Missing the playoffs in 2015 would be disappointing for the Red Sox and their fans -- that's not a debatable point. Disappointing isn't the same thing as unsuccessful, however, as Boston doesn't have to win the World Series or even make the playoffs for this season to have been beneficial to their long-term plans. Of course, just 6.5 games out of the AL East lead with 73 left on the schedule, they still could make it to the postseason. They don't have to for us to appreciate the foundation that 2015 is laying down, though, and there is something freeing in recognizing that before the second half of the year kicks off.
The 2015 season is the one in which the Red Sox acquired the top international prospect on the market in Yoan Moncada. He's only 20 years old, just turned less than two months ago, and there is a very good chance that all of his best seasons come with the Red Sox during the time in which he will cost the least: that record $31.5 million signing bonus was a one-time payment (as was the 100 percent tax on the bonus for going over budget), and Moncada will be under the same kind of team control any other prospect, international or otherwise, deals with upon joining a major-league roster.
Moncada started out slow as he shook off the rust that comes from escaping Cuba and leaving baseball behind, but he's been more than just a promising package of five tools over the last few weeks, batting .364/.438/.597 in his last 19 games. Suddenly, Moncada looks like he'll get a promotion to High-A Salem before the year is over, and could even end up in the high minors, at Double-A, before 2016 is out.
He's not the only international prospect to make a splash for the Sox in 2015, either. Rafael Devers, Boston's major get from the 2013-2014 international signing period, is 18 years old and performing well at Low-A alongside Moncada, despite the fact he hasn't faced a pitcher younger than he is all season long. They're joined by 20-year-old Manuel Margot, a center fielder with plus fielding potential in center as well as the possibility of an above-average bat even if he doesn't develop power -- if he does, he'll be something special. Margot just got to Double-A recently, and along with Devers and Moncada, are considered three of the top-15 or so prospects in baseball. Margot and Moncada might even be just a couple of years from joining the Red Sox.
Margot was introduced to the baseball world at the 2015 Futures GamePhoto credit: Elsa/Getty Images
2015 is also the year in which the Red Sox drafted the College Player of the Year in Andrew Benintendi. He just turned 21 recently, and could suit up for High-A Salem next spring thanks to his collegiate experience. He has real promise, as there are analysts who believe he could be the same caliber of prospect as Margot. No, that doesn't help the 2015 team, as he's years away from joining the Sox, but acquiring him is still a noteworthy moment of the season. The Sox also picked up catcher Austin Rei in the third round, a player who some analysts believe is better than players selected during the first two rounds of the draft. No, he's not a Player of the Year recipient, but he's still a legitimate prospect whose name you need to know going forward.
What's incredible about all of this prospect success and recognition is that it comes during a time in which Boston has graduated a number of their more recognizable kids. In 2014, Xander Bogaerts shed his rookie and prospect status as a 21-year-old, and Mookie Betts would do the same. In 2015, Eduardo Rodriguez made short work of Triple-A and successfully joined Boston's rotation, while the Sox top prospect entering the year, Blake Swihart, was forced to come up and catch when starter Ryan Hanigan went down with an injury.
Betts ranked 11th in trade value by Fangraphs
In just a few short years, Mookie Betts has risen from total obscurity to become one of the most valuable commodities in baseball.
Bogaerts' 2014 was just okay, as his defense held back a decent enough effort from a 21-year-old rookie shortstop at the plate, but he spent the offseason working on his glove, and now is at least an average defender, if not an above-average one. The bat has also come around, with Bogaerts posting a 108 OPS+, which, when measured solely against other shortstops, is actually 124. With a little more than half of the season behind him, the 22-year-old Bogaerts has been worth around 2.5 wins above replacement.
Betts has been even better, with his first 138 games and 591 plate appearances in the majors accounting for between five and six wins. His defense is still a work-in-progress, to the point where the six-win figure is a little harder to believe: he's very good out in center, but that is also almost entirely due to his athleticism and speed. Betts still needs to hone his skills, but he looks better out there the longer he plays, too, and is doing pretty well for a guy who visibly doesn't quite have it together yet.
