On paper, it appears that the Boston Red Sox have few holes. This is why they are projected by multiple media outlets and oddsmakers to win the American League East and even reach the World Series. A team’s appearance on paper in February does not guarantee a parade in late October, and the Red Sox do have their share of questions to answer as spring training nears.
Here are five topics that will determine whether the club contends for the postseason or matches last year’s finish in the American League East basement:
The Red Sox lineup features some of the most exciting young players in baseball with shortstop Xander Bogaerts, center fielder Mookie Betts and catcher Blake Swihart, but for the club to win the AL East and play deep into October, the three veterans who staged forgettable 2015 campaigns must deliver.
What did Boston get for the $19.75 million it paid Ramirez last season? A year defined by injuries, defensive ineptitude in left field, dysfunction on the field and in the clubhouse and a disappointing slash line of .249/.426./.717 to accompany 19 home runs and 53 RBI in 430 plate appearances.
When healthy, Ramirez is one of the most productive right-handed hitters in baseball. In a move that will undoubtedly bolster the outfield defense, the Red Sox plan to start Rusney Castillo in left field and transition Ramirez to first base. Perhaps the more comfortable infield environment – coupled with guidance from gifted infield instructor Brian Butterfield – will translate to better production at the plate. Of course, health is a factor, and Ramirez played in just 105 games last season.
Sandoval’s 2015 campaign was equally disappointing. The portly third baseman was so atrocious from the right side of the plate that he abandoned switch-hitting. Sandoval’s slash line was .245/.366/.658 with 10 home runs and 47 RBI in 507 plate appearances. According to media reports, Sandoval has dropped 20 pounds and is determined to rebound. Whether he will stay away from switch-hitting and stick to the left side is uncertain. Boston’s other two third base options – role players Brock Holt and Travis Shaw – are left-handed hitters, too.
Pedroia is the heart of Boston’s clubhouse and roster, but injuries limited him to 135 games in 2014 and 95 games last season. A healthy and productive Pedroia is vital to the team’s post-season hopes. Now 32, the four-time Gold Glove second baseman is signed through 2021, but another injury-plagued campaign could spell the end of his Red Sox tenure with the emergence of Yoan Moncada.
The rotation beyond David Price
Acquiring an ace was Dombrowski’s first objective this offseason, and he accomplished the task in grand fashion by signing 30-year-old left-hander David Price to a seven-year, $217 million contract. Over eight big league seasons, Price is 104-56 with a 3.09 ERA, a 1.13 WHIP and 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings. Though he has struggled in the post-season, Price is a proven No. 1 starter the Red Sox lacked in 2015.
Price’s presence will especially benefit Rick Porcello, who inked a four-year, $82.5 million deal (that begins this year) before the 2015 campaign and flopped to the tune of a 9-15 record and a 4.92 ERA in 28 starts and 172 innings. Still just 27, the right-handed sinkerballer is one year removed from a 15-13 record and a 3.43 ERA in 204.2 innings with the Detroit Tigers. He was projected as a top of the rotation arm from the time the Tigers selected him 27th overall in the 2007 draft out of Seton Hall University. Considering he relies on the sinker and is not a power pitcher, Porcello is better suited as a No. 2 starter.
When healthy, Clay Buchholz has shown glimpses of becoming one of the top right-handed starting pitchers in the majors. Sustained health has eluded him, though, and last year he made just 18 starts (7-7, 3.26 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 113.1 innings) because of DL stints. The 31-year-old Buchholz has ample incentives to respond with a solid 2016 campaign. After the season, the Red Sox have a $13.5 million team option for 2017, or a $500,000 buyout.
Eduardo Rodriguez was one of the few bright spots for Boston in 2015. The 22-year-old left-hander, who the club acquired from Baltimore in the Andrew Miller trade, was 10-6 with a 3.85 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP over 21 starts and 121.2 innings. He struggled with tipping his pitches at times, but media reports indicate he has resolved that issue over the offseason. A potential No. 2 starter in the future, Rodriguez looks to benefit from Price’s mentorship.
