Thursday, April 4, 2013

Home grown talent

When Theo Epstein took over the General Manager position before the 2003 season, he said he was going to turn the Red Sox into a "$100 million player development machine", meaning that they would develop their own players, so that they wouldn't have to go out and overspend on free agents. Now, more than ever, that philosophy is critical to success, given the rates at which teams are resigning their own players. Even small to mid market teams, such as the Reds, Mariners, and White Sox are resigning star players to often extremely long deals to prevent them from reaching free agency. The kings of this strategy are the Tampa Bay Rays, who have Evan Longoria under contract through 2023 (no, that isn't a typo) thanks to two different six year extensions, the first of which paid him only $17.5 million for six years (total, not annually), plus three club options totaling $30 million for the 2014, 2015, and 2016 seasons. On top of that they have super utility player Ben Zobrist signed through 2015 for very reasonable salaries and burgeoning ace Matt Moore signed through 2019, if all his options are picked up.

So what does that mean for the Red Sox and other big market teams? Quite simply, if you don't develop from within you'll be forced to spend more money to get less production on the free agent market. Given the importance of developing from within, I thought I'd take a look at the Red Sox history in developing talent and where they are headed from here.

As you can see from the chart, the 2013 opening day lineup had more home grown players than any other year since 2003, when Epstein took over. A few minor notes about the chart - both Nixon and Nomar were still on the roster in 2004, however they did not start opening day. Nomar was limited to under 40 games before being traded and Nixon played 48 games, thanks to a variety of injuries. Because both were starters, but hurt, I've included them in the 2004 total. Also, I am counting Varitek as home grown, despite originally coming up through the Mariners' system, as he was a AA prospect when he was acquired and was not particularly highly rated at the time of his trade.

Now granted, Iglesias and Bradley were only in the lineup due to injuries to Stephen Drew and David Ortiz, respectively, but the new wave of talent may finally be arriving in Boston. Also, you might note that most of the bars stick around for six or seven years, which is how long it takes to accrue enough service time to become a free agent. For example, you can see the core of the 2007 - 2012 teams were Youkilis, Pedroia, and Ellsbury, but that the Red Sox are starting to see some of those players depart. Dustin Pedroia, who was in his seventh opening day lineup in 2013, isn't going anywhere, thanks to a contract extension through 2014 with a team option for 2015, but Youkilis was traded away before becoming a free agent and Ellsbury will likely either be traded or allowed to walk following this season.

With the departure of Youkilis and the imminent departure of Ellsbury, getting this new influx of talent is critical. The Red Sox have already anointed Middlebrooks as Youkilis' successor, thanks to a great few months last season, and Bradley turned heads in spring training with his .500 OBP, which he's managed to keep up for the first two games of the regular season as well. Xander Bogaerts may force his way into the discussion, after dominating high A and AA as a 19 year old, but at the moment his two most likely positions, shortstop and third base, already have young, cost controlled players manning them, in Middlebrooks and Iglesias. Outfielder Bryce Brentz reached AAA last  and struggled mightily, but a good season and he could be in consideration for an outfield job next year, should Ellsbury depart. Beyond Brentz and Bogaerts, the upper levels of the minors do not have any prospects who could make a difference in Boston over the next two years.

On the other side of the ball, things are not nearly as interesting. The Red Sox have really only used three starting pitchers they developed in the last decade - Derek Lowe, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and recently, Felix Doubront. Lowe was a staple on the Red Sox, albeit in a wide variety of roles from 1998 to 2004, when he was allowed to depart as a free agent following the World Series win. Since Lester's dramatic return from non-Hogkins lymphoma, which saw him go from being diagnosed with the disease to clinching the Red Sox sweep of the Rockies in the World Series in his very first post season start. Lester's 2012 was one of the worst in the major leagues, you can do a lot of damage with 200 innings with an ERA approaching 5.00, but he retains the skills to be a potential ace. Buchholz has been up and down with the Red Sox as well, with a 2011 cut short by injuries and a horrendous start to the 2012 season that marred his final line, but hopefully with the return of former pitching coach John Farrell both Buchholz and Lester can return to form. Doubront remains a rather raw, unfinished product; he has great stuff and can strike out a lot of batters, but neither the approach nor the results are there yet. If the Red Sox hasn't been so destroyed by injuries last year, he likely would have returned to AAA. However, with the lack of depth and Doubront being able to hold his own last year, he has another crack at the rotation for 2013.

While the major league home grown pitchers haven't been as interesting as the hitters, the reverse is true for the upper levels of the minors. Thanks to the Red Sox convincing the Dodgers to take on a quarter of a billion dollars in guaranteed contracts in exchange for the Dodgers' top two pitching prospects, the upper levels of the minor leagues are jammed with potential impact arms. Matt Barnes, a 2011 draftee, and Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster, the aforementioned Dodgers' prospects, all could be ready to contribute to the majors in the next year. Two college pitchers, Brian Johnson, a low ceiling, high floor lefty out of Florida, and Brandon Workman, a big righty with a great fastball and not much else, could also be contributing in the next few years, whether it is in the back end of the rotation or the bullpen.

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