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Red Sox's young core ready to take the torch

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Mookie Betts ready to step up (1:47)

ESPN's Buster Olney and John Kruk discuss Mookie Betts' importance to the Red Sox. (1:47)

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It was the place to be for three weeks in the fall of 2011.

Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. shared not only a room in Fort Myers, but also a PlayStation. And so, most of the other prospects on the Boston Red Sox's instructional league team -- from first baseman Travis Shaw to catcher Blake Swihart and tall, skinny, left-handed pitcher Henry Owens -- would stop by every night and stay until 1 or 2 in the morning.

"We were very chill," Bradley recalled. "We didn't really do too much. We just hung out. We were basic, so to speak. We enjoyed that. Our room was like the spot."

But even as the draftees became fast friends, they also understood they could just as quickly go their separate ways. Based on their exceeding talent, some were bound for the big leagues. Others, though, would undoubtedly fall short. And even if they all did make it, the odds they would get there with the big-market, high-payroll Red Sox weren't particularly good.

It rarely escapes Bradley's notice, then, that he will play alongside Betts in Boston's outfield this season, with Swihart behind the plate, Shaw on the bench and Owens a candidate to be the No. 5 starter. Add in 23-year-old shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who preceded them in the instructional league by one season, and 22-year-old lefty Eduardo Rodriguez, imported in a 2014 trade with the Baltimore Orioles, and the Sox boast a young core that is the envy of just about every team in the American League.

"None of us were traded away -- yet," Bradley said. "It's pretty cool to be able to play with the same guys who came up in the organization, each level, and to finally make it to the highest level together. For us to all still be here kind of speaks volumes."

Mostly, it speaks to a change in the way successful teams are being built.

Money no longer guarantees championships, or even playoff appearances. Last year, only four of the 10 highest-payroll teams reached the postseason. As much as ever, free agency is about paying top dollar for past performance. In the post-steroid era, youth is the way to go.

"I think the game has been getting younger at the minor league level for a number of years," Red Sox general manager Mike Hazen said at a charity event in Boston before spring training. "In that way, having those good young players is more of a recipe for what you're supposed to be looking for at the major league level. It's good that we have that now."

It wasn't always that way.

Outfielder David Murphy was the Red Sox's first-round pick in 2003. He came up through the farm system and got a 20-game cameo, including his major league debut, in 2006. But the Sox, locked in an annual superpower duel with the money-is-no-object Steinbrenner Yankees, typically integrated only one young position player at a time (think Kevin Youkilis in 2004 and Dustin Pedroia in 2006).

So, when Boston called up center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury instead of him in 2007, Murphy knew his future would almost certainly be elsewhere.

"That was when I saw the writing on the wall," said Murphy, back with the Sox on a minor league contract. "I got called up for, like, four days in 2007 and then pretty soon after, Jacoby [Ellsbury] got called up for the first time. I'm like, 'Alright, it's about time for me to go elsewhere,' and it was a month later that I got traded [to Texas for reliever Eric Gagne]. The way the game's changing, it's so important for championship-caliber teams to have a young core."

These days, the Red Sox are fiercely protective of their prospects. Former general manager Ben Cherington resisted multiple overtures for Betts and Bogaerts and wouldn't bite last year on sending Swihart to the Philadelphia Phillies in a package for ace Cole Hamels.

And although new president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski sacrificed four minor leaguers in a November trade for closer Craig Kimbrel, the most touted prospects in the deal -- outfielder Manuel Margot and shortstop Javier Guerra -- were blocked by Betts and Bogaerts, respectively.

Betts and Bogaerts are the most important players on the Sox's roster, 23-year-old stars-in-waiting. Swihart is an athletic, switch-hitting catcher who overcame being rushed to the majors in April to post an .805 OPS after the All-Star break. For Bradley's struggles at the plate, he is a Gold Glove-caliber defender in center field.

At some point in 2017, they may be joined by 20-year-old Yoan Moncada, a Cuban infielder with elite-level talent.

"Here, it's always about winning, man," Bogaerts said. "They really don't know rebuild mode, so they always have those veteran guys and try to blend in the young guys not all at once. But we finished last these past few years, so it's been a good time for the young guys to come up and play. Although we were losing and not going anywhere, we could play every day and gain experience so the next year we have something to build on."

By now, the Red Sox believe they're ready to do so. As franchise icon David Ortiz marches down the road to retirement after the season, a transition is taking place to the new guard.

Betts recently took his teammates to dinner at a Japanese restaurant in Fort Myers, a highly uncommon gesture for a player who will make $566,000 this year. Bogaerts grew up in Aruba idolizing Derek Jeter and tries to emulate the longtime New York Yankees captain in terms of both a right-handed swing that produces opposite-field hits and leadership by example.

"They got their feet wet and then last year started to take a leadership position on the club, both in performance and off the field," Hazen said. "That's important. We have guys, our key leaders, our best players, in their primes or a little thereafter in their careers. This clubhouse is going to transition at some point in the future. These guys hopefully will take the lead."

It's a long way from playing video games in the instructional league.

"You could ask every single person here," Bradley said. "I'm sure every one of them, it has crossed their minds that these are the guys that I first came up with. It's pretty cool."