The 2012 season altered perceptions of what young players can accomplish in the big leagues.
On Monday, Mike Trout became the youngest American League Rookie of the Year recipient ever when his season for the ages -- achieved as a 20-year-old -- earned unanimous recognition in balloting. In the National League, Bryce Harper -- who excelled as a 19-year-old -- became the youngest NL position player to win the award, and the second youngest ever behind only Dwight Gooden.
Those two were not alone in their precocious dominance. Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, who turned 20 in July, also played a key role in helping Baltimore reach the playoffs for the first time since 1997. Jurickson Profar made his big league debut as a 19-year-old; his talent as a teenager is such that there is already a case to be made that he’s rendered one of Texas’ All-Star middle infielders (Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler) expendable.
It was a dazzling display by four remarkable young talents. In particular, the debuts by Trout and Harper ranked among the best in major league history by players of their ages.
In New England, the mesmerizing accomplishments of those players also came with a question: Why don’t the Red Sox have such impactful young players? And with that came a corollary: Why do the Red Sox wait so long to graduate their prospects to the big leagues?
Fans were not alone in posing such questions. Team CEO/president Larry Lucchino even raised the point near the end of the season in an interview on WEEI’s Dennis & Callahan.
“Baseball is a game for the young. As cliched as it sounds, I've been saying that over and over, particularly this year. It is a game for young players,” said Lucchino. “We're seeing it with the Trouts, the shortstop in Texas, some of the younger players that have come up, to be sure. I think there is a reason for that. I think that has to do with the effectiveness of the Commissioner's drug program -- I think that the removal of the steroid curse, and equally important, the elimination of amphetamines. ... The game became, has become, much more a game for younger players.
“We have taken a very conservative approach historically to the advancement of players in our minor league system,” Lucchino added. “I think that's just an undeniable fact. I hope that as we focus more on scouting and player development in the next few years in particular, that will change -- that there will be a presumption for slightly more rapid growth.”
The statement was an intriguing one on a number of levels, suggesting a possible rift in the operating philosophy of the team’s baseball operation. But, upon further examination, it also seems that Lucchino’s premise may have been flawed.
The Red Sox have not had a Trout or a Harper or a Jason Heyward or a Giancarlo Stanton come up in recent years. But they’re not alone. Such standout talents rarely come along. It’s not uncommon for a team to have one such player emerge every decade or three.
In the last 10 years, there are nine teams that haven’t had a single player reach the majors by his age 20 season. The Sox are among them. But that reflects, at least in part, on where the team has drafted (almost always, for the last 44 years, late in the first round), meaning that the opportunities to take high schoolers with prodigious almost-straight-to-the-majors skill sets have not existed. At the same time, the team’s limited success in the international amateur market has meant that, for the last decade, the team has been without players who were ready to advance to the big leagues after being signed at age 16.
But the idea that the Sox follow a typically conservative player development course is somewhat misleading. The team is actually fairly aggressive in terms of its placements of players according to levels for their ages, even at the risk of permitting prospects to struggle against more advanced competition, since such adversity offers the opportunity for growth.
Typically, when a player is a borderline call between two levels, the team will err on the side of pushing him to the more advanced level. That pattern has been seen with players such as Jose Iglesias (who was assigned to Triple-A Pawtucket as a 21-year-old at the start of 2011), Xander Bogaerts (who opened this year as the youngest position player in the Carolina League), Henry Owens (who was assigned to full-season Single-A Greenville this year despite never having pitched after being drafted last summer) and many more.
That said, the Sox also reside in a division that, for nearly two decades, has been the most ferocious in the game. The standard for big league readiness in the AL East has simply been different than it has been in other divisions for two primary reasons.
First, the potential for a younger, overmatched prospect to get his brains beaten in is increased. Secondly, teams have less latitude to permit players to develop in the big leagues while maintaining their competitive ambitions.
Still, within the framework of the daunting AL East, the Sox have still been as aggressive as any team in the division in promoting their young players to the big leagues. Over the last five years, the Sox are tied for the lead in the AL East in terms of the most players age 22 and under (7) and the most players 23 and under (13). Despite the fact that the team is in perennial contention (or, at least, it was until 2012), it has brought up as many 22-year-olds in the last five years as the Blue Jays and Orioles, and more than either the Yankees or Rays.
Put another way: Which Red Sox players have remained in the minors beyond the point of their readiness for the big leagues? The examples are limited.
Ryan Lavarnway likely was ready to move up to the big leagues this year before his August promotion. However, the Sox had arguably the most productive catching tandem in the American League (Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach) blocking his path through the first four months of the year. Finally, the team decided to dump Shoppach shortly after the trade deadline to open a spot for Lavarnway.
A case can be made that the Sox should have found a way to bring Clay Buchholz back to the majors earlier in 2009 than ended up being the case. He spent all of the first half dominating in Triple-A Pawtucket, remaining behind pitchers like Brady Penny and John Smoltz while the Sox tried to figure out whether either could contribute meaningfully to the rotation.
