When the Boston Red Sox broke their nearly century-old curse in winning the World Series in 2004, they did so with a roster of aging players and veterans and free-agent signees. Red Sox ownership knew they could not always depend on such a formula for winning. Not withstanding the 2007 Red Sox team, which won the World Series again with very much the same forumula as the 04 squad, the Red Sox knew they would have to start investing in their player development system to really have a shot at sustained success.
Right about this same time, about 700 miles away, the Salem Avalanche franchise, a Houston Astros affiliate in the Carolina League, was going through a series of ownership changes before they finally were sold to Fenway Sports Group, an arm of the Boston Red Sox ownership group, who were prepared to instill something special in this community when their PDC with the Astros expired after the 2008 season.
Highlights were few and far between with the Salem franchise. Too few Salem players had gone on to the big leagues after playing here, a tenure that included affiliations with Houston, Colorado, and Pittsburgh over the last 30 years. Their 2006 division title was the first for the franchise in 18 years, and when they won the 2001 Carolina League championship as a wildcard, it was the franchise’s first league title since 1987. Clearly, a new beginning was needed for this franchise.
Fenway Sports Group was determined to implement something special, determined to bring baseball pride back to this small city, located in the lower Shenandoah Valley. To say MISSION ACCOMPLISHED is an understatement.
Since 2009, the first year as the newly re-named SALEM RED SOX, the team has put up an impressive resume. They have made the playoffs three times in six years. In 2009, they made it to the Carolina League title series before falling to their Rte 460 rivals, Lynchburg. In 2013, they steamrolled their way to the Carolina League title, sweeping Myrtle Beach and Potomac to win the franchise’s first championship since 2001. In 2014, they won the Wild Card before falling to Myrtle Beach in the first round.
What has led to their success in this new beginning for the franchise? Remember that minor league baseball is all about player development, and a lot of the success in Salem is attributed to people who now call Fenway Park home. OF Daniel Nava (2009) was a part of the first Salem Red Sox squad and now is a mainstay in the Red Sox outfield, having batted .273 in three seasons with Boston. SS Xander Bogaerts (2012) became the everyday SS for Boston in 2014 and responded by hitting .241 with 13 HR and 51 RBIs. OF Jackie Bradley, Jr. (2012), a Richmond-area native, struggled at the plate but has become one of the premiere defensive players in baseball and was a finalist for the Gold Glove in 2014. 3B Wil Middlebrooks (2010) has emerged as the regular 3B for the Red Sox and a power threat to boot, the 2014 injury-plagued season not withstanding. Should he not be recovered from his injury, fellow 3B Garin Cecchini (2013) has emerged as a top prospect. 2B Mookie Betts (2013) jumped all the way to the Boston in 2014 and responded by hitting .291 in just 52 games. OF Bryce Brentz (2011) made his major league debut this year and hit .308 in 9 games.
On the mound, P Anthony Ranaudo (2011) made his major league debut in late season and won 4 games over a two month trial totaling 7 starts. In the bullpen, Drake Britton (2011, 2012), Matt Barnes (2012), and Brandon Workman (2012) have shown flashes of promise and could have a future with the Red Sox.
With so many Red Sox players emerging, the Salem-to-Boston pipeline is strong. With that in mind, who else could be the next one to emerge? I am picking LHP Henry Owens. Owens pitched in Salem in 2013, and won 8 games as a starter, but posted a 2.92 ERA, and had more strikeouts (123) than innings pitched (104). He finished the 2014 season in AAA and could emerge in Boston sometime in 2015.