Opinion

AL East Report: the Boston Red Sox

The Boston Red Sox are even stronger in 2018, making for what should be a fierce AL East battle

Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (Oct. 7, 2017 – Source: Elsa/Getty Images North America)

This past four days we have done previews for each of the four rival teams in the American League East. Below, I have posted hyperlinked text with convenient clicking access to those. I know, I am the sweetest.

Anyway, today, on Opening Day no less, we have arrived at the team you come on this site to read about, the Boston Red Sox. After finishing last year as the American League East champions with a robust 93-69, Boston looks poised to contend for that distinguished honor again in the new season. Let’s check out the team’s additions and subtractions in the offseason.

Additions: 

Subtractions: 

Additions and subtractions

The Sox signed the premier free agent hitter on the market this winter, inking Martinez to a historically option-laden deal. If everything goes wrong, he will receive $110 million over five years. After blasting 45 long balls and producing an outstanding 166 wRC+ last year, ZiPS projects the right-handed slugger to crush 38 homers, along with a robust 143 wRC+ and 3.4 fWAR in his first year as a Red Sox.

For a team that found itself in the bottom-third of the league in total homeruns (27th) and wRC+ (22nd), yeah, JDM will help.

Additionally, not listed up here, is the addition of new manager Alex Cora. The former Red Sox infielder has ample coaching experience as the 2017 World Series winning Houston Astros bench coach and as team Puerto Rico’s skipper in the World Baseball Classic. Furthermore, he is touted as being analytically-minded. In an age where teams are using statistical data to gain as many competitive advantages as possible, yeah, this will also help.

Plus, anecdotally, of course, I would be remiss to mention there was a perception that former manager John Farrell did not have command over the clubhouse. There is probably some truth to that. Hopefully, Cora will help with that. No one likes a dysfunctional atmosphere — most people do not, at least.

Moving to the subtractions, Boston lost some decent depth pieces but nothing too big. They will replace Young, their fourth outfielder, with Swihart and Martinez and Fister with a healthy David Price (or Brian Johnson, depending on how you look at the world). Reed’s second-half contribution, on the other hand, will probably be substituted with the legend that hopefully will be Carson Smith. Meanwhile, Tyler Thornburg is someone’s son, once he is healthy.

The lineup

We just talked about J.D. Martinez but, to reiterate, the dude is a beast and will help the team’s relative offensive woes last year. Outside of him, though, Boston should be expecting bounce-back offensive campaigns from guys like Xander Bogaerts (he hurt his wrist midseason), Mookie Betts (his xWOBA was markedly better than his actual wOBA in ’17), Jackie Bradley Jr. (ZiPS sees him improving his offensive production in ’18) and maybe even Hanley Ramirez (he is on a Tom Brady diet).

Further, the assumption is that Andrew Benintendi will have a better sophomore season and Rafael Devers will rake like he did in his brief stint in the majors last year. Optimism is fun.

Perhaps arbitrarily, MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince ranked the Red Sox as having the fourth-best lineup in the league. While Castrovince is not the king of knowledge, he seems like a pretty smart guy!

Basically, this lineup should be significantly superior to the lineup they put out last year, even if it is virtually the same with J.D. Martinez plugged into the middle.

The rotation

Headlined by eventual Cy Young award winner Chris Sale and actual Cy Young award winners David Price and Rick Porcello, the starting five, when healthy, is nasty. The same group was fourth in baseball in fWAR last season, with a 17.0 mark. In 2018, Fangraphs’ projections has them as the eight-best in the same category.

Sale will be one of the best pitchers in baseball.  After all, the three certainties in life are death, taxes and Sale being wicked good.

Behind him, it will be interesting to see if Price will revert to the elite, front-of-the-rotation starter he was not too long ago. Ditto Porcello, but probably not. More realistically, the right-hander is a mid-rotation guy who will log lots of innings.

Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright will all start the season inactive, but should be valuable pieces. Well, Pomeranz and Rodriguez should be, at least.

As of now, health issues are a problem for this group. Hector Velazquez and Brian Johnson are currently slated as their 4th and 5th starters.

If there is one watermark against this otherwise stellar group, it is their lack of depth. They do not have strong, viable alternatives if someone goes down for long period of time. I mean, we are already seeing this to begin the season. In an era where teams need more starters than ever in a given season, this is evidently a disadvantage.

The bullpen 

The Red Sox’ bullpen in 2017 was one of the best on planet Earth, posting a combined 3.15 ERA and 7.0 fWAR. In the MLB, those numbers ranked second and fourth, respectively.

Craig Kimbrel, like Chris Sale, is not one of us. Among all relievers last season, his 16.43 K/9 was tops in baseball by a considerable margin, while his 3.3 fWAR was second to only Kenley Jansen. He is the greatest thing to happen to the Red Sox bullpen since 2013 Koji Uehara. Enough said.

After that, a healthy Carson Smith is fearsome, as is a Joe Kelly 100+ mph fastball.

Matt Barnes had an up-and-down year for the Red Sox, accumulating the most innings of any Boston reliever in ’17. Admittedly, he was a bit maddening to watch but set a career-high in K/9 and cut down his number of free passes. He has been trending the right way for a couple of years now. 2018, hopefully, will not be different.

Like Barnes, Heath Hembree set a career-high in K/9, while also continuing his struggles with the long ball. He had the best season of his career, but has been nothing too flashy for the past three seasons in a Sox uniform.

Newcomers Bobby Poyner and Marcus Walden are interesting guys to watch. Early on in the spring, I actually tabbed the duo as two of the three players “to watch” in Spring Training. That last sentence was completely and utterly designed to toot my own horn.

Anyway, Poyner seems like something special and Walden seems like a serviceable long man. Quality options.

This should be another strong year for Boston’s pen, although I certainly could see a scenario where they are forced to upgrade midseason.

Overall prediction

It seems unfathomable that this team will miss the playoffs in 2018. They won 93 games last year and seem to be even better this year. Fangraphs project the Sox to win 93 (three years in a row?) games this season, while PECOTA envisions a less sexy 88-win team. Regardless, they seem playoff bound. The real question, my dear readers, is if the Sox find themselves as AL East kings or as a Wild Card squad.

They certainly should make the playoffs, but, in my mind, it will be as a Wild Card team, not as the division winner. I think the Red Sox may have a better starting team than the Yankees. With that said, the Bronx Bombers have a lot of depth and ample resources to make midseason improvements. Boston does not have great depth in an age where there is an increasing emphasis on that aspect of a team.

It will be a close race and literally could go either way. At this stage, though, I see the Yankees narrowly edging the Red Sox. Once both team makes the postseason dance, it is anyone’s game.

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