AL East Preview: Boston Red Sox
Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (Oct. 27, 2018 – Source: Harry How/Getty Images North America)
The 2018 Boston Red Sox won 108 games and the World Series. Last season was stupidly fun with Boston looking like they were on cruise control with their feet on the dashboard. This does not invalidate the struggle that goes into being as successful as the team was, but it is merely acknowledging that the Red Sox appeared unchallenged for the majority of the season. They were the best team in baseball and they never forgot it.
Most of the that dominant squad is back for 2019, so expectations are higher than the Green Monster. Of course, this does not mean they are undoubtedly poised to be that good this year. Truth is, they probably won’t win 108 games. Honestly, it seems more realistic they win under 100.
Baseball is finicky and random with a team like the New York Yankees — which are probably, at the very least, just as talented — in the same division. The Red Sox should be worse because winning 108 games takes a little bit of magic and luck. Plus, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the bullpen is markedly worse than last year. Still, the Sox have one of the highest probabilities of winning the 2019 World Series. Like last year, Boston will be exhilarating to watch and hope to repeat that was the magic of 2018.
The Red Sox Offense
The Boston Red Sox lineup is literally the exact same as it was last year. When people use the word “literally”, it usually is in a hyperbolic sense but, for once, the dictionary definition is being used. But this is a really good thing because last year’s lineup was one of the best in baseball, if not the best. Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez and Andrew Beinintendi are the headliners with a very interesting Rafael Devers in the shadow, as he is expected to make sizable improvement.
Speaking of which, Jackie Bradley Jr., the team’s enigmatic ninth hitter, is also worth keeping an eye on. After early-season struggles in 2018 which caused many to question his presence on the team, JBJ was scorching hot down the stretch. His underlying numbers suggest he hit the ball better than in any other season of his career. It was a bit of foul luck which kept his offensive production at a league-average level. With rumblings of an increased emphasis on launch angle, he is one of the more compelling bats to watch in 2019 for Boston.
It is expected that second base and catcher remain the weak offensive positions for the Red Sox. The former will theoretically be occupied by Dustin Pedroia at some point and, hopefully, for most points. Brock Holt will likely be the Opening Day second baseman and fill in for Pedroia the majority of time his health impedes him from playing. Holt is a league-average player, which is valuable, but his ceiling is not very high.
Pedroia, you may not remember, use to be one of the best players in the game. At his current age and health, he is anything but. Yet he is only a couple of years removed from a 5.0 fWAR season (2016). His health this season will likely determine how much he has left in the tank. It will be a pivotal season for the elongation of the future Red Sox’ Hall of Famer’s playing career.
Sandy Leon is gone. Rob Gronkowski had to selfishly declare retirement on the same day that Leon was flagrantly wronged by being placed on waivers. This distraction was probably colluded to mask the level of injustice that occurred on March 24, 2019 at approximately 6 p.m. eastern time. Just kidding. That was a waste of two sentences.
Anyway, the catcher position will be worth watching. It was objectively awful last year and was, by far, the worst in the game. Leon, Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart all shared playing time and none rose to the occasion. Presumably, Vazquez, at least at first, will get the majority of the playing time. However, there is a lot of hope invested in Blake Swihart’s prospect pedigree. This will be a prove-it season for both and will determine if the Red Sox need to find a new catcher come 2020.
All in all, this offense is unchanged and will be one of the game’s best again.
Speaking of the same, the rotation, like the lineup, has not changed. The staff is as follows: Chris Sale, Nathan Eovaldi, David Price, Rick Porcello and Eduardo Rodriguez. It is an incredible rotation and, like the lineup (again), is one of the best in baseball.
Chris Sale made news this week when he inked a five-year, $150 million contract extension. There is no reason he will not continue to be among the game’s best in 2019.
Nathan Eovaldi is interesting, as he probably has the largest range of outcomes of any Red Sox’ pitcher. He came back from major surgery last year and added a daunting cutter. It seems this made a huge difference and, down the stretch, there was arguably no better pitcher. He got a big contract in the offseason that Sale has since made look puny, but will still serve to live up to the green in his bank account.
David Price vaporized a cloud that has been hanging over his head since, I don’t know, a long time. He is no longer viewed as this guy who can’t pitch against the Yankees or rise in big moments, which are not always mutually exclusive. The southpaw’s peripherals were solid and his pairing 2.4 fWAR seems just about right. He is not the guy they paid exuberant money for but he remains a valuable cog in rotation.
Rick Porcello is in a contract year. With the way these narratives tend to lead you to believe, the perception is that he will be trying harder in 2019 to land a big deal. Does this mean the return of Cy Young Rick Porcello? No. Honestly, Porcello’s consistency and durability are unheralded. He is a virtual lock to log close to 200 innings with an ERA around 4.00. Even if he has the worst ERA on the staff, he is a very important piece.
Lastly, we come to Eduardo Rodriguez, whose peripherals get better every single year. Still just 25, there is so much to like about him. The only thing that is bothersome is his inability to be economical on the mound. He may go five innings and allow just one or two runs, but that is all he will go. In four seasons, he has never cracked 140 innings. To be fair, this is also because of recurring injuries. Regardless, innings will be a big thing to observe for E-Rod in 2019.
Yikes. Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly are gone. Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier are your respective closer and setup man. There is a real argument that Heath Hembree is your 7th inning guy. In other words, this bullpen is much worse. Now, historically, there is an argument that relievers are fungible and can be easily replaced with minor-league level arms. This school of thought has sort of evaporated as the Kansas City Royals and Chicago Cubs were significantly aided in winning a World Series by dominant bullpens. Boston, however, will resurrect this ideology and hope to thrive with guys like Colten Brewer and Tyler Thornburg. Each has potential but they have a lot to prove.
Moreover, it is troubling that the Red Sox second-best reliever (Brasier) ran a .198 BABIP last season. A normal BABIP is .300. He will likely see that normalized in ’19 and when that happens it could render him an inferior version than Boston prophesied.
The good news, though, is that Matt Barnes seems like the real deal. He was better than Craig Kimbrel for most of last season and his peripherals are excellent.
Outside of Barnes, this bullpen does not inspire real any confidence. There are obviously intriguing reinforcements in the minors such as Durbin Feltman, Travis Lakins, Bobby Poyner, Marcus Walden and Darwinson Hernandez. Yet, this remains a patchwork project and will assuredly be the weakest aspect of the Red Sox.
Last year, I made the egregious decision to tout the New York Yankees as the AL East champions in this same preview. Fool me once shame on you, but I refuse to fool myself again. Despite the Yankees appearing maybe a little deeper, I am picking the Boston Red Sox to win the division in 2019. They have done it for three consecutive seasons and Alex Cora seems to have an edge in managing player health and analytics. His patient leadership style should lead the Red Sox to another AL East title. Regardless, this team is a playoff team, even if it comes in a Wild Card capacity.