It is a term that lives in infamy in recent Red Sox lore, one from which team owners tried to distance themselves if not outright repudiate after its introduction to the team’s vocabulary. Nonetheless, three years after former GM Theo Epstein introduced the idea of “the bridge” to dialogue about the Red Sox, the concept remains a salient one.
Here is how Epstein described the delicate state of affairs with the Sox at the winter meetings in 2009:
“We talked about this a lot at the end of the year, that we’re kind of in a bridge period,” he said. “We still think that if we push some of the right buttons, we can be competitive at the very highest levels for the next two years. But we don’t want to compromise too much of the future for that competitiveness during the bridge period, but we all don’t want to sacrifice our competitiveness during the bridge just for the future. So we’re just trying to balance both those issues.”
The bridge was never about abandoning the idea of competing in 2010. It was always intended to suggest that the Sox wanted to field a championship caliber team while preserving the integrity of their farm system.
In many ways, that depiction defines what the team is once again trying to accomplish. The Sox have cultivated a deep core of young, talented players, some of whom have now scratched the surface of their big league potential -- Will Middlebrooks, Felix Doubront, Junichi Tarawa, to name three -- and others who will be in the upper levels of their minor league system this year, with the potential to deliver big league impact in 2013 or 2014 (Jackie Bradley Jr., Bryce Brentz, Xander Bogaerts, Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, Brandon Workman and Matt Barnes -- to name several).
Sox GM Ben Cherington is attempting to find the right additions to move beyond the nightmare of 2012 and to field a team with a chance to re-establish its competitive footing in the AL East in 2013. Yet at the same time, he’s also been candid about the idea that he wants to forge “the next great Red Sox team,” a club that can compete on a perennial basis with a largely homegrown nucleus. He wants to preserve the deep inventory of high-end prospects while also trying to find a way to give the team hope for the coming year.
That’s not to say that the team is on the same bridge that Epstein was building. Instead, given the fundamental changes that the core of the Red Sox has undergone in the three years since Epstein’s characterization, it would be more accurate to say that the team crossed one bridge only to find that it had arrived on crumbling terrain. Now, the team must find something even more stable -- an aqueduct might be nice -- to find passage to safety.
But while the team’s efforts to cross the abyss proved unsuccessful, it’s worth looking beyond the decisions at the major league level (the mix of short-team contracts for the likes of Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro, Mike Cameron and Cody Ross and ill-fated long-term deals for Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and John Lackey) to acknowledge what transpired with the prospect pool that Epstein had in mind back in 2009.
At the time that Epstein made his pronouncement, here’s how Baseball America ranked the top 10 Red Sox prospects:
1) Ryan Westmoreland
2) Casey Kelly
3) Josh Reddick
4) Lars Anderson
5) Ryan Kalish
6) Junichi Tazawa
7) Reymond Fuentes
8) Anthony Rizzo
9) Jose Iglesias
10) Derek Gibson
It’s a somewhat striking group in retrospect, given that none of the players impacted the Sox on their projected ETAs. The reasons are varied.
Westmoreland, whom the Sox thought might emerge as a potential big league regular (and potential superstar) by 2012, endured a cavernous malformation on his brain that required surgery and made his baseball career a secondary concern. Kelly -- once considered a potential big leaguer in 2010 -- instead followed a more deliberate development path both before and after he was traded to the Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez deal; he made his big league debut at the end of 2012.
Reddick was considered a potential big league regular, at least in a platoon, by late 2010 or early 2011. He more or less followed that timetable, though it wasn’t until 2012 with the A’s that he flourished. Anderson’s prospect stock fell steadily with the Sox, to the point where he was traded for a minor league knuckleballer at the trade deadline.
In 2010, Kalish looked like he had arrived. Instead, injuries set him back in both 2011 and 2012, to the point where it remains to be seen if he’ll open 2013 in the big leagues or Triple-A. While Tazawa looked like he would be ready for a fixed spot in the big leagues by 2010 or 2011, Tommy John surgery pushed back his schedule until the second half of 2012.
Fuentes was dealt to the Padres in the Gonzalez deal; not only is he out of the system, but there are now considerable questions about whether he’ll hit enough to become a big league regular. Though he was young while in the Double-A Texas League this year, he hit just .218 with a .604 OPS.
At the time that Epstein discussed the bridge, Iglesias was viewed as a likely everyday shortstop by 2012. Offensively, he wasn’t ready for that responsibility this year, though the Sox might take something of a leap of faith and hope that the still-young (23 in January) shortstop might be capable of offensive adequacy in 2013 in the big leagues. Still, his prospect stock has nudged down slightly, as Baseball America now views him as the No. 10 overall prospect in the Sox system.
Gibson, meanwhile, now looks like, at best, a big league utility player, as he’s endured steadily declining on-base percentages over the last three years. He hit .225 with a .304 OBP and .576 OPS as a 22-year-old in Double-A Portland; he won’t merit consideration as a top-30 prospect in the Sox system.
The only member of that Red Sox top 10 to exceed his projected prospect path was Rizzo, who after being dealt twice (first to the Padres in the Gonzalez deal, then to the Cubs in January), seems on the cusp of emerging as a middle-of-the-order first baseman for years to come. As a 22-year-old, he hit .285/.342/.463/.805 with 15 homers in 87 games for the Cubs in 2012.
In sum: Of the Red Sox’ top 10 prospects from the original bridge year, five remain in the Red Sox organization. One (Reddick) roughly matched his projection, one (Rizzo) exceeded it in both timeframe and ceiling, one exceeded it in ceiling but lagged behind his projected timeframe (Tazawa) and the rest have seen their prospect status fall or disappear completely.
That’s a reality of the so-called bridge with which the Sox must now contend. There are no guarantees with prospects. Disappointments are an expected part of the developmental process. (So are surprises. After all, Doubront was tagged the No. 18 prospect in the Sox system that offseason while Middlebrooks was rated 19th among Sox minor leaguers.)
That said, it would be a mistake to suggest that a farm system that looks promising will inevitably deliver a letdown. The Baseball America Top 10 entering the 2006 season featured Jon Lester (No. 2), Jonathan Papelbon (3), Dustin Pedroia (5), Jacoby Ellsbury (6), Kelly Shoppach (7), Manny Delcarmen (8), Jed Lowrie (9) and Clay Buchholz (10). That group -- even with the disappearances of “top prospect” Andy Marte and No. 4 prospect Craig Hansen -- delivered incredible impact.
The Red Sox’ future for years to come will be determined less by the players whom they sign this month and next than by whether their current inventory of high-ceiling prospects more closely approximates the impact made by the 2005 Top 10 or the 2010 group.
As much as the focus in the coming days, particularly at the much-ballyhooed winter meetings that will take place in Nashville -- will turn to the bridge itself and whether the Sox will sign a Mike Napoli or an Adam LaRoche or a Nick Swisher -- the issue of what lies on the other side of this offseason’s bridge and the inherent difficulty of prospect projection looms large.