Spring Training Countdown: No quick fixes

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Spring Training Countdown: No quick fixes

In any other off-season, particularly one following a 69-win season, the Red Sox would have responded with their checkbooks.

The Red Sox had responded to downturns before by chasing after the biggest names available. When the team won 90 games in 2010 and missed the post-season for the first time since 2006, they reacted swiftly and, seemingly, without regard to payroll implications.

That winter, the Sox rocked baseball by trading for -- and later granting a contract extension to -- Adrian Gonzalez. Days later, they signed free agent outfielder Carl Crawford.

To be sure, there were impact players to be had this past winter, too. Outfielder Josh Hamilton was on the free agent market, and surely Zack Greinke, another free agent, would have upgraded the starting rotation.

But the Red Sox refrained from the quick fix this time. They signed seven free agents, but three -- first baseman Mike Napoli; shortstop Stephen Drew; and reliever Koji Uehara -- were signed to one-year deals and three others -- catcher David Ross; pitcher Ryan Dempster; and outfielder Jonny Gomes -- were signed to two-year deals.

Only outfielder Shane Victorino (three years) got more than a two-year commitment.

Perhaps the conservative approach shouldn't have caught anyone off-guard. After the season, the Red Sox publicly insisted that they would remain disciplined in their rebuilding.

Signing premium free agents often come at the cost of draft picks and the financial obligations can weigh down even the biggest of big-market teams.

And hadn't the Red Sox needed the cash-rich and desperate Los Angeles Dodgers last August to rid themselves of Crawford, Gonzalez and Josh Beckett and their anchor-like contracts?

Instead, the Sox took a more reasoned approach to their off-season acquisitions. The seven free agents combined cost them 96 million combined, or nearly 50 million less than they spent on Crawford alone two winters ago.

The hope is that, in the short-term, the free agents will help move the club back toward respectability. In the final two months of last year, after the trade with the Dodgers and the continued absence of DH David Ortiz, the Sox were unable to field a major league-caliber lineup most nights, a fact reflected in their 7-26 finish.

Napoli, Drew, Gomes and Victorino also share a willingness to work at-bats, something at which the Sox failed miserably last season, as evidenced by their paltry .315 OBP, 10th best in the American League.

But after years in which they made long-term commitments and tied up positions for years at a time, the Sox' approach this off-season leaves them with plenty of flexibility.

General manager Ben Cherington often said in the last six months that he envisions the farm system playing a major role in building the "next great Red Sox team.''

That thinking is a return to the philisophy that won the Sox their last world championship (2007) and sent them to the ninth inning of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

Unlike the 2004 roster, which was cobbled together with holdovers from the Duquette regime (Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Derek Lowe, Jason Varitek) and some cost-effective free agent signings (Ortiz, Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller, Mike Timlin), the 2007-2008 teams featured a homegrown nucleus. Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester and Jonathan Papelbon all were scouted, signed and developed by the Sox themselves.

Ultimately, that dependence on homegrown players leads to continuity, consistency and cost-certainty.

But there are risks, too.

While the newest free agents steer the Sox back to respectability, the projected arrival of the system's two best position players -- shortstop Xander Bogaerts and outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. -- is for 2014. If they, along with highly-regarded pitching prospects Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo, and Henry Owens -- fail to evolve into the players the Red Sox believe they'll be, the whole rebuilding program will be for naught and the Sox will have a host of expiring veteran contracts and no reinforcements in sight.

That's a chance the Sox will willingly take, even if, in the short-term, it's unlikely to end the team's three-year post-season drought. They found out the hard way the last few years that signing established (and far more expensive) players is no guarantee of success, either.

Red Sox welcome Betts’ surprising power surge

Red Sox welcome Betts’ surprising power surge

BOSTON - With one quick flick of his wrists Monday night, Mookie Betts drove a pitch into the Monster Seats, marking his 30th homer of the season.

The homer put Betts into exclusive company in team history. Only two others before him -- Ted Williams and Tony Conigliaro -- had ever reached the 30-homer milestone before turning 24. 

It's a reasonable assumption that, with five weeks still to play in the regular season, Betts will more than double his home run total (17) from last year, a remarkable jump.    

More to the point, Betts wasn't projected as a power hitter. In 2011 and 2012, Betts played the first 72 games of his pro career career without hitting a single homer. 

The power began to manifest itself somewhat the following year when he belted 15 homers between Low-A Greenville and High-A Salem, but still, few envisioned that Betts would show this kind of power at the major league level.

He was athletic, with extra-base capability, and speed. But a 30-home run hitter? That wasn't in the cards.

"That's pretty cool, hitting 30,” allowed Betts after the Red Sox' 9-4 win over Tampa Bay. "But that's not the reason we play.''

