Simon Gutierrez & Jamieson Weiss collaborated on this preview.
If the Boston Red sox were a car, it would be a Subaru. Pretty popular, good gas mileage, roomy, durable. Solid, above-average ride. Not sexy though. Reliable. But not sexy.
After the Yankees blew open the off-season by acquiring their SECOND superhuman baseball masher in Giancarlo Stanton, the Sox front office must have felt like the kid in high school who was about to get up the nerve to ask the cute girl in Algebra class to go to prom, only to watch the starting quarterback do it first, right in front of him.
That’s a lot of metaphor and simile to explain why Boston’s signing of J.D. Martinez was so inevitable. And now, he’s going to be the resident masher (pending the resolution of some physical concerns) on a team largely devoid of power since the retirement of David Ortiz.
The question remains, though, whether the acquisition leaves the Red Sox looking like something more sporty than a Subaru. In terms of dingers, sure. FanGraphs currently has the team projected to win 93 games, just one behind the rival Yankees, and potentially in line for the AL wild card, or a realistic shot at the division title. They look like a playoff team. But they don’t look like the Astros.
The 2018 Red Sox currently have seven position players, (if you include DH) projected by Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS Projection System to produce at least 2.0 WAR. That’s really good. But this is a different team than the Astros. And the Yankees. I’m joined by Jamieson Weiss to examine just that.
If you put WAR totals aside for a minute and look just at offensive projections, you find a lineup with only five starters projected to produce at better than league average rates. The Martinez signing certainly helps in that regard, since he’s projected to put up a .288/.355/.596 slash line with a 143 wRC+. Mookie Betts is expected to bounce back from a slightly down year (during which he still put up 5.3 WAR!). But the rest of the lineup poses some questions.
Based on the lineup the Sox trotted out for the ALDS against Houston, we’ve projected what their everyday lineup might look like, with projected wRC+, home run totals, and PECOTA’s True Average (TAv) in parentheses. And it might look like this:
Xander Bogaerts, SS (105 wRC+, 16 HR, .263)
Andrew Benintendi, LF (111 wRC+, 18 HR, .273)
Mookie Betts, RF (123 wRC+, 24 HR, .288)
J.D. Martinez, DH (143 wRC+, 38 HR, .292)
Rafael Devers, 3B (109 wRC+, 27 HR, .255)
Christian Vasquez, C (74 wRC+, 5 HR, .240)
Jackie Bradley, Jr., CF (99 wRC+, 18 HR, .256)
This isn’t bad, by any stretch of the imagination, and the top four spots in the lineup look pretty solid. After that, though, it tails off quite a bit, with the rest of the lineup hovering at or just below league average. The 27 home runs Rafael Devers is projected to put up is a bit of a surprise, given the conservative nature of projections systems, and that’s encouraging. But first base looks like a black hole in terms of offensive production, as does catcher.
ZiPS also isn’t bullish on Jackie Bradley, Jr. repeating his 2016 breakout, and Dustin Pedroia, while still a solid regular, is gradually getting older and less of an offensive weapon. His slugging percentage plummeted more than 50 points in 2017, and is projected to be below .400 this year as well. Stepping in for him while he recovers from a knee injury will likely be Eduardo Nunez, who hit a surprising .321/.353/.539 last season, but is projected to come back down to earth this year. Christian Vasquez, a glove first catcher who surprised with the bat last year (.290/.330/.404). ZiPS doesn’t buy it, and has him pegged for a serious regression, as his projected 74 wRC+ implies.
Overall, it’s the same lineup as the Sox trotted out in 2017, with a significant upgrade at DH, where Martinez takes over for Hanley Ramirez, who seems destined occupy the skinny side of a platoon with Mitch Moreland at first. Last year’s squad made plenty of contact, with the third lowest strikeout rate in the AL, and they should do that again in 2018. But last year’s squad also had the league’s third lowest wRC+, and with the exception of J.D. Martinez, this year’s squad won’t mash either.
