EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 27, 2006

Is the Sox future worth banking on?

The Bradford Files

BOSTON - Ben Cherington stood on the Fenway Park field yesterday, reveling in an afternoon doubleheader involving the Red Sox's minor league teams from Lowell and Pawtucket. For Boston's vice president of player personnel, this was what made the job fun - seeing the organization's future bask in the glow of the light at the end of the developmental tunnel.

"How can you not like this?" Cherington beamed. "This is what it is all about."

But is it, really? Is the promise of tomorrow enough to help Red Sox fans get through the occasional darkness of these days? Are these kids - many of whom a faction of New England baseball fans would rather have seen shipped out for instant gratification weeks ago - worthy of the fandom's faith?

Like it or not, the Red Sox think so, and because of it Bostonians are being asked to display the kind of patience not seen in these parts for many a baseball season.

"(The Red Sox) didn't come in saying, 'We're not trading Player X. We're not trading (Single-A pitching prospect Michael) Bowden, or we're not trading (highly touted Single-A hurler Clay) Buchholz," said Red Sox scouting director Jason McLeod. "They would trade them if there was the right deal.

"One thing (Red Sox general manager) Theo (Epstein) is great about is that he is very good at distancing himself and looking at what is good for the Red Sox. He just didn't think the deals were right. I don't think it had anything to do with being in love with the prospects and thinking that our prospects were too good to be traded."

But, in the Red Sox's eyes, the youngsters that teams wanted were too good to be traded, at least for what was being offered in return.

According to those within the Red Sox baseball operations department, the most sought-after names at the non-waiver trade deadline were that of current Sox starter Jon Lester, and minor leaguers Craig Hansen, Manny Delcarmen, Buchholz and Bowden (all pitchers), along with Double-A center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury.

Not one was worthy of shipping out in exchange for a short-term boost to the big league team. But was, for instance, a player like Lester worth holding on to when potential deals for the likes of Andruw Jones or Roy Oswalt loomed?

The bottom line is that the Red Sox are banking on their youngsters becoming the building blocks. It is a plan, but is it the right one?

"Guys like Hansen and Delcarmen, both have very good arms, but if the point is that we want to keep these guys because they're ready to contribute now, then maybe they aren't evaluating them correctly," explained Keith Law of ESPN.com/Scouts Inc. "But on the flip side, I don't think, other than that Florida trade (shipping top-of-the-line prospects Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez and two lower-level minor leaguers to the Marlins in the Josh Beckett deal), they've given up anybody who is going to come back to hurt.

"It's been minor guys and bit players. It might be that they don't have enough guys yet that they are able to do that divide that the Yankees were always famous for. You want Andy Pettitte or Sterling Hitchcock, you can keep one. Well, they kept the right one in Pettitte. I think the Red Sox are probably a year or two away from that point that they can talk about trading some of them and keeping some of them."

The Yankees executed a similar plan as the Red Sox's current ploy, holding onto second baseman Robinson Cano, pitcher Chien-Ming Wang and outfielder Melky Cabrera last season. The identification of talent seems to be right on, with Cano and Wang projecting to be future All-Stars, and Cabrera a solid starter.

Boston extends that type of optimism to its core of youngsters.

Entering this season, Boston's farm system was ranked eighth-best in the majors by Baseball America, a huge jump from its 23rd ranking the year before. And Ellsbury and Buchholz were singled out in their respective levels of Single A for their individual talents.

But Lester has struggled to master the command of a big league game during his stint with the Red Sox, as has Hansen. While Buchholz and Bowden both are showing signs of top-of-the-rotation stuff, their future in the bigs is still most likely more than two seasons away.

And Ellsbury might be already major league-ready defensively, but, despite solid plate discipline, might not project out to be a Johnny Damon-esque offensive talent.

"Even the most favorable evaluations that we've done has him as a well-above average center fielder and a guy who has a good idea of the strike zone, but doesn't have much power," Law said. "Great defensive players with average bats are rarely foundation players. I think the Red Sox are getting to the point now where they're trying to draft more foundation players, such as Jason Place. But where they draft I don't think they are going to get a lot of chances at foundation players."

The excitement regarding internal talent is hard to temper, especially when players like Buchholz turn in performances like the one he did in his second start for Single-A Wilmington three days ago. The six-inning, 10-strikeout, 76-pitch outing (described by one scout as the best pitching performance he had seen in the minors all year) sent a buzz through the Sox organization.

But should a Single-A pitcher's excellence soothe the anxiety of those hoping for big league excellence now? Only time will tell.

"In baseball I think most teams value their prospects higher than other clubs do," McLeod said. "When you invest the time and scouted the kids as amateurs, and the player development takes over and they're spending all the hours day in and day out, they can't just become just a piece of property to you, because you know them and you do like them personally. So I think throughout baseball most clubs do value their guys more."