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With youth movement producing, the Red Sox don't need another Punto trade

It might not come in 2015, but with the youth movement finally producing major dividends, the Red Sox have a much easier path back to contention than some would have you believe.

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

When the Red Sox disappointed in 2014, it was more-or-less taken in stride. Here was a team one year off a World Series win, its biggest issues lying in underperforming rookies and injuries. If it was a bad year, the 2015 Red Sox would be better. Everything would be fine.

Now it's 2015, the Red Sox are 31-40, and it is most certainly not being taken in stride. Instead, 2015 is being called another 2012. The Sox are basically dead in the water before July, and a big part of that lies on the shoulders of players recently signed to huge contracts that have failed to uphold their end of the bargain. Where 2014 featured a team in a position to make the necessary changes, the 2015 Red Sox are seen as handcuffed in much the same way the 2012 team was. And lest we forget, that was not a situation they escaped on their own. They needed a huge bailout trade from the Dodgers to save their skins.

Is the situation really so dire? Have the Red Sox failed to learn from history and dug themselves back into another huge hole? Is contention so far away now as it seemed in June 2012?

No. Not even close. And for a fair few reasons. None of their bad contracts are as bad as Carl Crawford yet, and none of them can be if you're just looking at size. Some of the bigger issues with them can be fixed with some roster shuffling. And while the Sox have some contracts that don't look great right now, they're still going to be working with some $60 million in payroll room even if they intend to drop back under the luxury tax threshold in 2016. And that money isn't coming from major contributors who need to be replaced, either. It's coming from the likes of Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, and Justin Masterson. If David Ortiz is actually producing to the point where the Red Sox want to exercise his option, they'll certainly consider that a plus. They'll have money to spend on key weaknesses, without needing a complete overhaul.

But the real difference between the 2012 Red Sox and the 2015 Red Sox? That lies in the youth movement. The Sox will need to make some changes in 2016, but the core of the future is already here, and for once, we're not taking that value completely on faith. We've got performances to back it up.

Here are your 2012 Red Sox, to jog the old memory.

If you want to sort by age, you'll find few reasons to hope for the future. Jose Iglesias and Will Middlebrooks were the biggest and best names, but the former had yet to show any ability to hit in either the majors or minors, and the latter had a broken wrist. Ryan Lavarnway's bat had gone in the tank, Ryan Kalish was physically broken, and our hope lay on The Three B's--Bradley, Bogaerts, and Barnes at the time--none of them having seen Double-A Portland at that point.

Help, in short, was not close, and the 2013 Red Sox would need to be built with money the team would not really have given the contracts of Gonzalez and Crawford (and Beckett, and Lackey). They were shedding $68 million in the coming offseason, but some $15 million of that was from David Ortiz, who was a big part of why the 2012 Sox were even treading water and would need to be brought back, with another sizable chunk taken up by arbitration contracts. They had many problems to solve, and not enough cash to do it.

So how about 2015? Well, at first we had some notes of 2014. The young players struggled, and there were some none-too-quiet remarks about how the Red Sox had overhyped their prospects for the umpteenth time, and "these were the guys they wouldn't trade for Hamels?"

It's a different story now. Mookie Betts is hitting .277/.329/.453, good for a 114 wRC+. His power is looking very real right now, he's one of the best baserunners in the game both by Fangraphs' measurements and by the eye test--hard to overlook the 22-year-old scoring from second on routine ground outs--and he plays a strong center field despite having about a year of experience in the outfield. The early season cries of bad luck are being backed up by big numbers with more of his hard hit balls falling in, leaving Betts looking just as much the rising star as he did in the second half of 2014.

Xander Bogaerts does not have the same luck excuse as Betts. He just legitimately struggled early in the year. But now he, too, has turned his season around completely. We're still waiting for the power that Bogaerts was expected to display to arrive, but at .292/.329/.404 Bogaerts' bat still checks in as above league average. The real game-changer here is that he's gone from a defensive liability to someone who legitimately deserves to stand at one of the most important positions on the field. He's turned his greatest weakness into an asset, and if that power does show up, he'll be a force to be reckoned with.

Eduardo Rodriguez is the most recent arrival, and also the player enjoying the most seamless transition. Even with a complete disaster against the hot-as-hell Blue Jays mixed in, Rodriguez has an ERA of 3.13 through his first 31 innings, with a 27:11 K:BB. Without the Jays game, those numbers are 0.67 and 26:8. Yes, cherrypicking statistics is silly, but so is the level of dominance Rodriguez has show in all but one game. His starts are already must-see events in Boston.

Less impressive has been Blake Swihart, but that's not too surprising. After all, we're still not even at the point where he was likely to come up if the catching situation hadn't turned into such an injury-riddled disaster. No, his season line isn't pretty. No, we shouldn't be surprised by that. If anything, the fact that he's hitting to an entirely reasonable .733 OPS in June is the most surprising part about his season-to-date.

Add in the fact that Pawtucket is still well-stocked with Henry Owens and Brian Johnson, that Christian Vazquez is waiting in the background of all this after receiving Tommy John Surgery, and the enigma that is Brock Holt, and you've got a team with a lot more promise in the immediate future than Will Middlebrooks could provide.

With those players in mind, and with a little bit more information on guys like Hanley Ramirez (and, say, his inability to play left field), it starts to become a lot easier to piece together a 2016 Red Sox team that looks like it has a real chance to contend. It's an exercise we'll be partaking in here sometime soon, but for now, it's enough to set the stage. The Red Sox have three players who are living up to some fairly high expectations at a very young age and some more uncertain quantities with the potential to be major contributors in 2016. Some bad free agent contracts--and it's not even entirely clear how bad those contracts are--can be taken on the chin when you're averaging four wins a piece from a bunch of guys making the league minimum.