BOSTON – They are among the most highly touted group of players to come through the Red Sox organization in a decade. Not since Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, and Jonathan Papelbon were working their ways up the ladder have a group of young players received such organizational accolades.
Until Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, Jr., and now Mookie Betts, that is.
They have all arrived at the major league level. But they are all struggling.
Bogaerts is batting .245/.324/.371 in 79 games, while hitting in every spot in the lineup except one, three, and four. Since June 18, he is just 2 for his last 42, batting .048, and is on an 0-for-19 slide with seven strikeouts in that time. He has struck out 78 times in 294 at-bats, a 27 percent rate. He leads the team with 11 errors – six at shortstop for a .971 fielding percentage, five at third base (.921).
For Bradley, while his defense has been stellar – his nine assists are the most in the majors for a center fielder, third overall in the American League – and he has five stolen bases without being caught, he has struggled offensively all season, batting .208/.288/.298 in 77 games. He has struck out 79 times in 245 at-bats, a 32 percent rate.
And Betts, albeit in a much smaller sample size, is also faltering. Since making his major league debut on Sunday at Yankee Stadium, he has just one hit in nine at-bats over three games, after grounding into an inning-ending double play in his first major league at-bat. To his credit, he has not yet struck out. He is playing the outfield this season for the first time in his career. And while his performance has been error-free there have been some plays on which he has seemed uncertain.
Of the group of rookie position players currently on the roster only Brock Holt is producing at a consistent rate, and likely well above what the Sox thought they might be able to get from him this season. After hitting .203/.275/.237 in 26 games last season, he is batting .317/.363/.439 in 50 games for this season, taking over the lead-off spot and able to play virtually any position other than pitcher and catcher, including four positions this season that he had never played in his life.
The difference? Of course, there are many, but perhaps it comes down to a number. Holt, who came to the Sox from the Pirates as part of the trade to acquire Joel Hanrahan in in December 2012, turned 26 on June 11. Bradley, who turned 24 on April 19, in closest in age. Bogaerts won’t be 22 until Oct. 1, while Betts will be 22 on Oct. 7.
It’s unfair to say the trio are an anchor on the lineup when the offense as a whole has underperformed this season. But, it’s easier to move young players out of the lineup – possibly send them back to the minor leagues for some seasoning or just for a breather – than it is to take veterans out.
However, it does not appear that will happen any time soon. The Sox could send the struggling youngsters back to Pawtucket, and call up older players such as infielder Ryan Roberts or outfielders Corey Brown or Andres Torres. Those players would have to be added to the 40-man roster, though.
When asked how he could spark the offense, manager John Farrell replied:
“I don’t know that we’re going to make wholesale changes with personnel. That's not in the cards. My answer remains fairly consistent, and that is: We continue to create opportunities for ourselves. The elusive basehit is the difference. We’re not going to look to become a speed-oriented team overnight. That’s not available to us. We have to stay with a consistent relentless approach that these guys have done and have long track record at.”
But, he acknowledges that his young players are struggling.
“I think what they’re realizing -- and I probably wouldn’t even put Mookie in this topic just because it’s been what 12, 14 at-bats to date,” Farrell said. “The one thing that you see with other guys that have been here from pretty much Opening Day is that sometimes the downturns are a little bit longer and a little bit longer than you might otherwise expect. But I think that’s realizing that advance scouting and pitchers being able to pitch to scouting reports are accurate. And the consistency of the pitching they’re facing is very good every night.”
There is a big difference between minor league pitching and what players see in the major leagues, especially when it’s the first time they are seeing such pitching. It’s part of the transition process.
“I look at it how is the young player’s mental strength going to allow them to endure the challenges that they’ll face,” Farrell said. “That’s what will continue to give you confidence to give them opportunities. And you feel like they’re going to handle some of the downturn and maybe some of the focus and the attention that maybe some struggles will generate. But on the flip side you don’t say that by X number of games he’s going to be an established big leaguer. That’s difficult to project.”
Farrell said he does not believe Bogaerts slump at the plate is affecting him in the field.
“The one thing that Xander is, obviously he cares,” Farrell said. “He’s accountable for his actions both in preparation and the ultimate results. What we monitor is if does that become a distraction between the lines. And right now it’s not. He is working on some things, particularly with his balance and trying to keep his legs underneath him rather than lunging to the front side. Those are things that will hopefully will start to show up in games. And I thought the line drive to center field [Tuesday night] was a prime example of that being the case.”
But the correlation between offensive and defensive performance – or lack thereof – is often something teams have to monitor more with younger players than with veterans.
“It might be a little bit more prevalent for a guy that's still creating a foundation here t the big league level, where those swings of confidence might be a little bit wider,” Farrell said. “But [Bogaerts is] also somebody that we believe [in] and we’re going to continue to have him in the lineup and provide opportunities.”
Would he send Bogaerts back to Triple-A Pawtucket to help him out of his slump?
“We haven’t even considered that,” Farrell said.
It’s a balancing act, trying to determine when to leave a struggling young player in the major leagues, in the lineup, or send him to back to the minor leagues to make his adjustments there, out of the glare of the big league spotlight.
“You’re reading body language, you’re getting a sense inside conversations with guys and how they’re dealing with things,” Farrell said. “There's going to be times when we give young players a breather. That is taking place with Xander. It’s taking place with Jackie. But when you get to the point where you’re not getting five days a week on the field, then those number of at-bats that are being missed, then you start to consider the alternative.
“And like I said, we’re not at the point yet.”