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The Red Sox entered 2014 as defending champions and concluded the year humbled by their second last-place finish in three years, their precipitous decline reflecting in no small part on the unrealized hopes for what had appeared to be an emerging young core.
The organization viewed the championship as the potential point of departure for what GM Ben Cherington had described as “the next great Red Sox team," a term meant to signify sustainable championship hopes fueled by an impressive prospect pipeline. With a significant amount of a championship core returning, the team felt it could begin to assimilate position players into everyday roles in 2014, in advance of a wave of homegrown pitchers who would join the roster as soon as late 2014 or early 2015.
The logic seemed sound. Xander Bogaerts was a postseason star in 2013; there was no hesitation at the idea of committing to him at shortstop for 2014. Will Middlebrooks had endured an up-and-down 2013, but had shown enough over two big league seasons that the Sox felt he was ready for a primary role. Jackie Bradley hadn't been ready for the big leagues in 2013, but his track record suggested that he should be able to get on base enough to be a potential starter (the team hedged its bet slightly by signing Grady Sizemore) given his jaw-dropping defense.
Instead, those three players endured lengthy periods in which they appeared overmatched. Middlebrooks struggled with both health and performance and never hit for power. Bradley was overpowered, striking out with enough frequency to cast doubt on his future as an everyday big leaguer. Bogaerts, after a breathtaking start, endured a two and a half month slump that, coincidentally or not, coincided with a temporary move from short to third.
|TOP 10 PROSPECTS|
|1. Blake Swihart, c|
|2. Henry Owens, lhp|
|3. Rusney Castillo, of|
|4. Eduardo Rodriguez, lhp|
|5. Brian Johnson, lhp|
|6. Rafael Devers, 3b|
|7. Manuel Margot, of|
|8. Matt Barnes, rhp|
|9. Deven Marrero, ss|
|10. Garin Cecchini, 3b/of|
Those struggles--in place of reliable veteran production in 2013--contributed to the team's spiral from contention by late-July and a trade deadline selloff of veterans. More broadly, the challenges faced by those young players left team owners questioning the pace of the team's commitment to prospects.
“What we won't do is make the same mistake we made this year, which is assume that so many of our young players were ready for prime time," Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino said at the end of the year. “I guess we miscalculated the preparation level."
Of course, the team also witnessed immensely promising developments among its young players.
Bogaerts recovered from his struggles with a strong September, and the team thinks he'll use the lessons of his age 21 season as a springboard to success.
Mookie Betts blitzed from Double-A to the big leagues by midseason and showed star potential as a 21-year-old who moved from second to the outfield.
After signing with the Sox in August, Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo showed impact across-the-board tools in his big league debut.
And catcher Christian Vazquez showed Gold Glove defensive potential and adequate offense in a half-season in the big leagues.
The Sox have endured a three-year period of unprecedented volatility, going worst-to-first-to-worst. Yet as devastating as the 2014 season was, the glimpses of those potential core players along with the steady advance of future impact players like catcher Blake Swihart and third baseman Rafael Devers has created a belief that the ultimate goal of sustainable success may be closer at hand than the last-place finish of 2014 would suggest.