"The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world." -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Great Gatsby"
So, The Bridge.
The mere mention of the term still makes Red Sox officials squeamish, given what the notion came to represent in public perception. Yet the 2013 season represented the triumph of the notion articulated by former GM Theo Epstein four offseasons ago.
The idea was always meant to describe a means of creating a safe passage from one championship-caliber core of prospects to another while sustaining postseason and even World Series ambitions in the interim. The alternative to the bridge? A chasm, a Wile E. Coyote style plummet (punctuated by an anvil on the head) after sprinting off a cliff -- what other teams would traditionally refer to as a painful rebuild.
The bridge was meant to be the alternative to that bottoming out in the short-term, a mechanism through which the team would near the stable footing of the next group of homegrown prospects while approaching from a vantage point that was attractive in its own right.
That blueprint is exactly what has been accomplished in 2013. The Red Sox added one veteran after another on short-term deals, in the process creating a protective (and successful) surface under which the team's impressive ensemble of prospects could continue to mature safely, either in the upper minors or in carefully defined roles as they transitioned to the big leagues. The veterans proved capable of excelling -- 95 wins and counting -- while permitting the farm system to reach a point where the big league team is *almost* ready to start benefiting from the integration of young players in full-time roles.
This is how the bridge works. It provides safe, even triumphant passage across a period of potential peril (i.e., one in which young players are exposed before they are ready to excel), before reaching the considerable promise (a gifted core of prospects) that awaits the other side of that gulf between two stretches.
But what does that mean?
The Red Sox have progressed to an extraordinary degree as an organization. The 2013 campaign has been a revelation beyond the expectations even of many who worked for the team. It's been a success by virtually every measure. But that doesn't mean, regardless of how far the team advances in the postseason, that it's represented the arrival of the Red Sox at the destination they intend to reach.
The end of the bridge is in sight. But the Red Sox have not yet arrived at their intended road that will carry them forward.
"The younger players who have been in the system who we have been thinking for some time would eventually be part of the depth and eventually be part of the team have started to come up this year. Instead of it being prospects who were sort of make-believe at the major league level, it became more real this year with guys coming up and playing a role, and some of them a meaningful role," GM Ben Cherington said in this podcast on the state of his farm system. "That's the first step, for guys to come up and be part of the depth that you need throughout the season. The next step is to become a more integrated part of the team, and we expect that will happen more over time."
In other words: The Red Sox have seen the strength of their farm system advance progressively up the ladder. In 2013, for the first time in several years, the Sox featured several prospects in Double-A and Triple-A who were either ready to offer support to the big league team or who will represent part of the depth equation in 2014.
Players like Jackie Bradley Jr., Allen Webster, Xander Bogaerts, Brandon Workman, Ryan Lavarnway and Drake Britton all contributed in the big leagues this year. Outfielder Bryce Brentz, right-handers Anthony Ranaudo and Matt Barnes and catcher Christian Vazquez are among the players who ended the year in Triple-A.
The Sox have developed just one everyday player (Will Middlebrooks) and one starting pitcher (Felix Doubront) who have emerged as central contributors in Boston in the last five seasons. The pipeline hasn't been completely dry, but until this year, it had offered barely a trickle of homegrown talent. That started to change this year, and Cherington anticipates the flow will increase going forward.
"It's a relative position of strength to be in, to be able to call a young guy up, not just to fill a depth-type role, which happened this year, but to start to be able to think of them as possible regular contributors moving forward, whether it's next year or the year after," said Cherington. "We know we need that to happen to have a chance to be good, year-in, year-out, and not just to be good in one particular year.
"We're fortunate that we had a group of young players getting to the upper levels in the minors, some of whom have been up with the big league club already, who have a chance to be real contributors for us," he added. "Exactly what those roles are and what time they take hold is to be determined, still. We know that in a place like Boston, we're not going to be doing it en masse. It's going to be, more likely, gradual -- gradual but absolute. There will be a commitment to making sure we integrate young players onto the team. We know we have to do that again to be good for a longer period of time and not just for a single year."
As successful as the 2013 Red Sox have been, the veteran-laden model that was employed this year is not the one that the Sox will employ -- at least not to the exclusion of prospects -- going forward. That doesn't mean the Sox are going to shift wholesale to prospects in 2014. As Cherington noted, the team won't commit "en masse" to prospects; the team plans on managing the flow of its young players to the majors so that it moderates the risk associated with their transitions to the big leagues. But the roster mix will change to incorporate more youth.
The bridge, after all, is a means of crossing a divide. It is not a destination.
The Sox value the depth that they achieved by adding a layer of veterans to the surface of their organization to offer protection and time to their prospects. The decision to sign Stephen Drew, for instance, and thus to allow Jose Iglesias to serve as infield depth protection at multiple positions proved a significant one for the Red Sox.
But going forward, there will be instances where the "gradual but absolute" commitment to prospects will mean passing on the veteran option and committing to a prospect without a track record -- as the Sox did when they declined to re-sign Mark Loretta after the 2006 season for $1 million so that there would be a starting role for Dustin Pedroia in 2007.
"Obviously, we're trying to be good here every year. We're trying to put a winning team together every year. The deeper we are, the better chance we have to do that, the better a chance we have to get deeper into a season," said Cherington. "Young players are a critical part of that, but if you can have a good, solid, experienced player with a young player that we believe in, we have a better chance to find a solution than if we had just one of them.
"Then, at some point, in order to allow a guy to become a regular and allow him to become integrated into the team, you have to give him an everyday opportunity or you have to give him a spot in the rotation or you have to give him a meaningful role in the bullpen. Often, that has happened sort of naturally, organically, and I would expect that would continue to be the preferable course. But sometimes reality doesn't always allow for that.
Sometimes, for one reason or another, you have to let a kid sink or swim and it's up to us to make sure we're asking the right guys to sink or swim and to make sure that we're supporting them the best we can if there's some transition period."
There will be hiccups along the way. But the payoff of such a strategy could be considerable -- not just a one-year surprise, but rather the next long-term kernel of talent around which the Sox can build their competitive ambitions for years to come, something beyond the accomplishments of 2013 that comes closer to fulfilling what Cherington described 13 months ago as the next great Red Sox team.
In the coming days, WEEI.com will offer a look back at the Red Sox minor league system in 2013, breaking down the organization by position on the Full Count blog. On Tuesday: catching.