On the Bridge that Wasn’t and Theo’s Legacy

It was a couple months ago now that Alex Speier published this column about the "bridge year" concept, looking back at the 2009-2010 Red Sox offseason and comparing it today. This present post started in my head as a FanShot just to bring more attention to the thoughts that Speier generates in that piece, as they have stirred in my head for weeks now. My mental commentary grew enough, though, that I figured I'd waste a FanPost on it. (I'm not going to rehash the whole article, so please do read it.)

The big idea that I got from Speier's column was that if the bridge-year model that Theo originally conceived after the 2009 season had been pursued, the Red Sox likely wouldn't be in a much better place today due to the failure of several prospects to develop. We can see that now that we are in the time period to which Theo had hoped to bridge.

As things actually happened, the legacy of Theo Epstein's latter years in Boston is a poor one based on big acquisitions that resulted in failure. That's the main storyline, but I don't think it should be. I think, rather, the legacy of Theo Epstein's latter years in Boston should be a poor one based on the fact that his "player development machine", formerly his greatest pride, suffered a lull in production. His model was to build from within and use free agency to supplement, and things went wrong specifically in that order.

Speier illustrates his point by examining Baseball America's top ten Red Sox prospects list at the time of the Winter Meetings of 2009, when Epstein first uttered the words "bridge year". None of them has developed in a timely manner, though a few could still be good. I'd like further to illustrate my point here by going back one more year, to the '08-'09 offseason, when Buchholz had freshly graduated from prospect status and BA's top ten list looked like this:

2009 Boston Red Sox Top Prospects
1. Lars Anderson, 1b
2. Michael Bowden, rhp
3. Nick Hagadone, lhp
4. Daniel Bard, rhp
5. Josh Reddick, of
6. Casey Kelly, rhp/ss
7. Ryan Westmoreland, of
8. Michael Almanzar, 3b
9. Yamaico Navarro, inf
10. Stolmy Pimentel, rhp

After the wave of Youkilis, Lester, Pedroia, Ellsbury, Papelbon, and Buchholz came up to the majors to help the Sox win big, this sorry list represents the wave that followed. They were the ones who were going to arrive and help the previous wave keep winning big. The previous wave did its part, and until last year the Red Sox were still an above-.500 team. But they've had little support from the minors, especially in the pitching department, and so have not been able to overcome injuries and dips in performance to reach their postseason goals.

I've written before about the pitching situation that faced Epstein when it came time to consider extending Beckett and signing Lackey. In the minors there were Casey Kelly, who was but a year removed from high school and still trying to be a shortstop; Junichi Tazawa, who could very likely be a reliever; Felix Doubront, not a top prospect (BA's #18) but possessing some good stuff; and Pimentel and Drake Britton who were a year away from forcing themselves onto the 40-man due to Rule-5 eligibility. Michael Bowden alone was near contributing in the majors but had thus far done poorly in limited exposure there (19 ER in 21 IP), and was not without his difficulties at Triple-A either; he too profiled possibly as a reliever.

So in retrospect, this bridge year concept in its original context is really suspect. Firstly, they'd need more than a year for the farm to start producing again, but I get the sense that they already knew that. But then I don't fully understand how the Lackey and Beckett deals constituted a transgression of the bridge year principle, as the narrative commonly spun about that offseason would have it. Those players weren't blocking any prospects, but filling holes in the organization. The free agent market that year offered no other clear solutions, nor did it project to do so in the next two years, unless you wanted to count on a Cliff Lee bidding war that you wouldn't have won. Had I gone back in time, I might have alerted them to Colby Lewis' successful return from Japan or, concerning the trade market, to Francisco Liriano's impending career year. But you can hardly blame them for not foreseeing those outcomes, or for not listening to that crazy man claiming to be from the future and desperately trying to create a new timeline.

So they signed Lackey and extended Beckett. A year later they made two more high profile moves, moves that signaled a shift away from the player development machine that had hit a snag. As Theo Epstein tells it, in another piece by Speier,

I think the realities of building from within and being patient and developing prospects, there's going to be an ebb and flow of success. There's going to have to be bridge years mixed in. But that doesn't always match with the overall goals of the organization as a whole. That's something that has to be managed. To everyone's credit, we managed that really well for a long time. Winning makes that a lot easier.

When you don't quite live up to that same standard in the standings, even for a brief period of time, those pressures get magnified, it gets harder to manage, and I think I personally, we didn't do a good enough job certainly of executing our baseball plan, even in a vacuum towards the end. And I didn't do as good a job of managing that.

Had we been completely true to our baseball philosophy that we set out and believed in and followed, we probably wouldn't have made certain moves that we made any way, moves that, as I look back on them, they were probably moves too much of convenience, of placating elements that shouldn't have been important. Those were my mistakes, and because of that the last couple of years weren't as successful as the previous seven or so.

So your Lackey and Beckett and Crawford and several other lesser signings didn't work out, Theo. I don't think that's as important as your farm ceasing to put out. There's a real disconnect between where that quotation begins and where it ends. In the first paragraph he's advocating for a system that has acceptable lulls in success that just need to be "managed". But in the final thoughts he admits to having failed a different way, and the franchise's turn of fortune in his final years is attributed to that pattern of deviance in particular, as if the previous course, if stayed upon, would not in fact have produced an ebb and flow of success, as he claimed at first.

Thanks in large part to a fantastic 2011 draft, along with that most magnificent of trades with the Dodgers last August, the Red Sox have been able to reset their player development machine. On the whole they are not much worse off than before the front office jumped the tracks. Instead of Kelly and Rizzo, there's Webster and De La Rosa. A loss like Justin Masterson, traded for Victor Martinez, has been compensated upon V-Mart's departure with draft picks used for Matt Barnes and Henry Owens. The new list of top prospects has been entirely renewed, there are more pitchers among them this time, and there's a greater degree of proximity to the majors. The international scouting department, long wanting for Latin American fruit, may have found a big piece in the Aruban shortstop Xander Bogaerts.

I really hope, as Speier suggests could be the case, that the present group of top prospects resembles less the 2010 version than the excellent 2006 clan, which featured multiple future World Series champions. Even if that happens, though, there will logically come another time when the player development machine again hits a snag and slows production. I hope it goes better next time, because I'm not really sure what we've learned from the first time.

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