Those who criticized the notion of The Bridge rarely discussed the alternative.
This is life without The Bridge that former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein described back in 2009.
What does that mean? Instead of safe passage over troubled waters, this is a sink-or-swim time for the Red Sox, whose sudden, drastic and unplanned (at least to this extent) youth movement has resulted in a radical shift of strategy and results.
The latter was most recently seen in Wednesday night's 16-9 loss to the Cubs that concluded a three-game sweep at the hands (paws? big bear claws?) of Epstein's Cubs, and left the two teams even in the standings, an identical nine games under .500.
It would be difficult to imagine anyone who follows baseball predicting that the Red Sox and the still-building Cubs would find themselves in comparable positions in the standings after more than half a season -- but here we are. The shared futility of the teams speaks volumes about how drastically the Red Sox have fallen, in part because there has been little structure capable of stopping a plummet.
A year ago, The Bridge -- the acquisition of talented veterans to provide time for talented minor leaguers to develop at their own pace -- proved an architectural masterpiece for the Red Sox. Everything went according to plan. A winter of precise free agent signings created the framework for a championship, at a time when the Sox had a number of top prospects developing just below the big league surface. (Two of those prospects -- Xander Bogaerts and Brandon Workman -- emerged as key contributors to the title run.)
The Bridge -- the veteran signings -- offered stable and unstoppable passage to a title in 2014. Yet the Sox entered the offseason with an unshakeable belief that they could not become complacent in the wake of the championship, could not rely solely on veterans forever.
Their forays into the free agent market were limited. Their three biggest free agents moves were the re-signing of Mike Napoli, adding Edward Mujica as a form of closing insurance behind Koji Uehara and inking outfielder Grady Sizemore, two full seasons removed from his last game in the big leagues.
The Sox didn't mean to abandon The Bridge in 2014 so much as control the flow of traffic off of it, beginning the shift from The Bridge to current Sox GM Ben Cherington's concept of The Next Great Red Sox Team, a team with a dominant homegrown core to be the next generation of Dustin Pedroia/Jacoby Ellsbury/Jon Lester/Jonathan Papelbon (or players of their ilk).
"We’ve always kept in the back of our minds that regardless of the results of 2013, in order for us to build that great team and have it be a sustained run of success, there was going to have to be a nucleus that was young and controllable at some point in their careers. We always knew we were going to have to do that," Red Sox assistant GM Mike Hazen said recently. "Going back to Ben’s initial statement of building the next great Red Sox team, that’s a long-term deal. That’s not a one-year proposition. The next great Red Sox team, at least in my interpretation, isn’t in 2016, a great Red Sox team emerges and it’s gone in 2017. When we’re looking at building that, we’re talking about having a core on the team -- a significant core."
But that shift was supposed to be managed, controlled, supported. The Sox expected to have perhaps one or two young players per season making their way up to assume key roles in any given year. Their blueprint never called for the team to feature a lineup roughly half comprised of rookies -- as has been the case on occasion since the callup of Mookie Betts, with Betts joining Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Brock Holt in the lineup.
That, however, is precisely what's transpired as the veteran bridge -- which was supposed to support young players through their transition -- has collapsed. The lineup as a whole was supposed to feature a bunch of players who needed to perform only to their career track records to ensure solid production (in the eyes of manager John Farrell, a top-five offense was a reasonable expectation). But with the trestle having given way, the Sox offense has been left to flail in the water with their young players.
The departures of Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and, for a time, Stephen Drew. The inability thus far of Drew to catch up to the speed of the game since his return. The absence of Shane Victorino, who has spent all but 21 games in the sick bay. The disappearance of Dustin Pedroia's power and his struggles relative to his career line. The absence of a reliable alternative to Jackie Bradley Jr., for whom the fallback plan was a player who represented his own form of uncertainty in Sizemore. The early-season struggles of Daniel Nava. The fact that A.J. Pierzynski's poor 2013 season represented not an aberration from his career norms but instead what now seems like the start of his decline.
This is life without a bridge. There are too few reliable contributors surrounding the young players -- and too many young players without reliable track records and major league experience to halt their struggles -- to permit the team to have anything except what has been, to this point, an abysmal offense.
The Red Sox still believe in the talent of their young players who are struggling, of course -- particularly Xander Bogaerts, whose horrific (6-for-77 with three walks and 25 strikeouts) slump represents a departure from his prior time in the big leagues and his swift but steady ascent through the Sox system. They'll live with his struggles, with John Farrell saying the team hasn't "even considered" the possibility of sending him to Triple-A.
