The 2015 Red Sox were a thought experiment gone awry. The team was built around its 2013 championship core, but augmented in such a way as to capitalize on major league baseball’s current pitcher-friendly environment. The starting rotation was a collection of roughly league-average starting pitchers who pound the lower half of the strike zone and get ground balls. General Manager Ben Cherington brought in Wade Miley, Rick Porcello, and Joe Kelly in a series of trades, then spent big money on two hitters with a reputation for hitting good pitching in Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. The plan appeared to be for the pitchers to pitch to contact and keep the ball in the park, and for the fearsome lineup to club opposing pitching staffs into submission. What could go wrong? Everything. Everything could, and did go wrong, and the Red Sox finished 78-84, good for last place in the AL East for the second year in a row.
The Red Sox didn’t blame Cherington for this. But you could. If you’re into revisionist history, you could picture a 2015 Red Sox team that featured Yoenis Cespedes in left, instead of the defensive debacle that was Hanley Ramirez, left-fielder. Jon Lester, who beat cancer, threw a no-hitter, and won a World Series with the Red Sox could have been brought back on a free agent deal, after being traded for what seemed at the time to be no apparent reason, to again lead the rotation. John Lackey could have been providing No. 2 starter innings at a ridiculous $500,000 or thereabouts, thanks to the really smart clause in his contract (good thinking, Theo!) that basically gave the Sox a free year of Lackey if he blew out his elbow, which he did. The Wade Miley trade was almost completely unnecessary, since Rubby De La Rosa, for whom Miley was traded, put up almost identical numbers with Arizona. That would have given the Sox a rotation of Lester, Lackey, Clay Buchholz, De La Rosa, and Eduardo Rodriguez, who had a great rookie year. The money spent on Ramirez and Sandoval would simply have gone to Lester, with the Red Sox even saving a few million bucks. Brock Holt and someone like Danny Valencia could have played third base. I like that team. That’s a good team! But instead the other thing happened.
|Bos||Record||wRC+||SP ERA-||RP ERA-||DRS||UZR||BsR||Pay – $M|
|2013||599 (1)||114 (1)||92 (4)||88 (11)||18 (12)||22 (10)||12 (5)||175 (3)|
|2014||438 (25)||89 (24)||109 (22)||83 (7)||35 (5)||49 (3)||0 (16)||173 (4)|
|2015||481 (19)||98 (13)||104 (15)||101 (21)||2 (16)||3 (15)||1 (14)||199 (3)|
So, again, the Red Sox didn’t blame Cherington. But they did bring in Dave Dombrowski to be his new boss and take over the team’s baseball operations. So Cherington split. Dombrowski, one of the game’s most heralded horse traders, wasted no time, and almost immediately traded a couple prospects for Craig Kimbrel, and signed a front-line starter to a massive contract, bringing in David Price to lead the rotation. He hit the reset button on Wade Miley, shipping him to Seattle for Carson Smith and Roenis Elias. The 2016 Red Sox are now a brand-new team that’s also mostly the same, and are again positioned to compete for the AL East crown, in theory and on paper, at least.
Rather than simply being stuck with the contracts of Ramirez and Sandoval, Dombrowski could ostensibly benefit from regression by both players…in an upwardly direction. Both dramatically underperformed their career averages, and suffered from batting averages on balls in play that were well below league average.
Here you see last year’s performance, stacked against career averages and projections for 2016:
|Steamer Proj ’16||.278/.330/.435||14|
|ZiPS Proj ’16||.266/.314/.407||13|
|PECOTA Proj ’16||.284/.336/.454||19|
*Avg HR based on 7 full seasons
|Steamer Proj ’16||.284/.345/.475||17|
|ZiPS Proj ’16||.277/.358/.449||13|
|PECOTA Proj ’16||.274/.341/.460||20|
All the projections systems predict upward regression, and PECOTA, in particular, is quite bullish on both. I’m not sure why ZiPS is so pessimistic on Ramirez’ power, since he’s been very consistent throughout his career, and has put on considerable muscle since moving off shortstop. Muscle isn’t everything, but his max exit velocity last year, courtesy of MLB’s Statcast, was 116 mph, which puts him in the same company as Giancarlo Stanton, Chris Davis, and Mike Trout. His average exit velocity, per Baseball Savant, was 91.16, which is right there with teammate Mookie Betts, Nolan Arenado, and Edwin Encarnacion, so it seems to me there’s at least some reason to be optimistic about his power potential.
As for the rest of the lineup, there’s a lot to like, and a couple questions. At this point, there’s very little question, if any, that Mookie Betts is the real deal. The projection systems all like him to repeat his breakout performance, and he could conceivably add a couple homers, too. Dustin Pedroia is another year older and now pretty brittle, so you can bet on his losing some time to injury every year at this point. The good news is when he does play, he still performs at a high level, and last year managed to slash .291/.356/.441 and hit 12 homers in fewer than 100 games. When he goes down with the inevitable injury, super-sub Brock Holt is a capable replacement, providing solid on base skills, but significantly less pop.
Slotting in as the Sox’ number three hitter is Xander Bogaerts, and he has emerged as something of an enigma after simultaneously taking a huge step forward offensively last year while also taking a step back. Bogaerts appears to have essentially traded power and patience for contact and a high batting average. His walk rate dipped to just 4.9%, but he also dramatically cut his strikeout rate, and finished with an impressive .320/.355/.421 slash line. The red flag here is his BABIP, an eye-popping .372, which isn’t out of line with his numbers in the minors, but difficult, if not impossible, to sustain at the major league level. Jeff Sullivan got into this last year, suggesting Bogaerts was learning to read pitches and go the other way, sapping some of his power. He suggests that’s likely not Bogaerts’ only adjustment, but likely the first of several, with the possibility that Bogaerts hasn’t lost his ability to turn on pitches and pull them out of the park, and may just have spent last year refining his approach.