At the plate, though, he's overcome some early season issues with passiveness, and as he's become a little more aggressive to keep pitchers from running his plate appearances, his overall numbers have jumped: he's raised his season OPS 101 points over his last 25 games, and while he still needs to balance all of this out to successfully draw walks, his contact and power are on point.
Rodriguez helped stabilize the Red Sox rotation, and has a 112 ERA+ over his first nine starts. There have been a few hiccups, notably from the stretch and with a little pitch-tipping incident that resulted in some poorer starts, but overall, he's been a success. He's also still just 22 and made his first regular season Triple-A starts this spring, so the need for adjustments was expected. Rodriguez has top-of-the-rotation potential, and while he might not get there, his rookie campaign has certainly been a fine start towards that goal.
Photo credit: Rich Gagnon/Getty Images
Swihart's season requires a little more contextualization to appreciate. The 23-year-old backstop was only in the majors at all because both Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan landed on the 60-day disabled list at the same time, as he had just reached Triple-A late in 2014 and was expected to spend most of this summer there. Instead, he was promoted out of necessity before he had fully solved the International League, and predictably, he struggled. Swihart did show promise before going down with his own injury -- which he's now on a rehab assignment for -- as he batted .276/.321/.382 over his last 23 games while significantly cutting down on how often big-league pitchers struck him out. He might not even return to the majors when his rehab is over, as he could use the everyday play, but at least if the Sox bring him back, it'll be as someone ready to face the competition.
At 23, Swihart is the oldest of these players. Xander Bogaerts has been around the longest among this group, and he won't be a free agent until 2020 at the earliest. The core of the next great Red Sox team, whenever that is formed, will include Bogaerts, Betts, Swihart, and Rodriguez. It might also include Moncada, Margot, Benintendi, and Devers, depending on how their development goes, and the 2015 season will be a significant part of that process for all of them.
They aren't alone, either, nor is 2015 over. Brian Johnson, who led the Eastern League in ERA this year and has allowed one run or fewer in 11 of his 16 starts at Triple-A, is joining the Red Sox rotation next week. He has a potential future as a mid-rotation starter, or at least a reliable back-end arm, and as Joe Kelly and Justin Masterson have reminded us this year, those kinds of pitchers are valuable assets to have around. Henry Owens had a rough start to 2015 while the Red Sox had him focus more on his curveball than his plus, already established change-up, but he's begun to come around and is looking like the future mid-rotation lefty Boston has had on their hands since drafting him in the first round in 2011.
Further down the organizational ladder, another 2014 international signing, Anderson Espinoza, was so lights out in the Dominican Summer League that the Sox promoted the 17-year-old to the GCL already. Ty Buttrey, a 2012 draft pick who had struggled in the minors to this point, has started to put things together and is still just 22 years old and in High-A. Trey Ball, Boston's first-round pick from 2013, is similarly putting things together, albeit a little slower, but it's worth remembering he is literally days older than this year's number seven pick, Benintendi.
Porcello is the Red Sox key to the second half
If the Red Sox are going to get back in the race, they'll need some improvement from Rick Porcello.
Last summer's second-round pick, Sam Travis, is already in Double-A and hitting, and before he was suspended for 50 games for a stimulant, 2014's supplemental first rounder Michael Kopech was creeping around the outside of midseason top-50 lists. Defense-first shortstop Javier Guerra is suddenly showing a ton of power in Low-A, Pat Light is starting to turn things around and could be a bullpen asset going forward, Dayan Diaz and Marco Hernandez were seemingly afterthought acquisitions who have both stepped up huge this summer.. there are a ton of prospects of varying potentials to concern yourself with in the Red Sox organization, and while things at the big-league level haven't been great in 2015 for the veterans, youths all up and down the ladder are thriving.
Such a young, inexpensive core is why the Red Sox could take chances on Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, and Rick Porcello. Yes, there is a chance that at least one of the three doesn't end up being worth what they are paid, but the Sox could afford that risk before 2015 started, and now that so many of their young players -- including future cornerstones -- are succeeding, that risk is even easier to absorb. The Sox are one of the richest teams in the game, in both prospects and dollars, and the two will combine to bring them success in the future. Yeah, 2015 hasn't been everything you wanted for the Red Sox, but it's still laying a foundation, one we'll all be glad is around in the coming years.
And hey, 2015 isn't over yet.