 For several minutes, Betts did his best to deflect questions about his milestone, consistently emphasizing team goals "first and foremost” over his own personal achievements.

"Trying to affect the game in some form or fashion,” he shrugged. "We're in a race right now and that's way more important[than individual stats].”

Still, Betts himself acknowledged that his homer total has come as something of a revelation.

"I definitely wasn't expecting [this kind of] power,'' he said. "But I'll take it while it's here.''

Maybe the power explosion shouldn't come as a shock, however. Betts has always demonstrated exceptional strength and fast reflexes, exhibiting the sort of "quick-twitch'' athleticism that make scouts drool.

He's improved his pitch selection and recognition, and it surely hasn't hurt to be part of a powerful Red Sox lineup that currently has him hitting behind David Ortiz and in front of Hanley Ramirez.

"Experience...knowing when and when not to turn on balls,” Betts explained further. "There's a whole bunch of things that kind of go into it.”

As he's gained confidence, Betts now picks certain counts where he allows himself to take bigger swings, though he's careful to  point out that he's not ever trying to hit homers.

"Not necessarily trying to hit a home run,'' he offered, "but trying to drive [the ball]. Those things come with experience and knowing when and when not to. I'm not trying to hit a home run. They just kind of come.''

In this, just his second full season in the big leagues, they're coming more and more frequently -- whether anyone expected it or not.

     

Bogaerts continues to battle through struggles with bat

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Bogaerts continues to battle through struggles with bat

BOSTON -- Early in 2016 praises, were sung around the league that Xander Bogaerts was the best hitter in baseball.

Rightfully so. For a good portion of the season he led the league in both batting average and hits. But between Mookie Betts’ ascension and Bogaerts’ drop in average from .331 on 7/29 to .306 after Monday night’s game, he’s taken a back seat.

But the Red Sox shortstop’s month-long dry spell hasn’t been a straight decline. Although he was held hitless Monday, Bogaerts went 6-for-13 (.462) against Kansas City.

In fact, the 23-year-old doesn’t even consider the recent month of struggles the worst stretch of his career.

“2014 probably,” Bogaerts said, “yeah I had a terrible, terrible few months -- probably three months.”

That was of course the season a lot came into question surrounding the now All-Star shortstop, so he was pretty spot on. In 2014 Bogaerts went from hitting .304 through 5/31, to .248 by the end of June, .244 after his last game in July, all the way down to .224 by the last day of August.

Bogaerts would hit .313 that September and finish with a .240 average -- but more importantly, an appreciation of what he’d experienced.

“That definitely helped me become a better person, a better player -- and understanding from that and learning,” Bogaerts said.

From that experience, he gained a better understanding of the importance of maintaining a consistent day-to-day routine.

“That has to stay the same,” Bogaerts said without question in his voice. “The league adjusted, they adjusted to me. It kind of took a longer time to adjust to them. They’ve just been pitching me so differently compared to other years.”

Bogaerts has had the point reinforced to him throughout, with Red Sox assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez serving as one voice of reinforcement.

“When you have a routine from the mental side, physical side, when you struggle that’s when you really need that,” Rodriguez said. “He’s been so good with his daily preparation, it doesn’t matter the result of the game. He can always go to something that feels comfortable.”

“He’s been so comfortable and confident with his daily routine and preparation that it allows him -- when he doesn’t get the results he wants in the game -- to have some peace knowing that the next day, we’re going to go back to doing that again.”

It’s clear Bogaerts needs to maintain his daily routine to help work through slumps -- and maintain hot streaks -- but Rodriguez made it clear, consistent preparation from a hitter doesn’t magically cure every problem.

“That doesn’t mean that because you stick with the routine you’re going to have results,” Rodriguez said. “What it means is, [because] you know and believe in that routine that you know you’re going to get out of it.”

Which means in addition to sticking to his normal routine, Bogaerts also had to identify flaws elsewhere in order work through his problems. He came to realize the problem was more mechanically based than mental -- given he’d done everything to address that.

“They pitched me differently, and some stuff I wanted to do with the ball I couldn’t do,” Bogaerts said. “I just continued doing it until I had to make the adjustment back.”

Bogaerts isn’t fully out of the dark, but he’s taken steps in the right direction of late -- and is nowhere near the skid he experienced in 2014. He and Rodriguez fully believe the All-Star’s ability to maintain a clear mind will carry him through whatever troubles he’s presented with the rest of the way.

“The more stuff you have in you’re head is probably not going to help your chances,” Bogaerts explained, “so have a clear mind -- but also have the trust in your swing that you’re going to put a good swing on [the pitch] regardless of whatever the count is.”

Nick Friar can be followed on Twitter @ngfriar.