by: Ryan Waldis
Over the next 30 days (March 1st through March 30th), I’ll be previewing each of the 30 MLB teams in reverse order of the 2017 league standings. The series will conclude on March 31st, when I’ll be releasing my predictions for the 2018 season. With that said, let’s jump into the 24th team preview of the series, featuring the Boston Red Sox.
Manager: Alex Cora (1st season)
2017 Record: 93-69, 1st in AL East
Playoffs: Lost ALDS to Astros (3-1)
Run Differential: 117
Top Position Player: Mookie Betts (6.4 WAR)
Top Pitcher: Chris Sale (4.1 WAR)
The Boston Red Sox finished with an identical record to their 2016 campaign and, perhaps fittingly, an almost identical result in the postseason. Despite winning back-to-back AL East titles (the first time they’ve ever done that since divisions were implemented in 1969), the Red Sox have yet to advance past the ALDS. Now, admittedly, they’ve gotten a tough draw in each of the past two postseasons. They faced the eventual World Series runner-up in the Indians in 2016, and had the pleasure of squaring off against the eventual World Series champions in the Astros last season. In any case, the offense was definitely an issue for the Sox; they finished with a .736 OPS, which was good for 22nd and was the lowest mark among playoff teams (the next lowest was Minnesota, who was ranked 9th with an OPS of .768). The pitching staff kept them competitive; the unit finished fourth in the league (and 2nd in the AL) with a 3.70 ERA.
Based on their performance in the regular season, Boston began the postseason about how you’d expect on the offensive side. The club plated just two runs in both Game One and Game Two, while allowing the Astros to put up an eight-spot in each contest. Surprisingly, Chris Sale was throttled in Game One, allowing seven runs on nine hits in five innings while being outdueled by Justin Verlander. In Game Two, starter Drew Pomeranz allowed four runs on five hits in just two innings of work before being pulled, while opposing starter Dallas Keuchel went 5.2 frames and allowed just three hits and one run.
Heading back to Boston, there was little hope of a reverse sweep by the AL East champions. To their credit, the Sox didn’t back down. They won Game Three by a score of 10-3 on the back of a three-run home run by Jackie Bradley Jr. and a two-run shot by rookie Rafael Devers. They also got a nice performance out of their bullpen, which had to provide 7.2 innings (all scoreless, by the way) of relief after starter Doug Fister was pulled after just 1.1 frames. They home team wasn’t able to keep the momentum going in Game Four, as they lost 5-4, ending their season. Rick Porcello lasted three innings and allowed two runs, while Chris Sale came in and tossed 4.2 innings. However, the southpaw allowed two runs, both coming in the eighth inning, and let the Astros take a 4-3 lead. Craig Kimbrel let an additional run cross in the top of the ninth, and while Devers hit his second homer of the postseason in the bottom of the ninth, it obviously wasn’t enough to bring the Sox back.
The Red Sox utilized a platoon at the catcher position throughout the course of the 2017 season. Christian Vazquez made 99 appearances on the season, while Sandy Leon made 85. Vazquez was always known as a fantastic defensive backstop, but he never really offered much at the plate. That changed last year, as he slashed .290/.330/.404 and posted a career-best 93 wRC+. He also contributed five home runs and seven stolen bases. He benefitted from an ISO 20 points higher than his career average and a BABIP that was over 30 points higher. Vazquez was once again great behind the dish, finishing 8th in adjusted FRAA (13.6) and Framing Runs (10.5). Ditto Leon, who finished 16th (6.6) and 22nd (4.5), respectively. The latter was much worse at the plate, though, hitting to a line of just .225/.290/.354 after posting a triple-slash of .310/.369/.476 in 2016. His BABIP in ’16 was .392, though, so regression was expected.
Mitch Moreland had another below-average offensive season, which was his fourth in the past five years. Outside of a 2015 season with the Rangers that was clearly an outlier, Moreland has typically been nothing more than a serviceable first baseman at the dish. Sure, he hit 22 home runs and posted a walk rate close to 10% (9.9%), but the overall line of .246/.326/.443 isn’t entirely appealing, especially at a position like first base. Moreland did hold his own with the glove once again, however, posting a 4.0 UZR in the 1,170 innings he logged at first last year.