The late signing of J.D. Martinez makes the Sox’ outlook at first base much murkier than it did just a week ago. The Hanley Hype Train is back in motion at the start of camp. He has lost 15 pounds using the TB12 Method, and is In the Best Shape of His Life. And he better be, because his 95 OPS+ in 2017 isn’t going to cut it. As boring as it can be to watch Mitch Moreland play, his own sub-100 OPS+ and solid defense are just worth more than what Hanley brings at this point. They make an awkward platoon tandem, as you’d like to get Hanley the majority of at bats – at least at the beginning of the season, as they feel things out – and let Moreland come in as a defensive replacement and get some cuts against the occasional lefty, but they both hit on the wrong sides of the plate for that to work out.
I love Xander Bogaerts. I can’t help but defend him. I’m as disappointed in his downward bWAR trend since 2015 as you are, and I’m even more disappointed in how his defensive metrics tanked in 2017 after a solid 2016. But I have to think he’s going to turn it around. I just have to. He’s got too much talent, he’s been too good for too long to not turn it around. Right? Right?
Though he didn’t win the Rookie of the Year Award, Andrew Benintendi had about as good of a rookie season as we should have realistically hoped for. It’s important to remind yourself that .271/.352/.424 is really good for an age-22 rookie. The kid plays above-replacement level defense in left field, cleared the fence 20 times, and stole 20 bases. In any other year, when a colossus doesn’t set the rookie home run record, Andrew Benintendi would have been one of the talking points of the league. He was good, and you’ve got to think he’s only going to get better.
As for Rafael Devers, this is where I lose objectivity. Rafael Devers is going to win the MVP this year, okay? I’m so sorry Mike Trout. My heart belongs to another.
The 2017 Red Sox rotation amassed the second highest pitching WAR (using fWAR) in the American League, and the fourth lowest xFIP. Starting pitching was a strength for the Sox, and the team is bringing back every starter that threw last year, with the slight conundrum of how it plans to deploy David Price, who was used as a shutdown reliever down the stretch and in the playoffs. Here’s how the rotation shapes up, with projected IP, ERA, FIP, DRA (Baseball Reference’s Deserved Run Average) in parentheses.
Chris Sale (215 IP, 2.93/3.12/2.89)
David Price (163 IP, 3.57/3.46/4.36)
Drew Pomeranz (157 IP, 3.66/3.86/4.37)
Rick Porcello (189 IP, 4.14/4.13/4.94)
Eduardo Rodriguez (152 IP, 4.01/3.94/4.33)
Chris Sale is projected by PECOTA to accumulate 6 WARP, highest in the league among pitchers. From there, things tend to get dicier. Price and Pomeranz are both projected for 2.1 WARP, and Craig Kimbrel is actually projected to have a higher value than Rick Porcello and Eduardo Rodriguez. It has a chance to be an excellent rotation – Price and Porcello have Cy Young Awards, and Sale probably should, plus Pomeranz can be a reliable above-average starter – but you can see exactly how it could fall apart. Porcello’s 2017 was buoyed by the occasional eight-inning gem that would make you think “Hey, THAT’S why he won a Cy Young award,” but he was mostly bad. Pomeranz was excellent last year, but can he repeat it? And then there’s Eduardo Rodriguez, who has been a perpetual tease for a half-decade now.
The Sox have a few backup options – Steven Wright, Brian Johnson, Justin Haley, Jalen Beeks, Roenis Elias, – but none of them really inspire confidence. I tend to think that Price is going to have a bounce-back year, but after Chris Sale they’re really just hoping it all comes together. And maybe it will, but there’s a decent chance they’re shopping for pitchers at midseason and regretting that they didn’t pursue Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta.
