Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz

On the Red Sox’s Core, Youth, Farm System and Parentheses

As we sit on the cusp of spring training and beyond it, the 2016 season, the Red Sox face an interesting roster composition. Of the players projected to be on the team’s 25-man roster when the season begins, 10 are veteran players on multi-year deals with two or more seasons remaining in those contracts. Twelve are players in either the pre-arbitration process or entering their first year of arbitration eligibility. That’s a lot of players who will be or can be here for multiple seasons. Beyond that, of the Red Sox top-10 prospects (according to Sox Prospects), eight have never played above Single-A ball before.

Just three players enter the season with a single year of team control left. One of those players is David Ortiz, who has stated his intention to retire following the season. Another is Koji Uehara, who will be 41 years old this season, and may be thinking along the same lines as Ortiz even if he hasn’t said so publicly. The only other player on the presumed 25-man roster who will be a free agent following the 2016 season is reliever Junichi Tazawa. This means the Red Sox aren’t just set for right now here in 2016, their roster is set for 2017 as well, if they want it be. The Red Sox could, if they wanted to, keep almost exactly the same 25 man roster for two full seasons. That could be very good! Or, you know, not.

The Red Sox could, if they wanted to, keep almost exactly the same 25 man roster for two full seasons.

That said, though they have numerous long-term commitments for big money to veteran players, the Red Sox can turn over almost their entire roster in three seasons if they want to. Baring trade or retirement, the 2019 season will see the following members of the 2016 Red Sox still under contract: Dustin Pedroia, Rick Porcello, Pablo Sandoval, Rusney Castillo. That’s it. Four guys. David Price has an opt-out following the 2018 season which he is very likely to use, but even if he fails to exercise it, that’s five players. The remaining 19 will be younger players, players acquired in trades, players signed to contract extensions between now and then, and free agents added in between future seasons. This is a very static roster for the next few seasons and then it dissolves like sand through your fingers.

This is good news because, as I noted above, the Red Sox don’t have much in the way of major league-ready minor league talent. Shortstop Deven Marrero could see time in Boston this season, but he doesn’t project to ever be more than a bench bat, at least with the Red Sox. First  baseman Sam Travis is the other player on the top-10 list to have played above Single-A and he’s played all of 65 games in Double-A so he’s not exactly knocking on the door. There is a scenario where he gets a September call-up this season, but it’s unlikely he’s counted upon to play first base in Boston in the near future.

With the minor league talent still a few seasons away, the Red Sox are fortunate that they can maintain their roster without too many intrusions from free agency over the next few seasons. What’s more, for a team as dependent as the Red Sox have been on free agents, the roster is surprisingly young. The average age of the 10 veterans on multi-year deals is 30 years old, and if you take out Ryan Hanigan’s age-35 from the group, the oldest by three years, the average age drops to 29 (for whatever that’s worth). This is a young group, relatively speaking. But it gets better, because the 12 players with multiple years remaining in the pre-arbitration/arbitration process have an average age of 26. The oldest of them is 31 (Steven Wright) and he’s the oldest by three years (Brock Holt and Joe Kelly). Mostly the Red Sox will be depending on players who are both young and have some major league experience. That’s a recipe for success right there.

Looking at the players’ ages on the roster, there are two different ways to see it. The Red Sox have some older players who aren’t over the hill yet (probably) and they have a bunch of younger players who are just approaching their prime years. However there aren’t a lot of players who will be in their peak seasons (26-28) on the 2016 Red Sox. If you go through and count, there are eight, which sounds like a lot (sort of), but those players are mostly bench bats (Travis Shaw, Brock Holt), or back-end pitchers (Joe Kelly, Robbie Ross). It’s true Rick Porcello is in that group (though he was last year as well), and so is Rusney Castillo, though Castillo’s increasing familiarity with the major leagues and major league pitching is the only thing that gives me hope for his improvement in 2016. Even so, most of the players who figure to pitch the most innings and take the most plate appearances will be either pre-prime or post-prime.

If the 2016 Red Sox are good, the 2017 Red Sox could be very similar, and maybe, given their ages, even better.

It’s been written and said that Boston’s minor league system is one of the best in the game, and that is true, but it doesn’t seem likely to graduate impact talent to the major league roster in 2016, and maybe not in 2017 either. Beyond that though? Well. Now we’re talking. The Red Sox outfield currently features some young and exciting players in Castillo, Jackie Bradley, and Mookie Betts. We already have a pretty solid understanding of Betts’ star-level abilities, but Bradley and Castillo are big question marks. Perhaps they will both work out beautifully, but more likely one (or both) of them won’t. If problems erupt between now and 2018 there could be issues, but by then Andrew Benintendi looks to be ready (if not before) (there sure are a lot of parentheses in this article!). Beyond him, it seems likely to me though the Red Sox haven’t said so, Yoan Moncada’s future lies in the outfield. If he’s able to throw and run like has been reported, that seems a better usage of those skills than second base, a position the Red Sox already have covered. Rafael Devers is in a similar situation. I’d be less surprised if he stayed in the infield than Moncada, but his power looks likely to play anywhere, so if third base proves too difficult to master, left field should be an option, though his growth may limit him to first base. In all, the team looks to have some impact talent show up right around the time Xander Bogaerts, Betts, Bradley, Blake Swihart, and Eduardo Rodriguez hit their primes.

All this means the Red Sox have a clear path to a quality roster over the next four or five seasons. The current roster can remain in place for two seasons, then the minor league system needs to and appears very able to step up and fill any of the holes in the roster with talent. At that point, the youth from today will become the veterans of tomorrow. There is a clear track here. Red Sox will have the ability and the opportunity to keep their club together in the short term if they should desire to do so, and then the ability to add to their talent base from within. If the 2016 Red Sox are good, the 2017 Red Sox could be very similar, and maybe, given their ages, even better. Now get back to shoveling snow. It’s almost baseball time. This could be the start of a nice run.

Photo by Mark L. Baer/USA Today Sports Images

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