FORT MYERS, Fla. -- John Farrell understands it because he has lived it in many different guises. And he is living it again in his first spring as Red Sox manager.
The promise of young talent is the great seduction of every March. Nothing turns heads during spring training like a first glimpse of young prospects, which carries with it the idea of a ground-floor view to the next big thing.
Yet there is a danger to the daydreaming about what a young player might become, an undertaking that is in some respects akin to the call of a siren. After all, there is a fragility that undergirds both potential and success, and so there is a reality that a team may end up crashing into the rocks while navigating the waters of prospect development.
This spring has offered numerous examples of the extremity of prospect potential. Of course, the Jackie Bradley Jr. show has been the most compelling story of the spring, but the potential demonstrated by Rubby De La Rosa and particularly Allen Webster in big league camp proved nearly as captivating. So, too, has the continued emergence of Will Middlebrooks as a presence on the team, on and off the field, as he prepares for his first full year in the big leagues.
On the other end of the spectrum, there have been reminders that even the most gifted prospect may never prove capable of making a sustained big league impact, let alone reach what seems to be limitless potential -- including one particularly harrowing reminder.
"There's examples of [the fragility of talent] all around, and it's brought to a head by Ryan Westmoreland -- something that is out of anyone's control," said Farrell, referencing the outfielder who retired after a pair of brain surgeries robbed him of the ability to continue his career.
Yet Westmoreland is merely the most dramatic illustration this spring of the unpredictability of how talent will translate into a career.
Ryan Kalish, who in 2010 seemed to be on the cusp of a long career as an everyday player, remains unable to take part in baseball activity while recovering from his third major surgery in the last 19 months. He serves as a reminder of the potential for on-field injuries to derail a career.
Daniel Bard is continuing his efforts to reclaim the delivery and approach that made him one of the most effective relievers in baseball. With him, there is a sense of both how fine the mechanical line is between dominance and struggle and, to many talent evaluators, a case study in the importance and difficulty of maintaining the ideal mental approach to permit athletic gifts to translate on the field.
Though he's been excellent on the mound this spring, Felix Doubront's commitment to conditioning has raised questions about whether his tremendous arm will yield an impactful career for the long haul. In a very different way, left-hander Drake Britton's arrest this spring highlights the issue of the potential off-the-field tripwires that can imperil a prospect's career.
Collectively, such instances underscore the idea that there must be a remarkable confluence of factors to create a successful big league career. A wide-ranging number of variables, including health, makeup, opportunity and luck, must combine even for an incredibly talented player to experience success. There are so many variables, in fact, that promise and success always reside on something of a precipice, a foundation with the potential to crumble at any moment whether for reasons under the player's control or not.
And Farrell knows this.
"There's no clear path. There's no template for these things," Farrell said. "What you learn over time is, don't rush to judgment. Don't all of a sudden say, 'Whoa,' and go out on a limb and set such a high expectation internally or to the individual that it can't match up to it.
"There is that balance of invincibility, yet if a player takes that same attitude to every walk of his life, that's where you can really derail things. On the one hand, there's [a sense by players that], 'I'm going to beat the odds.' Yet there's a whole list of derailers over here," he said, holding his right hand up, "that you've got to navigate through either subconsciously or consciously to make this side," he said, raising his left hand in an indication of moving from prospect to successful big leaguer, "come to life."
It is a lesson that Farrell has experienced in a number of capacities. He was himself both a prospect and a very promising young big leaguer, a second-round draft pick in the 1984 draft who was inexplicably jostled from Single-A to Triple-A in his first pro summer, an overwhelming adjustment that set the stage for a backwards-and-forwards development path. He was invited to big league camp the spring after his draft year and pitched in Double-A in his first full professional season in 1985, where he had his lunch handed to him (7-13, 5.19 ERA) and was sent back to Double-A for a second full year in 1986.
"That was where, going back again for the second year, it was like, 'OK, you've got to do something to keep going from here,' " Farrell recalled.
He transformed from a classic over-the-top delivery to a more compact one that turned him into a strike-zone pounding aggressor with a mid-90s fastball, a change up and, by his own reckoning, a bad breaking ball.
The new delivery laid the groundwork for what appeared to be a run of big league success, as he averaged averaged 214 innings a year from 1987-89, with a 3.86 ERA in the big leagues during that time. But it also set the stage for his pitching ruination, as the biomechanical adjustments ultimately ravaged Farrell's elbow, leaving him unable to pitch for more than two full years while recovering from Tommy John surgery and then leaving him in pitching survival mode for the rest of a career in which he shuffled between Triple-A and the majors.
As his career wound down, he knew that he wanted to remain in the game and to experience the game from a different perspective. That lent itself to what Farrell, in retrospect, recognizes as the perfect first post-playing job. He returned to Oklahoma State to finish his degree and to serve as the assistant baseball coach.