"[Struggles] might be a little more prevalent for a guy that’s still creating a foundation here at the big league level, where those swings of confidence might be a little wider," said Farrell. "But [Bogaerts] is also somebody we believe in and continue to have him in the lineup and provide opportunities."
Still, the fact that a top prospect like Bogaerts is now amidst a rut of roughly three weeks and is still trying to find his way out of the most significant slump of his professional career underscores the challenging nature of reliance on youth. It's not clear when he'll go from a rookie who looks lost inside of his funk -- one who twice struck outlooking on Wednesday, once on a slider, once on a 94 mph fastball down the middle -- to a veteran who can manage his slumps and work his way out of them.
Ditto Jackie Bradley Jr., who has shown an ability to deliver reliably outrageous defense, but who -- unlike Bogaerts -- has yet to offer evidence that he can succeed as a big league hitter. There have been hints -- including some since he adjusted his batting stance to become more open -- but he has yet to offer sustained production in the big leagues.
With a half season now in the books this year, Farrell was asked, is it getting to the point where the team doesn't have time to keep waiting for him to start producing? Farrell said that, based on what's been seen, the team will have to explore both internal upgrades (undoubtedly part of the reason for Betts' presence in the big leagues) as well as trade alternatives.
"You look at guys internally through the month of June and certainly in the first part of July, and then as other options become available that might be external, then it's, how are you always looking to improve the team? That’s the common thread: How are we looking to improve the team?" explained Farrell. "The internal options are going to be looked at first, and then what other players might become available is secondary. We're approaching the second part of that."
Betts, meanwhile, has had a promising start, striking out just once in his first four games and launching an impressive homer on Wednesday, yet at some point, he'll likely encounter turbulence. That's the nature of the beast. Somewhere, the players who blitzed through the minors will encounter a degree of unfamiliar struggles because the night-after-night caliber of competition is likewise unlike anything they've faced before.
It's a question of how long, not if. And no one knows the answer to the question.
"You really don’t [know how long the adjustment to the big leagues takes]," Farrell said. "I look at it, how's the young player's mental strength going to allow him to endure the challenges that he'll face? That’s what will continue to give you confidence to give them opportunities. And you feel like they're going to handle some of the downturns and some of the focus and the attention that maybe some struggles will generate. But on the flip side, you don’t say, 'By X number of games, he's going to be an established big-leaguer.' That’s pretty difficult to project."
And that's where the Sox find themselves: With a roster whose performance is difficult to project. They don't hide from the fact.
"I think we certainly bit off a significant challenge and thus put our coaching staff in a significantly challenging position, having to manage and coach through and win games in the American League East along with helping these guys transition and develop," Hazen said. "We obviously see some positive things. Certainly there’s been some ups and downs as well. That’s trying for everyone."
It certainly has been. And that, in turn, has offered grounds for skepticism about the 2014 Sox.
"It can't work," one evaluator said of the team's offense, taking stock of the rookie-heavy lineup.
"It might be two or three years that their offense struggles," noted another as he contemplated the youth of the team and the ever-growing difficulty of transitioning to the big leagues given the constantly improving state of pitching.
Now, it's important to recognize that the difficulty of projecting this roster's performance raises at least some other possibilities in a bridge-less world. What happens if the water remains deep but the rookies -- particularly potential game-changers like Bogaerts and Betts -- learn to swim? Or what if some of the veterans return to form, whether Drew or Victorino or Pedroia?
Really, it could take just a couple of bats getting hot to transform the Sox' performance, to start turning some of those AL-leading 18 losses into wins that might permit a run into contention in a talent-thinned American League East.
That is the view of the team as it remains steadfast about its decision to try to move beyond The Bridge.
"I don’t know if we’d do things differently [if they had the offseason to do over]. At some point, you have to make those commitments. We have to make commitments to younger players, not just in saying it but in doing it. We knew there were going to be ups and downs. And there’s certainly been ups and downs early in the season," said Hazen. "It just hasn’t all come together yet, but we sort of signed up for that.
"It’s easy in retrospect to say we should have gone with older players, but then we wouldn’t have made the commitment we need and gotten those guys that are now going through it experience. They’re growing and learning from this experience, you hope. And if they are, we’re making a long-term investment in the future of the club and the organization," he added. "After watching how we’ve performed for the majority of the first half, it’s easy to second guess the decision with the younger players, but at the same time, I think the second half is going to bear out different things. … I would expect that when things all start to come together, a different story is going to be written."
With the bridge gone and the water levels rising, the Sox hope they learn to swim quickly in the second half. They no doubt shudder to contemplate the alternative.