Back in 2009, after the Red Sox had been swept from the American League Division Series by the Angels, then-GM Theo Epstein infamously declared 2010 a "bridge year" for the Red Sox. The immediate response fell somewhere between fury and panic before Epstein clarified: the bridge year wasn't about a getting from one period of contention to the next, but about bridging a gap in their farm system. There wasn't much help coming from below, so the Sox had to figure out something else.
It's been a while since the Red Sox have found themselves in such a situation. In late 2013, when Stephen Drew and Will Middlebrooks were unable to produce on the left side of the infield, Xander Bogaerts arrived just in time to make his mark on the playoffs. In 2014, Mookie Betts bailed out a horribly unproductive outfield and gave Red Sox fans a reason to actually watch games in August and September. Christian Vazquez saved us from more A.J. Pierzynski, Eduardo Rodriguez brought some life to a struggling rotation, Blake Swihart stepped in for a horribly injured catching corps, Jackie Bradley Jr. revived his falling star with a big August, and Travis Shaw gave his own its first real light at the same time.
However many of those players--and others we didn't even get to manage to--maintain their momentum into 2016, the steady flow of talent might be drying up pretty soon. Don't get me wrong, I'm not the one person who thinks the Red Sox have a weak farm system. Depending on how you value top-end and how bullish you are on some of their more inexperienced players, the farm system lies somewhere between "strong" and "absolutely stacked."
It's just not terribly well distributed. At least not yet. The 2016 Paw Sox will feature plenty of names, but mostly ones that have already made appearances in the major leagues. Christian Vazquez, Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, Roenis Elias, and a half-dozen relievers of varying levels of note. Sam Travis and Marco Hernandez are the only newbies of real note, with both carrying the "second-division regular" tag on SoxProspects, though Travis has at least piqued some greater interest with his performances thus far.
If that seems exceptionally deep, it's slightly deceptive. Yes, the Red Sox have three good starting pitching options, but they're very likely to need more than the usual team given the construction of their rotation. Their catching depth is coming off of Tommy John Surgery, so who knows how he'll be, and Ryan Hanigan has a penchant for getting various parts of his hand broken given his tendency to leave it exposed to foul balls. The Sox have depth, but it's depth that's going to quickly be filtered into stable roles at the major league level, or be shuffled into the background when it fails to perform.
And that's not really a problem for the most part. But it could leave the upper level looking awfully thin once said depth is gone, because the next wave is a decent ways away. Red Sox fans and local media have regularly drawn a line between the best four prospects in the system and, well, everyone else this offseason, particularly after the departure of Manuel Margot. And those four players (Andrew Benintendi, Yoan Moncada, Rafael Devers, and Anderson Espinoza in no particular order) all finished the season in Single-A Greenville.
Between them and the players already tabbed for Pawtucket? It's not really pretty. The 2016 Sea Dogs will at least have a decent rotation, but more one of #5/bullpen types than anything really impressive. The lineup? Best left unmentioned.
The ideal world is that the Red Sox get such excellent performances from Devers, Moncada, and Benintendi at Salem that they quickly get bumped up to Portland, and then start 2017 in Pawtucket and we all forget there was ever this gap to bridge in the first place. Certainly, Benintendi is an experienced enough player that it would surprise no one to see him coast through the minors. And while Yoan Moncada had a lot of rust to shake off, he was actually projected to start 2015 as high as Double-A by some. Now that he's gotten back into playing shape after being out of baseball for so long, a 2017 arrival is still very much in play.
Things rarely go quite according to plan, however, and it's easy to imagine that neither will be ready for at least the lion's share of 2017. Thus, the bridge year.
But so what? As much as the sound of the bridge year inspired immediate terror before 2010, the reality is that the team it produced was only kept from the playoffs by a remarkable rash of injuries. In fact, had the second wild card been in play, that bridge year team would've played at least one meaningful game in October.
The reality is that a gap in the farm system's productivity doesn't mean a gap in the major league team's quality, particularly when the gap is made up for by unusually large concentrations of talent on either side. But it does mean the Red Sox are going to have to hope some questions answer themselves in 2016. They're already on the line for a $155 million payroll in 2017 by average annual value, and if things break wrong this year for the team, they could well find themselves with a lot of holes to fill with little help from the farm.
The corners of the infield and rotation in particular warrant some very real concern. As it stands the Red Sox are hoping against hope that between Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, and Travis Shaw they'll find two competent players in 2016. In 2017, that group will also have to cover designated hitter with the retirement of David Ortiz. On the mound, the Sox are basically throwing six big question marks (Buchholz, Porcello, Kelly, Elias, Owens, Johnson) at three rotation spots and hoping enough stick to make the rotation more than just David Price and Eduardo Rodriguez. One needs look no further than 2015 to see how that sort of thing can go horribly awry.
Don't forget that Dustin Pedroia's power is back
Despite another injury-plagued season, Dustin Pedroia saw a renewed power surge at the plate, which should provide optimism for the Red Sox and their second baseman.
If 2016 is a successful Hanley Ramirez finds his bat again, Pablo Sandoval can manage to be even just a replacement-level player, and the Sox find three decent starting options behind their front two, the money available to them in the offseason to come will be more than enough to cover their needs. It will probably even stretch to cover one or two misfiresâsay if the Sox need to pick up a solid number two starter and a first baseman, particularly in the event that they're willing to meet their 2016 payroll again, rather than rolling back to the levels seen in 2015 and before.
If 2016 goes wrong, though, the Red Sox will likely need help, and it might not be there quite on time. This isn't another 2012 waiting to happen. The unproductive financial commitments they'll be tied to won't be on the books for another five years. But if the Sox aren't getting production from $60 million in Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, and Rick Porcello, they're going to need more help from the minors, especially if they want to actually commit some larger amounts to players like Mookie Betts in order to lock them up long-term.
If that doesn't happen, Dave Dombrowski could be left doing some interesting contortions to make it all work, especially if it comes down to free agency. After all, the Red Sox won't want to block the likes of Moncada and Benintendi with more big signings, but good players don't come on short years very often. In the end, they could even end up bridging the gap by trading some of the players who have bunched up on the other side of it. It's not the solution you dream of, exactly, but it might be the best one available.
For now, though, there's little enough to be done but to wait and see what happens. To hope that Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval and Rick Porcello figure it out, or that other players step up in their place. After all, more than just one season might depend on it.