Spring forward: Sox to lean on two rookies in 2014

Spring forward: Sox to lean on two rookies in 2014
February 10, 2014, 12:00 pm
Share This Post

All this week, Sean McAdam will be examining issues facing the Red Sox as they begin spring training. Today: Beginning a title defense with two rookies projected to be in the starting lineup. Tomorrow: A look at some of the contract situations on the Sox.

Roster churn is an accepted part of baseball in 2014 -- even the most successful and deep-pocketed teams are unable (or unwilling) to field identical lineups from one season to the next.
    
Free agency plays a role, but then, so too does a team's desire to introduce younger (and not incidentally, cheaper) players into an organization.
    
Over the last 10 seasons, the Red Sox have one of the best track records of any team in developing talent. Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, Clay Buchholz and others have been home-grown impact players.
    
Most teams set a goal of introducing one young player into a meaningful role in their lineup each year. But the Red Sox are being more ambitious than most this spring -- and they're doing it at two key positions in the field.
    
As spring training begins, the Sox expect that Xander Bogaerts will be their everyday shortstop and Jackie Bradley Jr. will be in center field. Both enter 2014 with rookie status intact.
    
For Bogaerts, the expectations are merely an outgrowth of what transpired last fall. Summoned to the big leagues in August at the age of 20, he was a contributor off the bench, able to fill in at short and third base.
    
But halfway through the American League Championship Series, Bogaerts took over at third for the slumping Will Middlebrooks and started most of the games thereafter.
    
Incredibly, Bogaerts never appeared overmatched by the competition nor intimidated by the stage. In 12 post-season games, he hit .297 with an on-base percentage of .412. One walk in the ALCS, in particular, demonstrated his patience.
    
Though he played mostly third base in the post-season, it's likely he'll be at short this season, replacing free agent Stephen Drew. While there are some who question whether short is Bogaerts' best position, few believe he'll have much difficulty in the role. Bogaerts is athletic, talented and more than willing to work.
    
In the event the Sox decide, during camp, to bring back Drew, they could then slide Bogaerts over to third. But such a move would squeeze Middlebrooks out of a spot, and while Middlebrooks was a disappointment in his second big league season, it's too soon to give up on him, given his upside and raw power from the right side.
    
The path for Bradley is less obvious.
    
He was the talk of spring training last year and a surprise addition to the 25-man roster at the start of the spring. But despite showing some selectivity at the plate and fielding his position well, Bradley wasn't ready for major league pitching -- at least early in the season.
    
Recalled several times during the year to fill in after injuries struck, Bradley seemed more comfortable by September. Still, his .189 average in 95 at-bats (and .280 OBP) were proof that there's more work to be done.
    
In the eyes of most evaluators, Bradley is major league-ready now -- in the field. With good baseball instincts, he'll cover nearly as much ground as Ellsbury did and throw better.
    
But it's his offense that remains a work in progress. Smartly, the Red Sox will not ask him to replace Ellsbury in the leadoff spot, feeling that additional responsibility is the last thing Bradley needs as he transitions to the big leagues.
    
Instead, he'll hit somewhere in the lower-third of the batting order, where he can focus on getting acclimated, rather than worrying about being the team's table-setter.
    
If Bradley fails, the Red Sox might have an alternative in Grady Sizemore, who was signed for protection in January. Once one of the game's top young starts, Sizemroe missed the last two seasons altogether and has played just 104 games total in the last four years combined.
    
If Sizemore is healthy, he could give the Sox a valuable piece while allowing Bradley more time to develop. If he's not, the onus will be on  Bradley.
    
In the past, the Sox have shown some patience with young players who struggle at the start of their careers. Dustin Pedroia hit below .200 for the first month of 2008 before taking off.
    
But it's always more challenging to break in in a market like Boston, where little goes unnoticed. And doing so for a franchise coming off a World Series win is more difficult still.