Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2015 season. Next up: The Boston Red Sox
The Big Question: Can the Sox go from Worst to First once again?
The Giants win the World Series in even years. The Red Sox stink in even years. It’s quite a pattern.
The Red Sox aren’t counting on that being a pattern, however. They decided to help it along by improving an offense that was near the bottom of the American League in runs per game. The big additions: Pablo Sandoval at third base and Hanley Ramirez in left field. The Sandoval contract may look bad later, but it should certainly help the offense now. Ramirez, when he’s healthy, provides a nice bat, but he’s never played in left field and his presence there creates a roster crunch of outfielders with three guys -- Mookie Betts, Rusney Castillo and Shane Victorino filling the other two positions. And don’t forget about Jackie Bradley Jr., who is still hanging around. At the moment both Castillo and Victorino have some health issues (Castillo is set to return this weekend) and of course, Ramirez is not exactly a portrait of durability, so that may clear itself up on its own.
The rotation has received a makeover as well, but it’s an open question as to whether it’s good enough to push the Sox back to the playoffs. Jon Lester was traded away and didn’t come back via free agency, so the Sox went with something of a volume approach with their starters. Rick Porcello is coming off a fine season for the Tigers, but it was his first year in the past five with an above average ERA+. Justin Masterson, before last year, looked to be a budding ace, but he struggled mightily in both Cleveland and St. Louis. Porcello seems like the better bet to approximate an ace -- so many of his statistical issues of the past few years can be laid at the doorstep of the Tigers’ horrendous infield defense -- but neither one is your prototypical stopper. The hope is that Clay Buchholz can return to ace form he showed before getting injured in 2013, but he has either been feast or famine since then. Mostly famine. In Wade Miley and Joe Kelly the Sox have guys whose ceilings seem to be in the back-of-the-rotation. Which is fine if that’s all they’re expected to do. If the three guys up top falter, however, it could be a less-than-fantastic staff.
The lineup will be better than it was in 2013. The rotation, well, it’s really hard to say. In both of the Sox’ recent last place finishes, they didn’t feel like a last place team heading into the season. Likewise, this year’s edition feels like it could be a really competitive club. But they will require a lot of things to break right, especially with the rotation, but also with the development of young position playing prospects like Betts, Castillo and Xander Bogaerts. That is not the stuff of a last place team, but it’s no guarantee whatsoever of a first place team, and they shouldn’t be the favorites to finish as one.
What else is going on?
- Benches are often afterthoughts in the minds of fans, but the Sox’ bench will have some big names on it and will likely give John Farrell a lot of flexibility. Jackie Bradley Jr., Allen Craig, Daniel Nava, Brock Holt and whichever of the Betts-Castillo-Victorino crew isn’s starting is pretty cool.
- Koji Uehara fell off big in the second half last year. Health? That’s what he and the Sox say. But he’s also gonna be 40 on Opening Day, so you have to wonder. Beyond him it’s a revamped bullpen with guys like Anthony Varvaro, Alexi Ogando and Robbie Ross added to the mix. Junichi Tazawa is still solid. Edward Mujica and Craig Breslow are still hanging around. Not the team’s strength, not it’s worst weakness. Most of it depends on Uehara keeping up his usual level of strong work.
- I like catching combos like Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan. Neither are offensive stars, but both rank extremely highly in pitch framing metrics. I can’t say I understand how those work, but if reality is even close to what the people talking about the numbers say it is, they’re going to steal a lot of strikes for that pitching staff. That will be especially helpful for sinkerballers like Procello and Masterson.
- The Sox’ minor league system has gotten a nice boost lately and Blake Swihart and Yoan Moncada have gotten a ton of ink. That’s nice, but neither will be contributing to the 2015 Sox. Or, if they are, it means everything that was supposed to go right for the club has gone wrong.
Prediction: I don’t like all of the uncertainties with that rotation. I don’t know that Dustin Pedroia will return to form. I don’t know that Pablo Sandoval is good enough to truly elevate that offense (note: his fame is based way more on the playoffs than recent regular season dominance) and I don’t know if it’s fair to expect (a) Hanley Ramirez to be healthy all year; and (b) the youngsters to all take the big step forward they are capable of taking. John Farrell doesn’t need a Hail Mary completion for this club to contend, but he does need a lot of things to break in his favor. Because it’s baseball, not all of them will.
I think the Sox will be in the playoff hunt all year, but I don’t think they’re be a dominant team. Or as good a bet as the Orioles to win the division. Even a weak division. My guess: Second Place, American League East.