Beyond those two, it seems difficult to find instances in which the Sox didn’t put their most talented prospects on relatively fast tracks to the big leagues, aside, perhaps, from spending a couple weeks playing with call-up dates to save the team from an extra year of salary arbitration or to guarantee an extra season of pre-free agent big league service time.
Will Middlebrooks had all of 40 games in Triple-A by the time he made his big league debut this year. Ryan Kalish had spent 37 games in Pawtucket when the Sox moved him into their starting lineup in 2010. Jacoby Ellsbury had barely had time to unpack in a locker in Pawtucket in 2007 when he reached the majors. Both Josh Reddick and Justin Masterson were promoted to the big leagues directly from Double-A.
Daniel Bard spent less than two months in Pawtucket in 2009 before he was moved up; Jon Lester was in Triple-A for less than three months before his big league debut in 2006 (and that duration was largely a result of the team’s effort to manage his innings increase). Dustin Pedroia was given a permanent spot in the big leagues at the start of 2007 at a time when no one but he and Red Sox front office members thought he was ready for it.
By and large, then, the Sox have actually been fairly aggressive in moving their players up through the system. Few would have suggested otherwise until 2012, when the emergence of a few young stars who aren’t yet old enough to drink coincided with the move through the system of the Sox’ most dazzling prospect in years in Xander Bogaerts, who at 19 years old performed at an elite level against both High-A and Double-A competition, finishing the year as the first Sox teenager since Tony Conigliaro with at least 20 homers at any level(s).
So why wasn’t Bogaerts promoted to the big leagues?
Several reasons. First, he had spent just 23 games in Double-A at the end of the year -- considerably less than the 58 games that Harper spent in Double-A and Triple-A before his call-up, or the 111 games in the upper levels that Trout played before his permanent spot was forged on the Angels’ roster, or the 109 games that Machado spent this year in Double-A.
And while Bogaerts held his own in Portland, hitting .326 with a .351 OBP, .598 slugging mark and .948 OPS in 23 games, he also had one walk and 21 strikeouts. That disparity suggests that he needs to make advances in his ability to work deeper into counts and to handle breaking stuff at the upper levels before he’s in position to contribute at the big league level.
Moreover, there are other relevant considerations related to Bogaerts’ service time and status. The Sox would have had to add him to the 40-man roster and thus likely burn an unnecessary option on him at the start of 2013 to send him back down to the minors. At the same time, the team would have had to clear a 40-man spot for him, meaning that a September trial for Bogaerts would have meant the loss of another player in the organization. And, of course, it’s possible that a September trial could have accelerated Bogaerts’ path to either salary arbitration or free agency by a year – somewhat pointlessly, given that the Sox had nothing to play for in September, at a time when the team also needed to gauge the big league readiness of Jose Iglesias at shortstop.
Team officials acknowledged that they might have considered a call-up for Bogaerts had they been in contention and if he was the best candidate to address an area of need. Had the team been in the same position as the Orioles, then the logic expressed by Dan Duquette in adding Machado to its big league roster -- “Our future is now,” Duquette said in September of the service time decision with Machado -- might have prevailed in Boston with Bogaerts as well.
But given the different circumstances, there seemed little point to rushing Bogaerts beyond the pace at which he is already blitzing through the minors. At 19, Bogaerts was the second youngest position player in the Carolina League and the youngest in the Eastern League. He’s already moving quickly. It would be hard to say that there's a screaming need for him to move any faster, or that the team has been particularly conservative about his development path, or those of any of their other players.
"Traditionally, over the last 10 years or so, the major league team has been very competitive," explained Sox farm director Ben Crockett. "All three of those guys this year (Trout, Harper, Machado) are on teams that [were] in the [postseason] hunt, but in general, it's hard to break young players in in that type of situation. It's also based on need of those teams, that a young player might provide an upgrade on what they had or fits well into the mix. Those guys are also pretty elite talents, were able to succeed at every level.
"[But] in general, I think our teams are young for their level, going through team by team, with a couple of them within the youngest couple in their league at any given time. It's a mix. You want to push guys and challenge guys, you don't want to push guys over their head where they're going to fail and potentially take a step back. It's not an exact science, but it's a balance of trying to push guys to a place where they can hone whatever they need to improve and have them in a place where they have a chance to succeed but also are challenged by the level."
The Sox will promote players to the big leagues when a) they represent the best option to help the team win and b) winning matters. Those circumstances prevailed for a few teams in a remarkable 2012 season with a potentially historic class of young rookies in Trout, Harper and Machado (not to mention another insanely gifted young player in Dylan Bundy who made his big league debut with the O's). They were not in play for the Red Sox.
Still, for an organization that makes no secret of its belief that its hopes of a return to competitive success must be driven by a fertile farm system, there should be plenty of opportunities in the coming seasons to see young players matriculating to the majors at a fairly aggressive pace.