Despite being hampered by two injuries in 2017, Dustin Pedroia still managed to appear in 105 games. In a vacuum, his production was solid, but there were some red flags. He hit to a line of .293/.369/.392 in 463 plate appearances, hitting seven home runs. His approach at the plate was still good, as he walked and struck out at an identical rate (10.6% walk rate, 10.4% strikeout rate). Pedroia was also good with the leather, finishing with a 6.1 UZR in 834.2 frames. Having said that, his soft contact rate (20.1%) increased by five percent, while his ISO (.099) fell by over 30 points. At 34 years of age, that’s at least a little concerning.
Xander Bogaerts regressed in 2017. After finishing with a wRC+ of 115 in 2016, the Red Sox shortstop posted a 96 mark last season. He slashed .273/.343/.403 in 635 plate appearances, but the slash-line might be a little misleading. According to Keith Farnsworth of FanGraphs, “his xBA according to Statcast last season was just .231. Bogaerts maintains a very patient approach only swinging at 42% of the pitches he sees, but oddly enough, his pitch selection is pretty awful.” Bogaerts doesn’t really make up for his offensive flaws in the field; the -1.6 UZR he had last year was not exactly ideal.
Third baseman Rafael Devers made his highly anticipated debut in 2017 and, for the most part, didn’t disappoint. The 20-year-old put up a slash-line of .284/.338/.482 while contributing 10 home runs in 240 plate appearances. He struck out 23.8% of the time while drawing a walk 7.5%. The 111 wRC+ was a nice starting point for the rookie, and definitely gives him a nice base to build off of. The .342 BABIP is a little concerning, but only time will tell if Devers can sustain a BABIP that high or if it (and, correspondingly, his average) will fall off a bit. You’d also like to see him perhaps perform a little better with the glove (-3.5 UZR), but maybe improvements will come with experience. Regardless, Devers definitely provided a lot of reasons for optimism in his short debut stint, and should probably continue to find success in the future.
The Red Sox featured the Killer-B’s in their outfield for the majority of the 2017 campaign. Mookie Betts, the team’s WAR leader, was front and center for the trio. There’s not much the young stud outfielder can’t do. He can hit, he can hit for power, he has a great approach at the dish, he’s great on the base paths, and he’s excellent in the field. To keep it simple, he’s one of the league’s five-tool players. In 2017, he slashed .264/.344/.459 with 24 home runs, 26 stolen bases, a strikeout rate of just 11.1%, and a walk rate of 10.8%. If it wasn’t for the .268 BABIP, the overall slash line would have looked much better. The 20.5 UZR he posted wasn’t only the best among right fielders, but rather the best out of every major leaguer the played the field in 2017. Fun fact: he did all of that at just 24 years of age.
The second member of the outfield group was Andrew Benintendi, one of the best young players the league has to offer. In 658 plate appearances, the 23-year-old hit to a line of .271/.352/.424 while cranking 20 home runs and stealing 20 bases. He posted a nice walk rate of 10.6%, and only struck out 17.0% of the time. While he fell off a bit from his rookie slash-line, there’s a reason why he has a potential 70-grade hit tool. His approach at the plate is very good for his age, and there’s no reason to think that he won’t continue to improve over the next several seasons. A 20/20 player who can contribute in so many other ways (including the field, where he posted a combined 1.2 UZR in the outfield) is a great luxury to have.
Once a top prospect in the Red Sox organization, Jackie Bradley Jr. has shown flashes of his tantalizing potential time and time again but has yet to put them all together consistently. He regressed from his breakout 2016 campaign as he slashed .245/.323/.402 en route to a 90 wRC+. He sent 17 balls out of the yard while stealing eight bases. The strikeout rate (22.9%) was about the same, but the walk rate (8.9%) fell by one percent. His ISO has also decreased in consecutive seasons; it was .249 in 2015, .219 in 2016, and .158 last year. He’s a solid defender, posting a 4.2 UZR in center field, but if the Red Sox were forced to get rid of one of their outfielders, Bradley Jr. would definitely be the one finding a new home.
