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 2018 season. Next up: The Boston Red Sox.
The Boston Red Sox won 93 games and the AL East last year. They had one big need to fill -- power -- and they did so, signing 45-homer man J.D. Martinez. They have an outstanding young core of players including Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts. They have one of the best closers in the game -- maybe the best -- in Craig Kimbrel and able and durable setup men in Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes. They have 300+ strikeout man Chris Sale at the top of their rotation, Drew Pomeranz coming off of an excellent year and two pitchers in David Price and Rick Porcello who, while underachieving in 2017, are more than capable of rebounds. Top to bottom, the Red Sox look like one of the strongest teams in baseball.
So why does it feel like they’re getting so little love heading into the 2018 season?
Part of it is that the Yankees had a sexier offseason. They acquired Giancarlo Stanton in the early going while the Red Sox waited all winter before signing Martinez. Yankees fans were high-fiving each other through the holidays while Red Sox fans were largely frustrated at how long it took to land their big slugger. That doesn’t matter on paper, but it understandably led to an enthusiasm gap.
Another part of it is that, while the Yankees weaknesses, such as they are, involve questions like “will this young player be as good in 2018 as we think he’ll be,” the Red Sox weaknesses are characterized in terms of “can this old player show that he’s still good and capable of being healthy all year?” Again, on paper, there’s a lot of reason to think that, say, Dustin Pedroia, David Price and Hanley Ramirez can be more valuable, in the aggregate, than, say, Brandon Drury, Gleyber Torres and Greg Bird, but it’s nowhere near as exciting to ask those questions as it is to project greatness on young talent.
All of that is the perception game, though, right? Hopefully everyone can agree that the 2018 Boston Red Sox are a playoff team and should challenge for the division title all year long.
Most of the reason to think of that is that young core. Betts finished 6th in the MVP voting in what was supposedly a “down” year. That “down,” by the way, was mostly a function of bad luck on balls in play. The guy’s a beast. Bradley is a gold glove talent outfielder. Benintendi was projected to win the Rookie of the Year last year and, in a lot of years, would have. Those three, Devers and Bogaerts, who took a step back in 2017 largely due to a wrist injury, all have room to improve. That’s downright scary in Betts’ case and downright encouraging in the case of everyone else. With Martinez plopped into the middle of the lineup to add that much needed power, the Red Sox lineup should improve in 2018. That after being sixth in the AL in 2017, despite the league’s worst power.
Not that there aren’t questions. Dustin Pedroia is coming off his worst season and will not be ready for Opening Day. He is said to look good in light work this spring, whatever that means. It’s unreasonable to think that he’ll be the Pedroia of old when he returns, but it’s not crazy to think that he can contribute more than he did in 2017, which was his worst season as a big leaguer. First base will consist of some combination of Mitch Moreland and Hanley Ramirez. That’s not the most inspiring thing in the world, even if Ramirez claims to be a new man in better shape, yadda yadda, etc. etc. The performance of those two in 2017 was a big reason they needed to go find someone like J.D. Martinez this year. But again, improvement is not out of the question.
There are questions in the rotation too, also focusing on health and durability.
Chris Sale was the leader in the clubhouse for the Cy Young Award last season before sputtering to the finish line in the season’s final month. Did he wear out? Striking out as many guys as he did is a lot of work, that’s for sure. It’s also the case, however, that people have been predicting that Sale’s beanpole frame will fail him for pushing a decade. It hasn’t failed yet. He’s the last one in that rotation you really have to worry about in my view.
More troublesome were the seasons of Rick Porcello and David Price. Porcello followed up his Cy Young campaign with a 4.86 ERA, 17-loss, tater-iffic season. Price was hurt much of the year and took a lot of heat from the Boston press as he recovered (he brought a lot of that heat on himself too). When he did pitch he was fine, finishing with a 3.38 ERA and a 76/24 K/BB ratio in 74.2 innings, but he only made 11 starts and five relief appearances all year. His playoff redemption has to give Sox fans some hope heading into this year and a return to even his 2016 form will give the Sox a big boost. It seems totally reasonable to expect at least that. Drew Pomeranz enjoyed his best season in the bigs in 2017. An early spring training flexor strain looks to be a mild thing, but obviously the Red Sox are crossing their fingers that Pomeranz does not return to his once-fraglie state.
The back of the rotation will eventually feature the knee-injury-rehabbing Eduardo Rodriguez, knuckleballer Steven Wright, and lefty Brian Johnson. More like the Boston Left Sox, amirite? All in all it’s a solid group. Try the veal. As mentioned above, the Red Sox’ bullpen is also a strength with Kimbrel, Kelley and Barnes, who will be joined by Carson Smith, who returned from Tommy John surgery late last year and should be at full strength.
New manager Alex Cora is in much the same boat as his counterpart in New York: win or get the blame. Each is inheriting an excellent team which made a major offseason addition. Each is expected to make a deep playoff run. Unlike Aaron Boone, Cora just came off of one, coaching the Houston Astros. Those two will be a good case study in the value of a new manager and dealing with extraordinary expectations in a new gig.
Because young players are more likely to improve than old, injured players are likely to return to form, I’m leaning to the Yankees in the AL East this year. But that is no slight to the Red Sox. These two clubs, along with the Astros, are the class of the American League and it will not be anything approaching an upset if the Red Sox repeat as AL East champs. I’m just not quite prepared to predict that at the moment.
Prediction: Second place, AL East.