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With Jarren Duran sent down, Red Sox reckoning with young players who have not emerged as hoped

BOSTON — Eight weeks ago, Jarren Duran seemed to have it all figured out. Hitting leadoff during a red-hot month of June, Duran was making the most of his second big league opportunity by making himself truly indispensable to the Red Sox.

When he had to miss a series in Toronto due to his vaccination status, Duran vowed to get the shot so that the team would never have to be without him again, and when the Red Sox returned to the states, Duran promptly reached base 10 times in the next six games. It was July 7, and he was hitting .325 with a .900 OPS. For the better part of a month, he’d been staking a claim to the center field job at Fenway Park for the rest of this season and beyond.

But early in a player’s career, a lot can happen in eight weeks, and on Saturday Duran was optioned back to Triple A before a 5-1 win against the Rays in order to make room for Trevor Story’s return from the injured list. With Kiké Hernández back in the center field and Christian Arroyo earning more consistent at-bats, the Red Sox preferred to keep Bobby Dalbec, Rob Refsnyder and Franchy Cordero on their bench. Duran was the player they no longer needed.

“There’s a few things he needs to do better offensively,” manager Alex Cora said. “I think he understands that.”

In the past eight weeks, Duran had hit just .155 with a .222 on-base percentage. His center field defense had been at times problematic, and he wasn’t getting on base enough to fully utilize his blazing speed.

“At least we accomplished something that we wanted to going into spring training: right now, as far as the jumps and routes, we feel very comfortable with him (defensively),” Cora said. “But offensively, he knows (what to work on). … Control the strike zone, work counts, go the other way.”

Duran turns 26 next month. He has thoroughly dominated Triple-A pitching in the past, and he entered this season as a Top 100 prospect according to Baseball America. He struggled in his big league debut last summer, but the Red Sox chalked that up to growing pains. Injuries on the big league roster created a fresh opportunity to take the next step and lock up a job for 2023.

It didn’t happen. And that’s been true for players across the Red Sox roster.

Despite legitimate Triple-A talent at almost every position, and plenty of IL-related opportunities in the big leagues, the Red Sox have not had any young player firmly establish himself as a piece of the Opening Day roster in 2023. There are plenty who could be there — Duran among them — but no one who did what Garrett Whitlock and Tanner Houck did in 2021, or what Bobby Dalbec and Christian Arroyo did (to a lesser extent) at the end of 2020. If anyone has emerged from the minor leagues to secure a roster spot going forward, it’s reliever John Schreiber, a 28-year-old who was claimed off waivers and not fully developed from within the farm system.

Triple-A first baseman Triston Casas has yet to debut, catchers Connor Wong and Ronaldo Hernández have yet to get a real look, infielder Jeter Downs looked overmatched in his handful of big league at-bats, and Duran was just sent back to the minors. At various times, starting pitchers Brayan Bello, Kutter Crawford and Josh Winckowski have provided valuable depth, but their results have been too inconsistent to assume the Red Sox will hand one of them a rotation spot next spring. Certainly, one of them could make it — Bello, in particular, has taken a giant step forward this year — but their names will be written into roster projections in erasable pencil, not permanent black marker.

Brayan Bello has shown moments of great promise, but also displayed that he still needs development. (David Butler II / USA TODAY)

To be fair, plenty of seasons pass without a young player claiming a roster spot — and, really, the Red Sox farm system’s had a pretty good year — but for a team heading toward massive turnover this offseason, the emergence of at least one young mainstay would have been a silver lining in what has been a disappointing season.

Consider the opportunities at each position:

  • Catcher — The Red Sox opened this season knowing both Christian Vázquez and Kevin Plawecki are heading for free agency, yet Wong and Hernández have combined for just eight big league at-bats (all for Wong). Hernández has been called up but never gotten in a game. Both have hit in Triple-A. At the trade deadline, the Red Sox did acquire catcher Reese McGuire who’s under team control through 2025 and will presumably sit atop the depth chart come November.
  • First base — If not for a slow start to the season followed by a two-month ankle injury, Casas might have debuted this season. Instead, he’s remained in Triple-A where he’s finally found his stride in the past month. The Red Sox have said repeatedly that there’s still a chance he could arrive before the end of the season. Meanwhile, Dalbec, Cordero and Eric Hosmer remain under team control for next year (albeit with underwhelming numbers this year).
  • Second, third, shortstop — Story is only five months into a six-year deal, so he’s not going anywhere. But Xander Bogaerts is basically certain to opt out this offseason (he has not signed an extension) and Rafael Devers has only one more year of team control (meaning he’ll be at the same point this offseason as Mookie Betts was when the Red Sox traded him). Arroyo has played well enough to remain a part of the infield mix going forward, but Downs is hitting below .200 in Triple A for the second straight year (and he hit .154 in the big leagues). Downs was the top prospect acquired in the Betts trade, but no longer looks like a keystone of the future.
  • Outfield — Kiké Hernández will be a free agent this winter, and so will Tommy Pham unless a $6-million mutual option is picked up. That leaves only Alex Verdugo and perhaps minor league signings Rob Refsnyder and Cordero as 2023 holdovers in the outfield. J.D. Martinez — who actually never plays the outfield anymore — is heading for free agency, creating a giant vacuum in an area where Duran might have provided some stability.
  • Rotation — Nathan Eovaldi, Rich Hill and Michael Wacha are all heading for free agency, and who knows what to expect from Chris Sale or James Paxton going forward? That leaves only Nick Pivetta unless Whitlock and/or Houck moves back into the rotation. Bello, Crawford, Winckowski and Connor Seabold have each come up from the minors to make multiple starts this year, but each also has an ERA over 5.00.
  • Bullpen — Darwinzon Hernandez was knocked around in his return to the big league bullpen, Kaleb Ort had similar trouble, and the Red Sox have so far not taken a look at other call-up candidates Frank German, Zack Kelly or AJ Politi. Matt Strahm has made a good first impression, but he’s heading back into free agency this winter. Schrieber, Houck, Whitlock and maybe Matt Barnes form the core of the bullpen going forward, and half of those guys might be needed in the rotation instead.

Of course, all of this looking forward is getting ahead of ourselves, because the Red Sox say they haven’t given up on 2022 just yet. They’ve won two in a row after Hill pitched a seven-inning gem against the Rays on Saturday, but their playoff hopes remain single-digit slim. Their next particularly meaningful game might be Opening Day 2023, and no young newcomer has claimed a spot on that team just yet.

(Top photo: Brian Fluharty / USA TODAY)

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