DH Hanley Ramirez has alternated good and not-so-good seasons with the Red Sox. He wasn’t all that great in 2015, but he bounced back in a big way in 2016. Naturally, he followed that up with a not-so-great campaign in 2017. The former Marlin and Dodger slashed just .242/.320/.429 in 553 plate appearances. He hit 23 home runs and posted a walk rate of 9.2%. However, the 21.0% strikeout rate was the highest of his career, and the 93 wRC+ was the second-worst. He dealt with injuries to both of his shoulders, though, so perhaps a clean bill of health will help Ramirez bounce back.
The Red Sox pitching staff finishing fourth in the league in ERA is an exceptional accomplishment. Not only are they in the more offensively-friendly league in the AL, but they also have to pitch in the AL East. The starting rotation was slightly worse than the bullpen, placing 8th with a cumulative ERA of 4.06. Chris Sale led the way and bounced back from an uncharacteristic 2016. A longtime member of the White Sox, Sale made a great first impression with the Red Sox, pitching to an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 2.90/2.45/2.65. He made 32 starts, tossed 214.1 innings, and if he didn’t put up the clunkers he did towards the end of the season, he probably would have won a Cy Young Award. The 36.2% strikeout rate was incredible, and he coupled that with a 5.1% walk rate. He stranded close to 80 percent of the batters that reached base (78.4% LOB%), and allowed just 24 home runs all season. The neat thing is he did all of that at just 28 years of age.
Concerns with southpaw Drew Pomeranz always centered around his health, but he has made at least 30 starts and thrown at least 170 innings in each of the past two seasons. Pomeranz finished with an ERA of 3.32 and a FIP of 3.84, which are similar totals to the ones he posted in 2016. Drew stranded 80% of the runners that reached base for a second consecutive season while allowing just 19 dingers. The strikeout rate of 23.5% and walk rate of 9.3% were both in line with his career-averages. If he didn’t walk as many batters as he currently does, he’d be one of the most intriguing starting pitchers in the entire league.
When Eduardo Rodriguez is healthy, he’s a pretty solid middle-of-the-rotation arm. Unfortunately, Rodriguez was not fully healthy in 2017. He battled knee issues and pitched to an ERA of 4.19 and a FIP of 3.97. He threw 137.1 frames over 25 games (24 starts) and posted a strikeout rate of 25.8%. The left-hander had some issues with keeping the ball in the yard (1.25 HR/9), and the walk rate of 8.6% is probably a little higher than you’d ideally like it to be. The main issue will forever be his knees; per reports, he’ll always be prone to knee subluxations, which is what kept him off the field in 2017.
Big-ticket free agent David Price battled elbow inflammation last season but still managed to bounce back from an uncharacteristic 2016 campaign. In 66 innings spanning 11 starts, Price pitched to a 3.82 ERA and 4.01 FIP. Overall, he finished with a strikeout rate of 24.0% and a walk rate of 7.6%, which was his highest since 2009. Still, the 74 ERA- and 84 FIP- that Price posted were nice consolations, and he proved that his velocity is still intact as he averaged 94.1 MPH with his fastball. His time with the Red Sox probably hasn’t started like he thought it would, but there’s reason to believe that Price can get back to his old form.
Doug Fister had that one really head-scratching year with the Nationals in 2014 when he somehow pitched to a 2.41 ERA. Not surprisingly, he hasn’t been able to do it again since, but Fister was actually solid for the Red Sox in 2017. He was picked up in June and made 18 appearances for the Sox, with 15 of them being starts. Overall, he pitched to an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 4.88/3.98/4.18 over 90.1 innings. While the 9.7% walk rate was the highest of his career, the 21.2% strikeout rate was as well. Fister also let up just nine home runs, which was a nice accomplishment. His major down fall was his strand rate; the 63.3% LOB% was a career-worst.