Chris Sale was great in 2017. A bona fide, top of the rotation ace. He got crushed in the ALDS by the Astros, but so did Clayton Kershaw in Game 5 of the World Series. The Astros are good and these things happen. I see no reason to think Sale won’t be great again in 2018. But I agree with Jamieson that each starter after Sale comes with questions.
The projections, by and large, see a strong and relatively durable rotation. Pomeranz is something of a unicorn, or at least an enigma, with the lefty’s unusual success against right-handed hitters. Last year, he held righties to a .237/.309/.383 slash line, and was even better the year before. Lefties, meanwhile, hit .291/.373/.408 against him. Analysts and writers have suggested the unusual results coincide with his dramatic increase in curveball usage, since he threw it 37% of the time in 2017, and 39% in 2016, up from around 30% in 2015. I honestly don’t know if that’s a parlor trick that hitters are going to catch on to, or if it’s sustainable. But two years and more than 300 innings of sustained success using the same method doesn’t seem like an accident.
The bigger question for me is David Price, and what exactly he is. He’s put up more than 4.0 WAR seven times since 2010, including his first year with the Red Sox. 2017 was pretty much a lost year, which found him pitching out of the bullpen in September and the playoffs, ostensibly to reduce the strain on his elbow. This spring, he’s told reporters he feels great, with no discomfort in his left arm. But will that hold up over the course of 30 starts?
Red Sox relievers posted the third highest WAR (7.0) in the American League, behind only the Yankees and Indians. They have four guys who throw absolute gas, with two, Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly, who had average fastball velocities over 98 mph. The team is bringing back the entire unit, with potentially a full season of Carson Smith, who posted an impressive 1.35/1.96/2.22 ERA/FIP/xFIP slash in limited action toward the end of last season. Here’s how they stack up in 2018, with projected IP, ERA, and FIP in parentheses:
CP: Craig Kimbrel (60 IP, 2.41/2.52)
7th/8th: Joe Kelly (56 IP, 3.36/3.49)
7th/8th: Matt Barnes (66 IP, 3.82/3.93)
6th/7th: Heath Hembree (61 IP, 3.65/3.68)
6th/7th: Carson Smith (41IP, 3.67/3.66)
Lefty Specialist: Robby Scott (48 IP, 4.66/4.83, .119/.224/.303 against LHH)
6th Starters: Roenis Elias, Steven Wright, Brian Johnson
Craig Kimbrel is coming off his best season in Boston, and he posted a ludicrous 49.6% strikeout rate, while only walking 5.5% of batters. His average fastball was 98.3 miles and hour, and, barring injury, there’s no reason to think he won’t be successful in 2018. After Kimbrel, though, it’s a mixed bag. Matt Barnes struck out 28.9% of the batters he faced, and put up a 3.33 FIP, which was better than his 3.88 ERA. Joe Kelly didn’t strike out a lot of guys, but he pretty much sat 99 mph on his fastball. Hembree throws gas, too, but none of those guys have any kind of a track record of success.
Did they catch lightning in a bottle in 2017, or is some of that success sustainable? Carson Smith was great in Seattle before he got hurt pretty much the minute he got to Boston. Has anyone seen Tyler Thornburg around The Sox traded Travis Shaw for him after a breakout year, thinking they’d landed a late inning power arm. Shaw just put up 3.4 WAR for the Brewers, with 31 homers and a .273/.349/.513 slash line. Thornburg hasn’t thrown a pitch for the Red Sox, didn’t throw a pitch in 2017, and hasn’t taken the mound yet in spring training. He’s likely to start the year on the DL. Finally, the Sox don’t have much in the way of a lefty specialist. Robby Scott was effective against lefties last year, but his projections look ugly. The sum of these parts… is some uncertainty.
The Red Sox’ bullpen might prove to be a strong point of the team. They were up-and-down in 2017, but fully healthy this is a bullpen as deep as any in the league. Kimbrel is Kimbrel, and Joe Kelly, Carson Smith, and Matt Barnes could again form a pretty solid bridge. Alex Cora has pledged to be more innovative with their usage, so while we may not see Andrew Miller 2.0, maybe we’ll get Chris Devenski 1.5.