Perhaps the most intriguing arm in the Red Sox rotation is Joe Kelly. The 27-year-old right-hander with a high 90s fast ball authored a Jekyll and Hyde performance in 2015. He was 2-5 with a 5.67 ERA in 14 starts before the All-Star break and 8-1 with a 3.77 ERA over 11 starts in the second half. Before he rebounded last summer, there was talk of moving Kelly into a late-inning relief role because of his power arm, but his upside as a starter is worth another glimpse, especially since the top of the rotation is more stable.
Beyond the starting five, Red Sox manager John Farrell can also turn to knuckleballer Steven Wright and left-handed swing man Roenis Elias (who the club acquired with reliever Carson Smith from Seattle for Wade Miley). Wright is out of options, so it is likely he makes the Opening Day roster as a long reliever. Elias could break spring training as a left-handed reliever for the Sox, but chances are he begins 2016 in the Pawtucket rotation.
Another left-hander for the bullpen?
Boston’s late-inning relief picture will feature Kimbrel in the ninth, Koji Uehara in the eighth and a combination of Carson Smith and Junichi Tazawa in the seventh. The other three spots are uncertain.
Wright and Elias are candidates for a long-relief role, though both could make the Opening Day roster with impressive spring training performances. The other left-handed relief options – Robbie Ross and Tommy Layne – are not exactly appealing.
Recent media reports indicate the Red Sox might have interest in power lefty Franklin Morales, who was part of the 2013 World Series team and earned another World Series ring with the Kansas City Royals last year.
Pat Light, Boston’s first round pick out of Monmouth in 2012, boasts a high 90s fast ball. The 24-year-old right-hander opened eyes in his first full season as a reliever, split between Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket. He did struggle with control at times with the Paw Sox, but he is a name to watch in 2016 since Farrell wants to stock the pen with more power arms.
Former first rounder Matt Barnes, rehabbing righty Anthony Varvaro, and fellow right-handers Heath Hembree and Noe Ramirez will compete for bullpen spots in spring training. On Monday, the Red Sox signed former Cubs closer Carlos Marmol to a minor league deal. Look for the Red Sox to acquire one, and maybe even two, additional relief arms before Opening Day to bolster the ranks behind Kimbrel, Uehara, Tazawa and Smith.
Why didn’t the Red Sox bring in Justin Upton? That was a question asked often this offseason after the veteran signed with the Detroit Tigers. Center fielder Mookie Betts is one of the game’s most exciting players, but the remaining outfield candidates are questionable.
Will Rusney Castillo and Jackie Bradley Jr. provide the Sox with enough offense? The club did sign veteran Chris Young, who offers valuable pop from the right side. Top prospect Andrew Benintendi is a few years away from the majors, and the only help at Triple-A could be veteran Brennan Boesch, who thrived during Dombrowski’s tenure in Detroit.
If Castillo or Bradley do not produce, an outfielder will be on Dombrowki’s wish list before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
Who will start behind the plate?
Before Tommy John surgery sidelined him for the 2015 season, Christian Vazquez was considered one of the game’s best defensive catchers, even without a full season of big league experience. He is highly respected for framing pitches, blocking balls and gunning down would-be base stealers. Chances are, he will open 2016 at Pawtucket in a rehab assignment, but he will likely be ready to return to the Red Sox long before the All-Star break.
Inserting the 25-year-old Vazquez behind the dish would be a no-brainer for most clubs in a era where premium catching is rare. The Red Sox, though, have another high-profile backstop in 23-year-old Blake Swihart. While Vazquez has a .617 OPS in 201 big league plate appearances, Swihart posted a slash line of .303/.353/.452 after the All-Star break, including .373/.439/.492 in August. He is proficient behind the plate, though not at Vazquez’s level.
Don’t forget that Boston also has well-respected veteran Ryan Hanigan, who is best suited as a backup.
If Vazquez regains his arm strength and accuracy, and hits enough at the major league level, Swihart could move to first base eventually since he has the athleticism to play another position. As for the 2016 campaign, keeping Swihart and Hanigan, and letting Vazquez slowly recover at Pawtucket, would be a wise choice.
[graphiq id=”a1LF4DGkTf7″ title=”Boston Red Sox 2015 Win/Loss Streaks” width=”600″ height=”403″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/a1LF4DGkTf7″ link=”http://mlb-teams.pointafter.com/l/14/Boston-Red-Sox” link_text=”Boston Red Sox 2015 Win/Loss Streaks | PointAfter”]