MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Young stars will lead Red Sox back in 2016

Club could supplement pitching staff with vets this winter, but youth will be key

Young stars will lead Red Sox back in 2016

When the Red Sox won the 2013 World Series, they knew they'd caught lightning in a bottle, or whatever you choose to call it. They'd had a magical run after hitting on a string of unheralded free-agent signings -- Mike Napoli, David Ross, etc. -- and didn't believe the same group could win again.

Rather than go on a free-agent spending spree, the Red Sox hoped for an infusion of talent from the farm system. This was going to be their new way of doing business, the path they'd committed to in the wake of those 2012 trade in which they shipped Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers.

If the Red Sox were going to win in 2014, they were going to need another productive year from Shane Victorino, Napoli, etc., but they also believed there'd be a natural evolution with Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Will Middlebrooks and other young players shouldering more of the load.

Bogaerts' solo homer

And that experiment didn't work: The Red Sox lost 91 games last season and finished 25 games behind the first-place Orioles in the American League East.

The Red Sox were reminded that young players do not come with guarantees or timetables, and that a large number of Minor League stars simply don't make it. And that's why the organization went for a quick fix last offseason by signing veterans Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to deals totaling around $190 million.

Ben Cherington reworked his rotation around veterans acquired in the prior nine months: Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, Wade Miley and Joe Kelly. Cherington was criticized for not adding a true No. 1 starter, but Masterson was once staff ace in Cleveland, and the other three had sometimes been projected as No. 1's.

The Red Sox still loved their Minor League depth, but for a franchise constantly in a win-now mode, they hoped those veterans brought more certainty.

OK, it didn't work out. The Red Sox are 66-74 and have spent the past 94 days in last place in the AL East.

Reasons?

Boston's rotation has a 4.56 ERA, second-highest in the AL East and 25th overall in the Majors. Meanwhile, Sandoval has a .297 OBP, and Ramirez has struggled so badly in left field that new president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has him penciled in to play first base in 2016.

Cherington won't be part of the organization in the wake of Dombrowski's hiring. But with five other clubs seeking a general manager, Cherington is likely to be a strong candidate elsewhere.

Turns out, the Red Sox team he envisioned for 2013 is the Red Sox team that's now on the field. And this team has so much youth that the Red Sox seem nicely positioned to contend again next year.

The Red Sox could ride a wave of optimism into the offseason. They'll begin Saturday having won 22 of 38 games. Best of all, there have been contributions up and down the lineup from young players.

Since they bottomed out at 14 games under .500 on July 30, the Red Sox are 22-16. In this stretch, they're scoring 6.13 runs per game, tied with the Blue Jays for most in the Majors. Their .837 OPS during that time is in the big leagues.

Among the AL's top 25 hitters since July 30 are five Red Sox: David Ortiz (sixth at .352), Mookie Betts (seventh at .350), Bogaerts (ninth at .344), Bradley (10th at .342) and Rusney Castillo (21st at .311). Rookie catcher Blake Swihart is also hitting .284 in 69 games since being called up.

Also, the starting pitching has been above average. Red Sox starters are 20-8 with a 3.70 ERA during the 22-16 run. Kelly (1.85 ERA) and Porcello (2.98 ERA) have been very solid in their past seven starts, and Miley has a 3.87 in 11 starts since the All-Star break.

Rookie left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez has pitched well enough to be penciled into the 2016 rotation. In 18 starts, he's 9-5 with a 4.05 ERA. But he has had four terrible starts -- 30 earned runs in 15 innings. In his other 14 starts, he's posted a 1.74 ERA.

Rodriguez's great outing

If Dombrowski does bring in a No. 1 starter, he could have the makings of a formidable rotation, especially because there's more pitching depth in Boston's farm system. This free-agent class includes two No. 1's in David Price and Zack Greinke (if, as expcted, he opts out of his deal with the Dodgers), along with three other guys who might be considered No. 1's in Jordan Zimmermann, Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto.

Dombrowski's top priority has to be the bullpen. Even if you can look at the rotation and lineup a certain way and see good things, the bullpen needs work. Since July 30, Boston's bullpen has been the worst in baseball with a 6.12 ERA.

Some of you -- the cynical types -- will point out that Dombrowski was unable to get the bullpen right the past three seasons in Detroit. To say he ignored it would be untrue. But some of the relievers he counted on -- Joe Nathan, Bruce Rondon and Joba Chamberlain -- simply didn't pitch the way he projected.

At a time when baseball's best teams are built, in part, around really good bullpens -- the Cardinals, Royals and Pirates are ranked Nos. 1-3 in relief ERA -- Dombrowski can't get the Red Sox back into contention without fixing this part of his team.

However, given where the Red Sox were a few weeks ago, his offseason work is a lot less challenging now than it was then. Baseball people warn one another not to trust September stats. In this case, it's probably fair not to trust any of the numbers the Red Sox have accumulated since they've dropped out of contention.

On the other hand, we have nothing else to go on. And these young players are playing the way the Red Sox projected them to play. Turns out, their farm system was as good as they thought it'd be.

And the Red Sox may not be out of contention for very long.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.