Remember when Rick Porcello won a Cy Young Award in 2016 because he had a 22-4 record? Remember when Rick Porcello didn’t deserve to win a Cy Young Award in 2016 because record is the most asinine way to evaluate a pitcher and some of his peripherals were complete garbage and indicated the type of pitcher that he actually is? I remember! In 33 starts last year, Rick “2016 Cy Young Award Winner” Porcello pitched to a 4.65 ERA and 4.60 FIP over 203.1 innings. Rick “No, He Actually Did Win A Cy Young Award, I’m Not Joking, You Can Look It Up” Porcello allowed a mind-boggling 38 home runs in 2017, resulting in a 1.68 HR/9 mark. Porcello, who somehow won the Cy Young Award two years ago, saw all of his pitch values drop in 2017:
2016: wFB of 13.0, wSL of 8.0, wCB of -1.1, wCH of 10.0
2017: wFB of -14.7, wSL of 3.7, wCB of -3.8, wCH of -5.6
The Boston bullpen finished 2nd in the league behind just the Indians, posting a 3.15 ERA over 531.0 innings of work. The Red Sox relievers struck out 579 batters while walking 179. Here are some of the more notable performances:
Craig Kimbrel: 67 appearances, 69 innings, 1.43 ERA/1.42 FIP, 126 strikeouts, 14 walks
Matt Barnes: 70 appearances, 69.2 innings, 3.88 ERA/3.33 FIP, 83 strikeouts, 28 walks
Fernando Abad (left-hander): 48 appearances, 43.2 innings, 3.30 ERA/3.68 FIP, 37 strikeouts, 14 walks
Joe Kelly: 54 appearances, 58 innings, 2.79 ERA/3.49 FIP, 52 strikeouts, 27 walks
Heath Hembree: 62 appearances, 62 innings, 3.63 ERA/3.92 FIP, 70 strikeouts, 18 walks
Addison Reed: 29 appearances, 27 innings, 3.22 ERA/4.60 FIP, 28 strikeouts, 9 walks
While the Red Sox were in on a number of names on the free agent and trade markets, they ended up having a quiet offseason. They added J.D. Martinez in late February, signing him to a pretty team-friendly deal, but outside of that the Sox didn’t do much. Martinez will slot in as the DH while also receiving time in the outfield, and was clearly brought in not only to improve the club’s subpar offensive output from 2017 but also as a response to what the Yankees did over the offseason.
The biggest loss for the probably Addison Reed. He’s a solid bullpen piece, but with Tyler Thornburg coming back from injury in 2018 the front office probably figured he was expendable, especially since he was going to command a decent amount of money on the free agent market.
All Additions: J.D. Martinez
Best Case: Despite the relatively quiet offseason, the Red Sox are able to hang with the Yankees for most (if not all) of the 2018 campaign. The offense is led by a pair of Killer B’s in Betts and Benintendi who only continue to improve, while Martinez proves why he was worth the contract he was given, cranking over 30 home runs and OPS’ing over .900. Bogaerts goes back to his 2015 form, Devers takes that next step in his progression, and the offense is at-worst league average. The top-three of Sale/Price/Pomeranz proves to be one of the best in baseball, while Eduardo Rodriguez and Rick Porcello become solid back-of-the-rotation pieces. Led by Kimbrel, Kelly, and Barnes, the ‘pen is once again one of the best in the league. The Red Sox make the playoffs for the third consecutive season (the first time that’s happened since 2007-2009), and finally make it to the ALCS, where perhaps they find some magic and do just enough to get to the World Series.
Worst Case: Even with the addition of Martinez, the offense still struggles to be league-average. Betts and Benintendi do continue to positively progress, Martinez is solid in his first season with the Sox, and Devers looks like a top prospect once again. However, the rest of the lineup (Bradley, Bogaerts, Moreland, Vazquez) struggle mightily, and Pedroia is hit with injuries again. Sale and Price form a formidable top-two but the rest of the rotation is rough and inconsistent, forcing the Red Sox to potentially make a move at the deadline. The bullpen is still in the top-ten but is nowhere near as good as they were in 2017. The Red Sox probably still make the playoffs, but they run the risk of another early exit in the ALDS or, potentially, the Wild Card game.
PECOTA Projected Record: 89-73, 753 RS, 680 RA