Along with pitching, defense is one of Boston’s strongest attributes, which works out nicely, since the two go hand-in-hand. As a team, the Sox finished first in the AL in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and first in defensive WAR, with 37.9, which was 8 WAR better than the second place Angels, and 17 WAR better than the third place Rays. In the outfield, they have three players who could conceivably play center field. The infield defense, if not spectacular, is solid, too, with the exception of Nunez, who put up an unimpressive -9.1 UZR/150 and -4 DRS at 2B with the Sox last season. He’s even worse at third, and awful at short, so his bat will have to play up to cancel out his defensive liability. Behind the plate, Christian Vasquez is one of the best receivers in the game, ranking 6th in catcher framing according to StatCorner, with 8.3 Runs Above Average. He also threw out 42% of baserunners, which was among the league leaders in that category as well.
In acquiring Chris Sale, Dave Dombrowski effectively emptied Boston’s prospects cupboard, shipping away the top prospect in baseball at the time, Yoan Moncada, along with the team’s third best prospect, flamethrower Michael Kopech. What’s left are draft picks from 2016 and 2017 who haven’t yet established themselves and older prospects who look like AAAA players. Jay Groome, Boston’s first round pick in 2016, pitched to a 6.70 ERA/4.56 FIP in A ball last year, and has some developing left to do. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen pegs him as a 55 Future Value (FV) player, with the potential to develop a 60 grade fastball and a 70 grade curve, to go with above average command. Michael Chavis, a 1B/3B prospect, is the closest to the big leagues after clubbing 31 home runs at A and AA last year. He’s expected to start the year in AAA. Sam Travis, on whom Longenhagen hung a 45 FV grade and 55 hit tool, hit .263/.325/.342 in 83 MLB at bats last year, and could be a bench piece for the Sox this year, but seems a long-shot to take over regular duties at 1B any time soon. The team’s first round pick in 2017, Tanner Houk, pitched to a 3.63/2.54 line in high A last season, and second round pick CF Cole Brannen managed only 13 at bats above rookie league, so the future… well, let’s say it’s already on the field at Fenway.
Baseball Prospectus has the Red Sox projected for 89 wins – a whopping eight games behind the Yankees, but five above the Rays (before their recent fire sale), their closest Wild Card competitor. That seems slightly low to me (and the Yankees’ projection seems slightly high), but not by much. This is a team has a lot of talent, but probably not as much as the Astros, Dodgers, or Cubs. They would need breakout years from a lot of young players – Devers, Benintendi, Eduardo Rodriguez – and career years from veterans like Bradley, Jr., Pedroia, Bogaerts, Porcello, and Pomeranz. A lot has to go right.
The upside is that this is baseball, and we’ve seen lately that sometimes, inexplicably, a lot can go right. This team is arguably more talented than the 2013 World Series team, but they’re competing against a loaded top half of the league, not to mention a renewed division rival.
Ultimately, the sweet spot for the Sox seems to be about 92 wins and a first-ever trip to the Wild Card Game.
I’m sticking with the Subaru metaphor here, in that it looks like the unsexy Red Sox appear to have a nearly full tank of gas: a field full of homegrown talent that’s approaching its peak, with relatively low mileage. Chris Sale is a legitimate ace, and the rest of the rotation has the potential to be solidly above average. Health is always a question, but there’s no reason to think anyone’s arm is ready to snap or fall off, so the combination of pitching, defense, and solid bat to ball skills should propel the Sox to some place near the top of the AL East Standings. Unless everything goes wrong. Which it could. But I don’t think it will.
My projection: 95 wins, and a close second place finish in the AL East, good for a wild card berth. Yanks are scary.Next post: 2018 Season Preview Series: Cincinnati Reds
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