The Red Sox may insist their white flag is tucked away, continuing to gather dust since 2012, but the signs are all around.
Mookie Betts is up. Christian Vazquez is up. Space in the rotation could soon open up for both Brandon Workman and Rubby De La Rosa. The rest of this season will be spent developing young prospects at the game’s highest level so that -- even if they make a miraculous climb back from 9 1/2 games out of first place in the A.L. East -- the core of the next great Red Sox team will have accumulated valuable big-league innings.
“We are where we are,” said Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington. “If the standings were turned upside down, if our positioning was different, maybe that wouldn't be happening. But we are where we are, so we gotta find out about guys. We've gotta see what opportunities come our way. At the same time, we're trying to get better as quickly as we can in ways that make sense.”
Already, several young players have seen significant MLB action in 2014. At times they’ve flashed the skills that have had them earmarked as young organizational thoroughbreds. At times, more often that not for some, they’ve struggled badly.
Luckily for the Red Sox, their system is deep with ready-made Major League talent. It's on the backs of those players that the oft-mentioned “bridge” will be built, and the construction is underway.
After hearing from decision-makers in the Red Sox organization, players, and multiple MLB scouts, we look at six Red Sox up-and-comers who will help determine the team's direction for years to come.
Where does he stand?
Sea Dogs starting pitcher Brian Johnson likes to say he called it. Sitting in a dugout in Lowell two seasons ago, he sat next to teammate Deven Marrero and both looked on in awe of the athleticism of Spinners second baseman Mookie Betts.
“That’s a big-leaguer right there,” they told each other.
Quicker than most might have expected, their vision has become reality. Betts’ time with the Red Sox has been brief -- he was called up from Pawtucket on June 28 -- but he’s already flashed above-average athleticism with his lightning quick swing, with his speed on the base paths, and also defensively, where that speed helps him make up for a lack of experience in the outfield.
“It's been a little bit bigger learning curve than I thought it was going to be,” Betts said of his defense. “Starting off, I thought I may get it pretty quickly, but I have a long way to go.”
Where do the Red Sox hope he’ll be, eventually?
With his speed and ability to make consistent hard contact, the 5-foot-9, 155-pounder could eventually turn into the Red Sox' leadoff hitter, which is where he’s hit throughout his brief minor-league career.
Though he’s been over-eager to swing at times while hitting at the bottom of the order for the Red Sox since his call-up -- trying to answer pitchers’ aggressiveness by attacking the strike zone with aggressiveness of his own -- he generally has good patience at the plate during his pro career and has vowed to get back to that type of approach.
“I do think he’ll be a No. 1 or a No. 2 hitter,” said one scout. “[It] may not be this year, but he's gonna be good. You just have to have faith in what you've seen on the way up [through the minors].”
In the field, Betts is still a work in progress. While he’s struggled at times with his jumps and with the dimensions at Fenway Park, the Red Sox feel as though he’s athletic enough to eventually thrive in the outfield.
He took to it almost immediately for the Sea Dogs earlier this year.
“I remember vividly I was in Trenton and I gave up a ball I thought had a chance to go out,” Johnson said. “I thought ‘Oh my God.’ I looked back and [Betts] ran back and caught it over his head. I’m thinking, ‘This is this kid’s fourth game in the outfield and he’s catching balls over his head like that?' I came up to him and said ‘Thank you.’ He gave me a hug and told me not to worry about it. It was just unbelievable.”
Still, the organization isn’t necessarily set on keeping Betts in the outfield permanently. Before he moved from the infield, he projected as a very good defensive second baseman. The only problem there is the Red Sox already have one of those in Dustin Pedroia.
“He could do both,” said Red Sox' director of player development Ben Crockett. “I've got to base it more off of the minor-league look I’ve had. From what we’ve seen on the minor-league side of things, certainly there’s some work to be done, but given that that was really the first time he was [playing the outfield] in games in many years, we felt like the progress, the instincts, the things that are harder to teach that are less repetition-based, were positive signs.
"I think some of the other things are going to be able to come with repetition. Mookie’s a good enough athlete that we put him at different positions and he’d be able to compete and do a quality job. Not just the outfield.”
What does he have to do to get there?
He needs big-league repetitions, especially when it comes to his outfield work. He’s been diligent before home games in practicing with first-base coach Arnie Beyeler, taking balls off the Monster and tracking flies into the triangle in center field. The more he does that, his coaches say, and the more he takes live reads in batting practice, the better off he’ll be.
“I think without a doubt he's athletic enough” to play the outfield, Beyeler said. “He's just gotta get some reps. He's gotta continue to do what he's doing and just play.”
Trusting his own athleticism has allowed Betts to adapt quickly both in the field and at the plate regardless of the level. Scouts say that if he can continue to do that as a big-leaguer, he’ll find plenty of success.
“He knows the strike zone. Mookie Betts is one of the few kids, he doesn't swing at pitches that are balls,” one scout said. “For young hitters that's pretty impressive. Good walk rate, uses the whole field, hits the fastball, pulls the ball. The only thing he's not gonna do is hit a ton of home runs.”
“The floor for him is a solid everyday guy,” said another scout. “The ceiling? You don’t want to rule out that the guy could make a couple of All-Star Games. Hats off to the Red Sox for taking an athlete and saying we’ll figure out the rest.”
Trade him or keep him?
You can never say never, but Betts’ upside is so promising that it would take a massive return for the Red Sox to think about dealing him right now.