"When I went back and coached in college, coming out of playing, it was probably the best position I ever could have been in, and I didn't know it at the time. There was an administrative side of it, you had to organize practice, recruit, scout, go into homes and sell your program in that recruiting process," said Farrell. "There was always a blend of that organization side and getting hand's on with a player on the field. That's why it seemed that the next natural step to me was a similar path, obviously in a much more responsible position."
As a college coach, he learned to identify and project talent, then work with players (particularly pitchers) to try to nurture and develop their gifts. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. That experience made him a natural to transition into player development, and from 2001-06, he transitioned into the front office as the director of the Indians' farm system.
Again, the lessons were everywhere: A 2002 blockbuster between the Indians and Expos that netted Cleveland Cliff Lee (who went from dominance to a wreck who was optioned to the minors back to dominance), Brandon Phillips (a dazzling second baseman who never worked out with the Indians, was claimed off waivers by the Reds and flourished as an All-Star) and Grady Sizemore (who became exactly what the Indians hoped only to prove physically unable to remain on the field). There was Andy Marte, the player whom the Indians acquired from the Red Sox as the centerpiece of the Coco Crisp deal in 2006 and who looked, in his first spring with Cleveland, like a potential lineup fixture; Marte never made an impact in the big leagues.
Development paths were unique rather than predictable. One player's career trajectory -- or skill sets -- did not necessarily mean anything for another's.
And so, from his player development vantage point, Farrell would look at players not as they were but as what they could become. Typically, such a perspective meant preaching patience, erring on the side of discipline when it came to pushing prospects through the system and up to the big league ranks.
But his move to the dugout as a Red Sox pitching coach in 2007, and more significantly, his transition to the job of manager first with the Blue Jays starting for the 2011 season and now with the Red Sox, pulls Farrell in a different direction. There is a yin-and-yang to the two aspects of his professional being -- the player development guy who believes in waiting patiently for a prospect's arrival and whose focus is on the long-term health of both a player and organization, and the manager who is chewed from the inside-out by every loss.
"They do become at odds," Farrell said of those two perspectives. "When I was a farm director, I was protective of young players and protective of the minor leagues. That's just caring about what you're involved in. Now, I take a much different view of the minor leagues -- 'Let's go' -- because the focus is on the big league club and the 25-man roster. So while the methodical path of someone who oversees the minor league system is preserved and probably less emotional, it's harder to separate that emotion for a young, bright looking player who might be a little bit ahead of his time. You're probably more willing in this seat to be aggressive with that rather than be protective of it."
For instance, with the Blue Jays, there was a player like Brett Lawrie. From the dugout perspective, in spring training of 2011, the 21-year-old appeared capable of making a considerable big league impact immediately. His broad skill set and advanced baseball instincts suggested someone who could upgrade the roster even as he finished his development at the big league level.
But the Blue Jays opted to send Lawrie back down, with multiple considerations in play: Service time and the idea of whether a team was better served to enjoy a player's contributions as a developing 21-year-old or to capture an extra year of free agency in the player's prime while also staving off his eligibility for salary arbitration; and the idea that the finishing touches of player development are typically best accomplished in the minors rather than the big leagues.
In that instance, Toronto elected to open the year with Lawrie in Triple-A. He dominated, but at the point where the team was just about ready to call him up (after the window for accelerating his arbitration eligibility had passed), a stray pitch broke his hand. And so, a player whom any big league manager would have wanted on the roster on Opening Day ended up making his big league debut in August.
Still, even as Farrell the manager was disappointed not to have a player like Lawrie at his disposal all year, he also could reconcile his outlook with the perspective of the longer-term. It's not easy, but even while focused on the here-and-now of winning and losing, Farrell can still hear the echoes of his player development past.
"I find myself having to take a step back and sort of shift gears in the mindset of, what's best for this player and what's best for us long term? I can't do it in the dugout or this office. I probably have to do that when I'm on my way home or at home, think a little bit more objectively," he explained. "Just like a player has to blend his personal goals with the organization's goals, I have to do the same thing. There's a little bit of a give and take."
Those scenarios presented themselves in Toronto. And now, of course, they are presenting themselves with the Red Sox.
"There's a couple young guys in this camp where you can say, 'Let's go from day one,' " Farrell said a couple weeks ago, before the team had optioned Webster and De La Rosa to the minors and before the Bradley debate had become all-encompassing, "but that's probably not the best thing."
But whether, in the case of Bradley, it will become the right thing to do for the Red Sox to call up the promising outfielder for Opening Day remains an open question. (After all, Farrell noted, "the player tells you when he's ready." He continues to view players as unique, rather than shaped by the same cookie cutter.)
But that will not be the only question. There will remain others -- chiefly, whether the gifts that make Bradley such a compelling prospect this spring allow him to flourish into a productive big leaguer. Every indication is that the answer will be yes, but even what appears to be the surest thing can ultimately prove a mirage when it comes to prospect forecasting.
After three decades with a front-row seat to the fine line between excellence and disappointment, Farrell knows this reality. He understands it. He lives it.