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McGair: Power outage on farm was key to Lester, Lackey deals

July 31, 2014

Red Sox ace Jon Lester was traded to Oakland on Thursday after nine unforgettable years with Boston. (File photo/Associated Press)

A little of this a little of that…
As Red Sox management is already well aware, power-hitting prospects do not grow on trees.
There’s no question that the trading of Jon Lester to Oakland is mostly a function of his impending free agency. But what Boston chose for a return package from the Athletics is a rather blunt indictment on the perceived shortcoming in its farm system.    
When was the last time the Red Sox dipped into their own system to find a player who could be inserted into the heart of the major-league lineup, with big-time, 40-home-run potential?
The answer would be Mo Vaughn, which takes us back more than two decades. That’s a long time and minor league observers haven’t seen the makings of another Hit Dog from any of the Sox’ current crop of prospects.
Boston has collected a number of promising young players to build its future nucleus from, in Jackie Bradley, Xander Bogaerts and others, but none of them have yet become the kind of lineup presence that strikes fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers, and the team’s meager offensive output this year (last in the American League in runs scored) has been the result.
But in netting Yoenis Cespedes, the Red Sox have procured a 20-something with slugging to spare. Slotting him in the same area of the batting order as David Ortiz and Mike Napoli gives Boston a legitimately fearsome 3-4-5 grouping that would also enable Dustin Pedroia to move back to the No. 2 spot, which from an offensive standpoint is where he’s always profiled best.
Allen Craig, one of two players coming over from the Cardinals in return for John Lackey, is another middle-of-the-order type hitter who whacked 22 homers a couple years ago for St. Louis.
That General Manager Ben Cherington and the baseball operations folks were willing to part with their best trade chip to obtain a player with Cespedes’ long-ball prowess is evidence of just how hard it is to cultivate a big bopper. 
Maybe this is all due to the fallout from more stringent PED testing now in place, but there’s no doubt that raw power has become an increasingly rare commodity and something the Red Sox have fallen woefully short in harvesting.
Remember when Lars Anderson’s name was championed about as a long-term power solution at first base? He flamed out so badly that former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein had to go out and get Adrian Gonzalez in a deal that included the shipment of 2014 National League All-Star Anthony Rizzo.
Two more examples of why the Red Sox had to look elsewhere for power protection recently took up residence inside the home clubhouse at McCoy Stadium. Will Middlebrooks and Ryan Lavarnway definitely had slugging part down pat when they were labeled prospects, but such a description no longer fits either of them.
Injuries have cast a dark cloud over the fond memories of Middlebrooks’ homer barrage with the PawSox in April 2012 when he belted nine round-trippers in just 24 games. He hasn’t come close to replicating that success partly because he can’t seem to stay on the field, but he hasn’t shined even when he has been healthy – .227 average in 94 games with Boston last season and a .197 mark in 21 big-league games this season.
The disappearance of Lavarnway’s power is most perplexing. He connected for 18 home runs in 61 games for Pawtucket in 2011. That stroke has not surfaced since, and Lavarnway’s future with the organization looks ever-murkier.
Thanks in large part to the emergence of Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart, Lavarnway has been all but eliminated from Boston’s catching plans. 
As for other hitters that Fenway brass had hoped would be lofting baseballs over the Green Monster, outfielder Bryce Brentz has seen his luster diminish due to a second straight injury-marred season. And Xander Bogaerts, tabbed as the organization’s best power hitter by the folks at Baseball America the past two years, is still undergoing a difficult adjustment proccess at the major league level. 
Bottom line: the Red Sox know what they’re getting in Cespedes. Given the glaring lack of internal power-ready options, looking elsewhere was the only recourse.
When the Red Sox and Dodgers constructed a franchise-changing trade that benefited both parties two years ago, the main goals were to shed significant payroll obligations and to change the clubhouse culture.
This time around the theme seems to be a re-shaping of the major league team by dealing from areas of strength to shore up weaknesses.
With the trades of four-fifths of the team’s Opening Day rotation, opportunities abound for the Sox’ core of young starting pitchers, including Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa – two of the pieces that were acquired in the 2012 trade with Los Angeles.
Are Webster and De La Rosa potential replacements for Jon Lester and John Lackey? Or are their power arms better suited in a bullpen role? Right now, the smart money is on De La Rosa becoming a reliever. Webster has to prove that he deserves to stay at the major-league level. 
Whatever the case, the next two months figures to loom large for both.
The seller’s mentality displayed by Boston made for a pretty low-key non-waiver trade deadline day at McCoy. All of the PawSox players that reported to work Thursday morning were present and accounted for when the clubhouse doors swung open shortly after 3 p.m.
If anything, the lack of inactivity from a Pawtucket perspective is yet another reminder of just how committed Cherington is committed to building a major-league roster from within, as much as possible.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03  

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