Two of the Red Sox’ biggest prospects, Michael Bowden and Josh Reddick, had less than stellar seasons in 2009. While the pair still remain tremendous talents, it has now become more difficult to see either one in the Sox’ future plans, due in part to their failures this year as well as the team’s changing circumstances. Still, should either or both pan out as originally expected, they would be quite the addition to a team in need of an infusion of cheap, young talent.
It’s hard to say that Bowden isn’t at a crucial time in his career, as his recent struggles at AAA and the MLB have cast serious doubt on his ultimate ceiling as a prospect and his ability to play the game at the major league level.
Bowden, 23, possesses excellent stuff, and was superb in his minor league showings through the early part of 2008. However, his 2009 was nothing short of a disaster, as he was belted in every way imaginable in every appearance he made. Unfairly, perhaps, many experts are beginning to write off his chances to contribute to the big club. Before this season, most believed him to be a future #2 or #3 starter. It’s hard to perform so badly in only 16 innings to change that opinion, but that is exactly what has happened.
What is troubling about Bowden is not his abysmal performance in the MLB, but, rather, his drop in strikeouts the last two seasons in AAA. After dominating up through AA until 2008, his Ks fell off sharply. Through 166.1 innings between 2008-09, he posted just 117 punchouts for a pedestrian 6.33 K/9. The walks in 2008 were quite nice (5 BBs in 40 IP), but this season, his impeccable control left him this season, as he walked 47 in 126.1 IP.
Past performance or not, AAA numbers are incredibly important for young starting pitchers. It’s a bit surprising that the Ks dropped so suddenly for Bowden, as he still possesses good velocity for a starter (91-92 mph fastball) and these types of sharp downturns usually are confined to soft-tossers with good breaking pitches. At this juncture, he could still recapture his form from AA, but 2009 was a large bump in the road.
Still, don’t let those poor hit totals and homers in 16 MLB innings get you down. Even position players aren’t that bad at pitching, so there’s a significant element of bad luck here. Bowden’s key is going to be finding that sweet command he had all throughout the minors until this year. If he does that, he can still fill out the role as a solid number three. If not, he’ll be struggling to find time as a long man somewhere else – or out of the majors all together.
Perpetually the subject of trade rumors, Bowden may never get the chance to prove himself in a Boston uniform. He’s always been looked at as somewhat of an extra piece, given the presence in years past of Buchholz, Lester, and Masterson. However, there’s a bit of an upside to keeping him around, as it may behoove the Sox to let him prove himself out of the bullpen as a long man.
There are a number of advantages to this. For one, he will be cost-effective, which, with the plethora of quality free agents on the market this year and next, will give the team extra flexibility. And two, more importantly, it will give the Sox a very good sample as to what they can reasonably expect from Bowden for 2011 and beyond. This is especially important given the changes facing the rotation in the next few years. Beckett becomes a free agent after 2010, while Wakefield’s back makes him a risk to retire at any time.
The Sox’ success this decade has very directly linked to their ability to cultivate plenty of homegrown talent. And, in case you haven’t noticed, the farm is short on players in the high minors that are ready to contribute. No team, even the Yankees, can build a team without some homegrown talent. If Bowden can recapture his command he showed before this season, it will be a big step in the right direction for the Sox’ chances in the second decade of the new millennium as this rotation may get dicey fast without at least one more cheap starter.
Sure, Buchholz is still a very cost-effective option, but that’s about it beyond 2010. Daisuke has a large contract, and Lester’s services will get expensive quickly. With Beckett a potential free agent casualty (or an overpriced commodity should he sign) and Wakefield getting older by the day, sliding Bowden in as a solid third or four option would free up a considerable amount of resources.
Beyond Bowden, only Tazawa stands in the way of an army of expensive free agent mercenaries. Yes, there’s Casey Kelly, but he still needs to give up on the shortstop thing and become a full-time pitcher – but even he’s still in A-ball. Stolmy Pimentel is another quality arm, but is also just finishing up in Greenville. Felix Doubront and Kyle Weiland could both use some seasoning.
The outlook for this team pivots quite a bit on the outcome of Bowden. If he recaptures his former level of production, the Sox have an quality arm at minimal cost for the next 6 years, giving them more money to plug up other holes and forego risks on the free agent market. If not, they’ll need to rely on the other not-yet-ready talent low in the minor leagues or free agents. The last in a lengthy line of recent Sox stud pitching prospects (Lester, Buchholz, Masterson, Papelbon), little brother Bowden has a chance to make just as big an impact as any who have come before him, even if he doesn’t pan out like most had originally hoped.
