Boston Red Sox Analysis: Still Some Work To Do

sandovalIn his attempt to spearhead back-to-back worst-to-first claims in the American League East, Boston Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington continues to revamp his club’s 40-man roster.

On Thursday, the Red Sox acquired veteran catcher Ryan Hanigan from San Diego for third baseman Will Middlebrooks. Yet to be formally announced is the reported re-signing of 34-year-old left-handed reliever Craig Breslow, who was a vital part of the bullpen in Boston’s 2013 World Series championship campaign but scuffled to a career-worst 5.96 ERA and 1.86 WHIP in 60 appearances last season.

Before the Breslow signing is official, the Red Sox will have to make a move to clear a spot on the 40-man roster, which is fully occupied. This can be accomplished by parting ways with a minor leaguer (catcher Dan Butler and recently acquired reliever Zeke Spruill are possibilities) or implementing another trade. The latter is probable since multiple media reports indicate that Boston is talking to interested teams about first baseman/corner outfielder Allen Craig.

Though a foot injury significantly contributed to Craig’s dismal 2014 performance (.215 batting average, .279 on-base percentage and .594 OPS in 505 plate appearances between St. Louis and Boston, he is considered a prime candidate for a bounce back season. In 2013, Craig batted .315 with 13 home runs, 97 RBI and a .830 OPS in 563 plate appearances for the Cardinals. He injured his foot/ankle late in the season and missed the ALDS and ALCS, but he did return to the St. Louis lineup for the World Series when he hit .375 (6-for-16) against the Red Sox.

Craig and right-handed pitcher Joe Kelly were traded to Boston for veteran starting pitcher John Lackey and minor leaguer Corey Littrell at last July’s deadline. Interestingly, both players are potential trade chips for Cherington this offseason.

With the additions of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, Boston’s Opening Day lineup is likely set. As of today, it is projected to be:

  1. Mookie Betts, RF
  2. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
  3. David Ortiz, DH
  4. Hanley Ramirez, LF
  5. Pablo Sandoval, 3B
  6. Mike Napoli, 1B
  7. Xander Bogaerts, SS
  8. Rusney Castillo, CF
  9. Christian Vazquez, C

There is still a logjam in the outfield that includes Craig, Daniel Nava and Shane Victorino. One will be traded, and Craig has the most value because of his offensive upside and since Nava is considered a part-time player while Victorino is a seasoned veteran rehabbing from back surgery.

The Red Sox bench will likely include the valuable and versatile Brock Holt (who can play every position except pitcher and catcher), Hanigan and two of Craig, Nava and Victorino.

The picture of Boston’s rotation and bullpen is not so clear. After watching Jon Lester sign a long-term deal with the Chicago Cubs, the Red Sox made a flurry of moves to acquire Wade Miley from Arizona, Rick Porcello from Detroit and free agent right-hander Justin Masterson.

Red Sox NewsIf the season opened today, the rotation would feature:

  1. Clay Buchholz
  2. Rick Porcello
  3. Wade Miley
  4. Joe Kelly
  5. Justin Masterson

Though that group lacks a clear No. 1 starter, it does feature arms with upside, guys like Porcello and Miley who have the potential to emerge as frontline starters, and names like Buchholz and Masterson who have pitched like aces when they are healthy.

The offseason in Major League Baseball is called the Hot Stove League for good reason. Opinions are fiery among baseball pundits and fans about their respective teams’ roster makeup. Media members and Red Sox fans alike are adamant about Boston’s need for a proven No. 1 starter. Rumors persist that the Red Sox are exploring trades with Philadelphia for Cole Hamels and Washington for Jordan Zimmermann. Talk also continues about signing free agent right-hander James Shields, who was a key part of Kansas City’s march to the World Series this year.

The Red Sox undoubtedly have the prospect package it would require to land Hamels or Zimmermann, yet Cherington could choose to keep the prospects and either sign Shields to a deal that would not exceed four years, or enter Opening Day with the current five starters.

Not dealing for Hamels or Zimmermann, and letting Shields sign elsewhere, would not hamper Boston’s 2015 World Series title aspirations. Buchholz, Porcello, Miley, Kelly and Masterson can emerge as a group of durable and productive starters who pound the strike zone, induce lots of grounders and pitch deep into games. And considering that the Red Sox farm system boasts five starters (right-handers Anthony Ranaudo and Matt Barnes; and left-handers Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriguez and Brian Johnson) who are highly regarded, the club has enviable rotation depth.

The Red Sox also have payroll flexibility, so signing Shields and moving Kelly to the bullpen is an option that would keep the prospects (a list that also includes position players like catcher Blake Swihart, shortstop Deven Marrero, second baseman Sean Coyle, and young Major Leaguers like Betts and Bogaerts). At the end of 2015, the Red Sox can buy out Buchholz’s remaining contract for $245,000, and Masterson is just signed for one season. At that point, Boston could pursue free agents to be Zimmermann and Cincinnati right-hander Johnny Cueto.

Cherington has also incorporated changes to the bullpen this offseason. Closer Koji Uehara was re-signed to a two-year, $18 million deal. The Red Sox attempted to bring back power left-hander Andrew Miller only to see him ink a four-year, $36 million contract with the New York Yankees. Though the Sox are re-signing Breslow, they could add another left-handed reliever via trade. Veteran journeyman Tommy Layne and 25-year-old Drake Britton, who is out of options, will compete for bullpen spots as will 22-year-old Edwin Escobar, who the Red Sox acquired from San Francisco in the Jake Peavy trade last summer.

Earlier this week, Cherington acquired 30-year-old right-handed reliever Anthony Varvaro from Atlanta for minor league reliever Aaron Kurcz. Over the last two seasons, the sinkerballer has logged ERAs of 2.82 and 2.63 and WHIPs of 1.27 and 1.08 over 62 and 61 appearances respectively. Varvaro is a younger and less expensive version of free agent Burke Badenhop, who pitched effectively for the Red Sox last season.

Red Sox RumorsCurrently, the Red Sox Opening Day bullpen would include:

Red Sox manager John Farrell could opt for one left-hander and add another right-hander like knuckleballer Steven Wright or Heath Hembree. Or, if the Red Sox sign Shields, they could move Kelly to the pen.

As currently assembled, the Red Sox roster is one that can contend for the American League East title. Cherington’s blueprint is likely not finished. The question that lingers revolves around the rotation and whether Boston will add a proven No. 1 starter or enter the season with a rotation that has potential frontline names but none that are proven at that level.