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When will then be now: Depth and Red Sox prospects' roles in the 2014 season

The Ryan Roberts signing reminds us that there is a dividing line between those players the Red Sox consider to be depth options now and the ones that are still developing as prospects.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The 2013 Red Sox were a lucky bunch. The team had very few significant injuries to the core group of players that led the way to the World Series. There were bumps in the road, of course. Koji Uehara landed in the closer's role thanks to injuries to both Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey and he was so unhittable that it's easy to forgethe wasn't the plan from day one. Jacoby Ellsbury missed some time down the stretch when it didn't matter all that much. Shane Victorino had some health issues and was forced to give up hitting from the left side, but he went on to rake from the right. Dustin Pedroia played the whole season with a thumb injury that sapped him of absolutely nothing at all. Clay Buchholz was Clay Buchholz, but the team was able to add Jake Peavy and mitigate the damage from his chronic back and neck issues. It wasn't completely smooth sailing, but it was close. Even many of the things that went wrong worked out quite well for the 2013 team.

We are only a handful of games into the 2014 season and it already looks like this team isn't quite as lucky. Victorino has begun the year on the DL. Will Middlebrooks landed there after a week of games. Newcomers Edward Mujica and A.J. Pierzynski have tested the fans' patience with poor starts (though Pierzynski has come around over the last few games). Felix Doubront looked about as shaky as a pitcher can look in two of the three innings he pitched on Tuesday. None of these issues appear to be particularly significant for the future of the 2014 team, but they are a good reminder of just how much went right in 2013 and how unusual that kind of good fortune is. Boston did an excellent job addressing the issues they did face last year, and they will have to be even better at that in 2014 if they are to repeat as champions.

So while these early issues are not overly significant, the response to them is. The Red Sox have a huge advantage over most other teams when it comes to addressing their weaknesses. They have the money to make additions on the fly, and they have built the kind of farm system that can provide them with internal options as well. Even just eight games in, we are seeing them use both of these advantages to combat injuries. When it was clear that Shane Victorino would start the season on the DL, the team pulled Jackie Bradley Jr.'s train ticket to Pawtucket to give him some time in Shanf's place in right, even though he had just lost the center field job to Grady Sizemore. When Middlebrooks went down, they took the opposite approach, signing Ryan Roberts to a major league deal to plug the hole at third.

The choice to sign Roberts instead of calling up Garin Cecchini from Pawtucket might frustrate some fans. After all, Cecchini is a top prospect and is currently sitting at 7-for-16 with three walks and a double in 19 plate appearances, while Roberts is a career .245/.321/.391 hitter who struggles against righties. Cecchini's glove won't match Roberts' at this point, but his bat could be a significant upgrade if he is ready for the show. It is easy to see that decision ias flying in the face of the Bradley call up and the decision to forsake signing Stephen Drew in order to hand the shortstop job to Xander Bogaerts, but it shouldn't come as much of a surprise.


Photo Credit: Jim Rogash

The specifics of each situation are important of course, but there is also a core philosophy at play here. Bogaerts is a rare exception to the slow development process that has characterized the Red Sox organization under both Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington. In the Henry/Werner/Lucchino era, very few prospects have earned a major league job right out of the gate. It takes exceptional make-up along with the tools to succeed at the major league level for the Red Sox to make that type of commitment and the only other player to receive such an opportunity in recent years is the man who shares the middle of the infield with Bogaerts. When Dustin Pedroia is the only comp, you may as well not have any at all. Instead, most Red Sox prospects face a well-crafted series of obstacles to a major league gig. Rather than turn to Dan Butler or Christian Vazquez, the Red Sox signed A.J. Pierzynski to a one-year deal. Jackie Bradley Jr. had to battle a former MVP-caliber player in Sizemore to win the center field job and he lost out. Brandon Workman didn't inherit the swing-man role when Ryan Dempster bowed out, it went to veteran signee Chris Capuano.

This is the team's standard operating procedure. They play the veterans, they challenge the prospects and almost everyone spends some time in the purgatory that lies between the two extremes. For the Red Sox, there is a clear division between prospects who represent depth options and those who are still just prospects. It can be a frustrating system to watch, but it has been incredibly effective. Guys like Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester have had to wait for their shots and then gone on to reach their ceilings after sitting behind guys like Paul Byrd, Brad Penny and Julian Tavarez when they first approached the majors.

This doesn't mean that Cecchini or Vazquez or some of the other top prospects won't play in Boston in 2014, however. This development approach is systematic, but it is also fluid. At this point, Jackie Bradley Jr. has accomplished enough in the minors for the Red Sox to feel comfortable enough to consider him depth, even though they clearly aren't ready to simply hand him an everyday job when everyone is healthy. I would guess that there are specific issues the Red Sox want to see Cecchini and Vazquez address with their Triple-A performances before they are bumped up into the Bradley level. Until they reach that point, Cherington and his team will turn to the waiver wire, free agents or other more seasoned options before chancing their development with a big league call up. Guys like Allen Webster, Henry Owens and Anthony Ranaudo are in a similar position. For Boston, the division between prospect and a major league option appears to be well-defined. We can't know everything that factors into each case, but the overall process can be seen with some clarity.

Service-time considerations and options make the stage that Bradley is at now the most frustrating part of the Boston development path to watch. Because Bradley can be sent to the minors, he probably will be, even if he plays well in the (hopefully) short window created by Victorino's injury. If Grady Sizemore gets injured or slumps badly, Bradley will be back up, but if anyone has to ride the bus, he is probably going to be that guy this year. Even if Christian Vazquez or Garin Cecchini can play their way to a major league call up, they will probably face the same fate. A.J. Pierzynski might be able to play his way out of a job this year, but Vazquez will have to do something exceptional to pass him on the depth chart if Pierzynski is healthy and even just moderately productive.

Along with helping these players develop, this process has also made Boston an appealing place for veterans to sign. The team may not have been able to woo players like Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Grady Sizemore and Chris Capuano if they did not show the willingness to give the veterans the first shot time and time again and to stick with them, even when prospects are knocking on the door. The Red Sox have the money to outbid other teams, of course, but that alone doesn't make Boston a desirable place to play.  Besides that, outbidding everyone all the time is a good way to get stuck with bad deals. Consistently offering veterans significant roles has helped the Red Sox in the mid- and down-market signing departments as much as it has on the development side.

If the 2014 Red Sox don't have the same good fortune as the 2013 club did, they will at least have options. But the Ryan Roberts signing is a good reminder of just how conservative they will be this season when it comes to employing some of those options. Teams like the Rays or the Athletics have few choices other than promoting from within thanks to their budget and clubs with money but few high-minors prospects like the Yankees, have no choice but to sign veteran depth pieces. Boston has done an amazing job at every organizational level to make both paths available to them and the success of homegrown players like Pedroia, Daniel Nava, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront and Xander Bogaerts speaks to how well they judge which option to employ when.

The slow development strategy that has characterized player development under the current ownership is easy to complain about when it means a player like Ryan Roberts or A.J. Pierzynski gets pushed in front of a promising youngster that diehard fans like us really want to see come up and make an impact. I'd rather see Cecchini at third and Vazquez behind the plate in theory. But in practice, I can see just how much value this strategy has brought the Red Sox. The leap from the minors to the game's highest level is the biggest jump any player has to make in their professional career and the Red Sox take great care when guiding their players through that transition. At the same time, they have made themselves an ideal place for veterans like Grady Sizemore, who are looking for a place where they rebuild their careers. Oh yeah, and they have won three World Series in 10 years as well. It might be a tough process to watch at times, but it gets where it is going and that is the most important thing.