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When last the Red Sox farm system was weak

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AKA the year of Middlebrooks

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Red Sox farm system isn’t very good right now. The good news is that it’s not simply a matter of the Red Sox drafting and developing poorly. There have certainly been some bad drafts mixed in (2012-2013 is a bit of a dire stretch), but on the whole looking at graduates like Benintendi, Bradley, Bogaerts and Betts as well as trade returns like Kimbrel, Pomeranz, and of course Sale, the Red Sox can hardly complain about recent results.

But weak is weak no matter how you paint it, and unless you’re still including Benintendi in its ranks (a bit of a stretch given that he’s clearly made the jump to the majors, even if he retains rookie eligibility), the Red Sox’ farm system is much weaker now than it’s been in a while?

Exactly how long? I dipped into Baseball America’s yearly organizational talent rankings, and came up with two obvious years in 2011 and 2006. Six years may not seem like it’s all that long ago, but in terms of baseball prospects it’s an eternity. Which of course would make 11 years something else entirely.

I only go past 2011 because even then the Red Sox were placed #17, and right now I’m not sure they’d make it that high. They still have a top-20 guy in Rafael Devers and another big name in Jason Groome, but this was a farm system buoyed by exceptional top-end talent that has since been traded or graduated. The middle ranks were always a bit thin, and they look especially so now that there’s so few bodies left up top to push guys like Josh Ockimey out of the top ten.

Looking at that 2011 system, yes, it’s pretty damn dire. Of the top 20 listed by SoxProspects to start that year, Jose Iglesias, Junichi Tazawa (ranked 20th!) and Josh Reddick are the only ones who have gone on to have successful MLB careers. Felix Doubront had a brief spell there where he looked like he might work out, and there’s some scattered MLB playing time for the rest, but on the whole this is a farm system which produced three players, none of them truly stars.

Notably, that 2011 system arguably doomed the 2011 team towards the end of the year, as the rotation fell apart and the team’s best answers were Andrew Miller and Kyle Weiland. If you’re dreaming of a nightmare end to 2017, I guess that would be it, though frankly Boston’s current crop of Triple-A backups in Henry Owens and Brian Johnson are still preferable to Weiland, even after all their struggles.

The 2006 farm system is actually pretty damn amusing to look at considering Baseball America’s low estimation of them. Not everyone worked out, obviously, but how about Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, and Jonathan Papelbon? Others like David Murphy, Brandon Moss, and Jed Lowrie put together thoroughly respectable MLB careers. That is one of two remarkable eras in the Red Sox farm system in recent history, contributing heavily to two World Series wins.

The other remarkable era is the one we’re coming down from right now. The seed for that revolution was already planted with Xander Bogaerts by the time BA ranked them 17th, but it would really get kickstarted with the 2011 draft, featuring Matt Barnes, Blake Swihart, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Mookie Betts.

We can hope the fact that the last two low-points in the farm system’s history have been followed by such extreme highs indicates some sort of strange Red Sox ability to rise from the “ashes” as it were, but realistically it’s a combination of the fact that low points must necessarily be followed by improvement to actually be low points, and simple coincidence. The Red Sox aren’t more likely to have a big draft due to a bad system than they would be if they had the best in baseball. Increased restrictions on spending, the recent penalties from Boston’s “package deals” scandal in the international market, and the standard restrictions they were under from signing Yoan Moncada in the first place will actually make it harder for them to bounce back this time.

There is hope, though. If you’re pulling for a 2011-style revival, well, it’s all up to Dave Dombrowski and company in July. It’s going to be particularly hard to pull off a revitalizing draft with Mike Hazen and Amiel Sawdaye having left, but it can always happen. It’s just anyone’s best guess whether it actually will.

The question of if we’re in line for a 2006-style change is more interesting by half. All the talent was there already back then, it was just a matter of recognizing it. Obviously the Red Sox believe they have at least two very good prospects in Rafael Devers and Jason Groome. Past them, Sam Travis is in position to regain momentum after recovering from injury. And there’s always some hope for the likes of Owens and Johnson, though if they succeed, it will not be as prospects.

The real hope, though, will likely have to come from the other guys in last year’s draft. Bobby Dalbec is the one who made himself the most obvious candidate, hitting to a 1.101 OPS in Lowell last year, but there are others. C.J. Chatham seemed to come on strong after a horrific beginning that might have been related to a thumb injury. We didn’t get to see much of Mike Shawaryn and Shaun Anderson (and what we did see of Anderson was ugly), but there was enough talent there to warrant some serious signing money, at least. It does come down to hope.

The best news for the Red Sox, really, is that they don’t need such a dramatic turnaround. They’ve got a bit of time to spare. It’s true that it takes a while to develop prospects, so they can’t really afford to have two awful drafts in a row right now like in 2012-2013—that could leave them in serious trouble down the line—but they also don’t need to spike a huge one in 2017. The farm system is weak now, but only because it’s been so productive in such a short period of time, leaving the MLB team with plenty of time to compete, and the minor leagues plenty of time to recover.