FORT MYERS, Fla. — Jon Lester recorded his second spring training start Saturday night, the left-hander preparing for his role as ace of the defending World Series champions.
Lester, 30, has another distinction with the Red Sox. No player has been with the organization longer. Lester came to the Red Sox in the 2002 draft before Theo Epstein became general manager prior to the 2003 season. We bring you that fun fact since it was Epstein who almost traded Lester to Texas 10 years ago, as a throw-in for the proposed Manny Ramirez-for-Alex Rodriguez trade.
And don’t the Yankees wish that deal went through.
Boston fans can laugh all they want at the mess the Yankees have with Rodriguez. The bigger smiles come out when then they compare the Red Sox depth with New York’s, or with anyone else’s.
Boston’s roster is a reason why the 2014 spring training has gone so swimmingly, so far. Coming off a world championship certainly lifts the spirits. Plus, there have been no major injuries and the team looks competitive.
There is no anxiety over not re-signing Stephen Drew, letting Jarrod Saltalamacchia go to the Marlins and watching Jacoby Ellsbury leave for the Yankees. Plus, pitcher Ryan Dempster retired and no one blinked.
Boston motors along, continuing its balance of building from within while spicing the roster with key free agent signings.
Lester is an oddity, a prospect from yesteryear that the Red Sox held onto.
When Epstein arrived, he vowed to build up the number of prospects. Before Epstein, the Red Sox usually ranked in the bottom half of the league in Baseball America’s annual ranking of the top organizational talent.
When Boston won the World Series in 2004, they did it with two homegrown players, starting right fielder Trot Nixon and back-up infielder Kevin Youkilis. The farm system was still thin, ranked 21st in 2005 by Baseball America.
By 2008, Boston was ranked No. 2. The Red Sox eventually slipped, especially after trading Casey Kelly, Anthony Rizzo and Reymond Fuentes in the Adrian Gonzalez deal.
But under second-year General Manager Ben Cherington, the Red Sox are ranked No. 2 again. The Pirates are No. 1. After Boston the other top organizations are the Twins, Cubs – with Epstein – Astros and Padres.
Solid farm systems obviously do not guarantee major league success. They do help solidify a team’s long-term plan to compete.
The best news about Boston’s farm system is that most of the top prospects are in the upper levels.
“We have a bunch of guys we’re real excited about,” Boston director of player development Ben Crockett said, “a bunch of guys close to getting to the major leagues.”
And the Red Sox proved they won’t keep guys in the minors if those players can help the major league team.
Outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., infielders Jose Iglesias and Xander Bogaerts, catcher Ryan Lavarnway and pitchers, Alex Wilson, Steven Wright, Allen Webster, Brandon Workman and Drake Britton were among those called up (Bradley and Iglesias began 2013 with Boston because of injuries). Wright and Webster aren’t homegrown, but were acquired when they were still in the minors.
While Iglesias was traded to get Jake Peavy, most of the others were with the team on and off. Both Bogaerts and Workman made the playoff roster and became important contributors.
“We showed that last year we used guys in important roles in August, September and the playoffs,” Crockett said. “That should speak volumes to (current minor leaguers).
“They’re not only in an organization that prioritizes winning, but we’re not afraid to expose guys to tough situations if they’ve shown they can handle it.”
Most of the above-named players will again help the major league team, especially Bogaerts who will start at shortstop.
What other players could help a playoff push in 2014?
Catchers Christian Vazquez and Dan Butler are possibilities. Vazquez may be the catcher of the future, especially if his offense comes close to his major league-ready defense. Butler has been steady throughout his brief pro career.
Third baseman Garin Cecchini could get a call if anything happens to Will Middlebrooks. Cecchini is one of those players who demonstrated the ability and confidence to handle a challenge. After only a half-season in Portland, he’s likely headed to Triple-A, and awaiting a call from Boston.
Outfielders Bryce Brentz and Alex Hassan are waiting in the wings. Bryce features the power potential that any major league team would covet, while Hassan showcases the disciplined approach that Boston loves, evidenced by a career .401 on-base percentage.
Starting pitchers Anthony Ranaudo and Matt Barnes could get a chance, although there are plenty of arms in front of them. Reliever Noe Ramirez is a possibility if he commands his 1-2 punch of a sinking fastball and plus change-up. Then there is lefty Henry Owens, possibly the top pitching prospect in the upper levels. He will begin 2014 in Portland and could be in for an adventure, like Workman and Britton, who both began 2013 at Hadlock.
Jon Lester, the second-round pick of 2002, was once a touted prospect. Now he’s an established starter, one of a number of dependable veterans a team needs to contend for a title.
But as the Red Sox demonstrated last year, the young kids can play a role, too.
Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or at: