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Sox Offseasons Often Disheartening for Prospects

Clay Buchholz (Photo Courtesy AP)

As Shane Victorino grounded out to give the Yankees their 27th World Championship, the 2009 season officially ended and the off-season began.

Players will sign with different teams, extensions will be inked, trades will be made and arbitration cases will be heard. Undoubtedly an exciting time for fans can become very stressful for the forgotten employees of Major League Organizations: minor leaguers.

Every addition to the major league team delays the ETA (estimated time of arrival) of a minor league prospect. There may not be another club in the majors this pertains to more than Boston.

Last year, Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein inked Brad Penny and John Smoltz, bolstering an already crowded Sox rotation of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Tim Wakefield – all veterans that were all but guaranteed a spot in the rotation.

That left No. 1 prospect Clay Buccholz off the 25 man roster and in Pawtucket.

“Yeah it is tough,” Buccholz said. “Especially the year before last I lived in Boston and was traveling back and forth to Pawtucket so it made it even that much harder. It’s sometimes tough to swallow but you know you work for a certain goal and once you achieve that goal you know everything is worthwhile.”

The Red Sox are one of the few teams that have nearly unlimited funds but also look to build from within. This means the club wants to use the talent its acquired through the draft but since its payroll is up over $100 million, there is no time for the young player to work the kinks out.

“If you’re not ready to play and help the big team and win games they just don’t call guys up and work their way in,” former Red Sox catcher Kelly Shoppach said. “That’s not how they do it over here. That can be difficult.”

Shoppach spent five years with the Sox, working his way through each affiliation before getting to Pawtucket in 2004. But, with Jason Varitek and Doug Mirabelli entrenched as the Sox catchers, there was no spot for Shoppach to display his ability.

When there seems to be an opening, John Henry’s checkbook can slam it shut.

David Murphy was selected 17th overall by the Red Sox in 2003. After two years in Boston’s system, Murphy finished his 2005 campaign with Portland, batting .275 with 14 home runs and 75 RBI. He was also named Red Sox Minor League Defensive Player of the Year, committing only four errors in center field.

Conveniently for Murphy, or so it seemed, Johnny Damon bolted to New York, leaving a vacancy in center field. But, it wasn’t filled by Murphy. The Sox opted to trade prospects, one of which was Shoppach, to Cleveland for Coco Crisp.

“I don’t know if I never thought I would get an opportunity, but the fact that you don’t know when it’s going to happen can be frustrating,” Murphy said. “There’s no guarantee ever, but you see the way that things happen in other organizations and I think it’s human to compare yourself to other players and to think what might have happened if I had got drafted by a different organization or where I would be.”

In 2006, it seemed Murphy had chance of landing a gig in Boston when Trot Nixon signed with Cleveland, leaving a vacancy in right field. Murphy again put up solid numbers in 131 games for both Portland and Pawtucket. Murphy batted .269 with 40 doubles, 11 home runs and 69 RBI.

But, just like the year before, the Sox filled the position using their assets. This time the Boston broke the bank inking J.D. Drew to a five-year, $70 million deal.

“I think I realized that it was going to be in my best interest to get traded,” Murphy said.  “I realized how the outfield situation was and that Jacoby Ellsbury was right behind me and there were plenty of guys ahead of me so I knew going to another organization was probably going to be best for my career.”

Murphy was traded at the deadline in 2007 with Kason Gabbard for Eric Gagne.  At the time, many thought it cemented the Boston’s spot in the World Series, but it is since viewed as one of Epstein’s worst moves. Gagne was a colossal disappointment while Murphy has gone onto be a key contributor for the Rangers.

In 2008, Shoppach showed his true potential, hitting .261 while slugging 21 home runs. This past season, Cleveland showed its confidence in Shoppach as they traded Victor Martinez to the Red Sox.

Buccholz proved his wealth too. Down the stretch in 2009, he was one of the Boston’s best pitchers, going 4-1 in the month of September with an ERA below three. He also earned a start in the postseason, pitching well in a 7-6 loss, allowing two runs in five innings.

“I learned some good things from it and there were a lot of lessons I had to go through to get to where I was at this year,” Buccholz said. “It was fun and it was tough sometimes but I think it all pans out in the end.”

For Buccholz, the end was to stay in Boston. But, with the Sox bringing in new free agents each year and with a payroll eclipsing the century mark, making it to Boston from the minors is anything but a God-given right.

“It’s hard and it takes time,” Shoppach said. “Just because you’re in the organization doesn’t mean you have the right to go to the big leagues. You’ve got to go through the battles like everybody else. You’re just not granted an opportunity to go to the big leagues.”

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