isn’t it? This isn’t to say that wouldn’t have been a good deal to make, just to recognize the work that Cherington put into not just drafting and developing players, but in not succumbing to the temptation to trade them away, either.

This current Red Sox team in some ways reminds me of the mid-90s New York Yankees. It’s maybe worth exploring more in depth in a future column, but in short those specific Yankee players stayed in New York and thrived on the field for a decade because owner George Steinbrenner was suspended and therefore wasn’t able to trade them for garbage middle relievers before they were established stars. Thus the Yankees held on to Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte, and another Yankee dynasty was born.

The Red Sox likely don’t have a Pettitte and they surely don’t have a Rivera, but in Williams the center fielder, the Red Sox have Betts, in Jeter the shortstop, the Red Sox have Bogaerts, and in Posada the catcher, the Red Sox have Swihart. It’s can be dangerous to compare young players to stars with long careers, but the Red Sox’s guys have that kind of upside, that kind of ability.

Dombrowski isn’t going to blow things up just to blow them up. He’s smarter than that, and he’s given every indication, including hiring Mike Hazen as GM, that he respects and values what the Red Sox organization has done well during the Cherington years. But Dombrowski also made it clear he’s not unwilling to trade anyone. That’s not a bad thing in theory. If the Angels are putting Mike Trout on the table, you unlock the vault, but it seems less like a theoretical statement and more like a “For Sale” sign on the Red Sox, and that is a bit scary.

It would be a shame to lose these young Red Sox stars just as they’re getting established, just as we’re falling in love with them, just as we’re watching them take their first steps toward success in a Red Sox uniform.

They say you have to give value to get value, and I’m sure we’d come to love Sonny Gray or Stephen Strasburg or whoever, but it would be such a shame to lose these young Red Sox stars just as they’re getting established, just as we’re falling in love with them, just as we’re watching them take their first steps toward success in a Red Sox uniform.

The simple truth is you can’t have winning without losing. If all we did was win it wouldn’t mean anything. There would be no context. This is why 2004 was so special and why few Yankee fans have specific memories of the 1999 Yankee team that also won the Series. The same thing is true on an individual level. Following a guy from Single-A to the majors, to an All Star game, to a World Series is one of the great pleasures a baseball fan can have. When you bring guys up, there is the inevitable struggle. Xander had it last year. Mookie… well, he’s Mookie, but still, most guys struggle. Swihart has gone through that a bit this season. Those early struggles are learning experiences not just for the payers, but for the fans. When the time comes, if it comes, when the team takes that huge step forward, as it finally did with Trot Nixon and Jason Varitek, as it did again with Youk and Dustin Pedroia, as it did just two years ago with Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Jacoby Ellsbury, it means so much more.

Dombrowski is going to do what he does. I just hope that he appreciates the foundation here in Boston, not just in terms of organizational structure, front office brain power, or minor league depth, but in terms of the incredibly talented youth in Boston now on the precipice of greatness. There are times for action, but there are times when the prudent thing to do is nothing. I hope Dombrowski recognizes that too.

Photo by Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports Images

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1 comment on “Rebuilding the Red Sox: The Case for Retaining the Core”


I like the idea of keeping the young players but the pitchers on the minor league teams are not promising.

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