Nearly all of the expectations positioned on Michael Bowden can be transferred to Reddick, whose 2009 season was just as important – and just as disappointing – as Bowden’s. Reddick gave Sox fans plenty of reason to dream from his stellar string of campaigns since 2007, showing good power with some plate discipline to boot. Still, his 2009 debut was very unkind and he was completely overmatched at the plate.
Though Reddick is just 5 months younger than Bowden, he may have more time left in his developmental clock, due to the fact that he reached AAA for just the first time this season. However, like Bowden, he too dominated in the low minors while struggling at Pawtucket and the MLB. After steamrolling his way through A-ball and AA, he screeched to a halt in AAA, batting .127/.190/.183 in 77 plate appearances, following it up with a .169/.210/.339 line in 62 MLB trips to the plate.
While small sample sizes are often unfair to a player, Reddick’s struggles are compounded by the fact that his future with the Sox is linked to him taking over a corner outfield position. It seems funny that Boston has been much more successful at developing – or at least attempting to develop – up-the-middle position players in recent years.
This may be somewhat by design, as teams with playoff hopes can’t have a deadbeat at the plate in an infield or outfield corner. Even if they are great fielders, they can’t come even remotely close to pulling their weight since the offensive standard is so high at these positions. For players at short, the keystone, center, and catcher, a player can fall back on their fielding if they are struggling at the plate. They’ll still be below average, but the batting demands are so much lower at these positions that, if they are performing poorly, it won’t hurt the team as much. Teams also place more emphasis on defense at up-the-middle positions. This is why the team can import Alex Gonzalez, a no-hit shortstop, for September while, if Jason Bay had gone down, any no-hit, slick-fielding left fielder is insufficient. Major League front offices value hitting at the corners and there are no replacements.
This has likely been the case with the Sox in recent years as the only homegrown corner position player they’ve developed since 2002 has been Kevin Youkilis – and even he had to prove himself as a part time player for two years before being allowed to take the reins. Who’s played up the middle? Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, and the team was prepared to hand Jed Lowrie the job until he was injured.
So this puts Josh Reddick in a tight spot. On the one hand, he will be given a shot to prove he can handle the position since corner outfielders are very expensive commodities. If the Sox can grow a stud hitter on their own, they will have some serious financial flexibility for the next six years.
On the other hand, if he flops again in an extended look, expect the team to push him hard on the trade market. Playoff teams can’t have question marks at big run-producing positions. The Sox seem to believe this and seem to be more comfortable signing big free agents than testing out talented youngsters. After all, the last time they grew their own corner outfielder was when Trot Nixon was called up to stay in 1999 – and he was a 7th overall pick SIX years before in 1993.
While Reddick would be an incredible luxury for this team should he pan out, it’s unfortunate he may not get the chance to prove himself before its too late. Left field will likely be sealed up for the foreseeable future this offseason. And while right field is still an option, as is DH (should Bay be resigned and move there in two years), those positions will have to be solved after the 2010 season when Ortiz departs on free agency, or 2011 when Drew’s contract expires. This means that Reddick needs to prove himself this year, or risk writing himself out of the Boston plans. Right field looks like his best bet, but time is not on his side, which is bad for both parties as Reddick is a tremendous prospect, with excellent athleticism and power potential.
It will be very important to get Reddick at-bats this season, though that will be a difficult task. Barring injury, the fourth outfielder option is out, as it will cost him valuable development time in the minors. He can’t hold down a full time job yet, so that option is out as well. It may come down to a cup of coffee in September, or – hold your breath – an injury to a starter – to get him the playing time he needs to reestablish himself as part of this team’s future.
Sure, 59 at-bats is no way to judge a player’s future. But, when you’re the Boston Red Sox, question marks in the corner outfield don’t cut it.
Michael Bowden and Josh Reddick will certainly need to turn in productive seasons if they want to have any real future in the Red Sox organization. Everyone in Red Sox Nation should be pulling for the two studs. Should they make the requisite turnaround, it would make Boston the division front runner for the next five years. If not, the Sox will have to opt for free agent replacements – never the ideal scenario in a competitive division where every dollar counts.