At some point, David Ortiz will actually get old and stop hitting baseballs hard, but on the other hand, you could argue that already happened, and he made some adjustments to continue to be productive. Doubters can snicker about “vitamins” or make other thinly veiled hints at performance enhancement, but Ortiz came into camp looking phenomenal, and based on his numbers last year, there’s no reason for me to think he doesn’t have one more productive year in him.
The three obvious questions in the lineup are Blake Swihart, Jackie Bradley, Jr., and Rusney Castillo, and each comes with a different set of questions. Can Swihart take a step forward offensively, after a year to settle in as the team’s primary backstop? Will Bradley build on his breakout performance last year, or did he play over his head, with a regression likely? Will Castillo ever develop into the power and speed combo the Sox envisioned, or his ceiling more like a fourth outfielder? There’s a lot of room for variance there, and on the off-chance that all three fall flat on their faces, the Sox could be in trouble, with only Chris Young and David Murphy to fall back on internally.
David Price enters the season as the indisputable ace of the staff, a 6.4 WAR pitcher between the Tigers and Blue Jays, and under contract until 2022. PECOTA projects him to pitch to a 3.24 ERA/3.26 FIP, accumulating 4.4 WARP and striking out 9.2 per nine. That’s a good bit worse than his phenomenal 2015 season, which he finished with a shiny 2.45 ERA/2.78 FIP, but it’s in line with his career numbers, if a bit higher. There’s a chance the computers figured in Fenway as his new home field, which is a great place for right handed hitters to yank fly balls over the Monstah. Either way, he’s expected to be pretty darn good, pitching at least close to ace caliber baseball games. After Price? Weeeeeell… that’s a whole different ballgame.
Slotted in as the number two starter is Clay Buchholz, who can look like an ace in short bursts, but is maddeningly inconsistent. Maybe 2016 is the year he finally puts it all together AND stays on the field. Well, you can dream at least. Realistically, it’s hard to count on more than 150-160 innings, and it’s anyone’s guess which Clay Buchholz will pitch the majority of those innings.
Third starter goes to Rick Porcello, kind of by default. The Sox saw big things in his future, and immediately signed him to a big extension before he’d even thrown in a Red Sox uniform, but his first season had to be well below what the front office expected out of him. Still, his bloated 4.92 ERA was something of a mirage, considering his 3.72 xFIP, which was almost identical to what it was in his breakout year of 2014. The difference is thanks in large part to a .332 BABIP, but looking at his career numbers, he’s put up a BABIP as high as .344, so there’s no guarantee that’s going to go down. He did finish the year strong, so there’s some hope he could provide some value going forward, although not $20 million a year kind of value. At least probably not.
Eduardo Rodriguez is your fourth starter, and he’s hurt. He’ll start the year on the DL with a knee injury, and that’s bad news, because the Sox are pretty thin at starting pitcher. Once he gets healthy, he has the stuff strike out good major league hitters, which helped him to a 3.85 ERA/3.92 FIP in his rookie year, but hasn’t shown consistent command. Dominant in some starts and shelled in others, he hasn’t quite figured it out, and an injury derailing him is not what the Sox were hoping for.
Rodriguez’ injury likely pushes Joe Kelly into the fourth starter slot, and he’s really barely a fifth starter, despite his filthy stuff. A 4.82 ERA last year looks a little better when you consider his FIP was 60 points lower than that, but in his two years with the Cardinals, the reverse was true. His average fastball velocity is among the best in the league for starters, over 95 mph, but this year might be his last shot at the rotation before the Sox think about moving him into a seventh inning role, where his stuff will play up.
That leaves the fifth starter spot up for grabs, with knuckleballer Steven Wright, Henry Owens, and Roenis Elias battling it out over the next couple weeks of Spring Training. Owens still walks too many guys, but he has a wipeout change-up that makes up for his middling velocity. Fans would love to see him win the job, but he probably could use some more seasoning in AAA to work on his command. After an impressive 2014, Elias pitched only decently for the Mariners last year, but could hold down the fifth starter spot if called on. The same goes for Steven Wright, who has pitched decently well in the majors to this point. Suffice it to say, though, the Red Sox would probably love to have a fourth option.
The additions of Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith give the Red Sox potentially three lock-down relievers at the end of games, with the ageless Koji Uehara being the third. All three strike out better than a batter an inning, and each one gives hitters a different look. Kimbrel has a power fastball that averaged better than 97 mph last year, Uehara features a nearly unhittable splitter, and Smith brings a hard sinker and slider. The Red Sox probably don’t need to worry about these guys, but the bullpen does seem to lack a strong lefty, with Robbie Ross and Tommy Layne as the only two options. They’re both perfectly fine pitchers, but their names don’t exactly strike fear into opposing hitters, although Layne has obliterated lefties in a small sample (56 IP), with a .156/.259/.196 slash line against him.
The Sox are solid up the middle, with Swihart, Bogaerts, and Bradley, and they don’t have to worry about Hanley in left this year. They do, however, have to worry about Hanley at 1B. The normally sure-handed Pablo Sandoval was anything but that last year, putting up a -21.9 UZR/150 and -11 Defensive Runs Saved. Most of the field is covered by capable defenders, but those two questions at the corners have to make Sox fans a little nervous.
The Red Sox have no clear, gaping holes, and plenty of talent on the roster. To succeed, they will need upward regression from players who bombed last year, and continued growth from youthful players who fared well. The starting rotation is an enigma, with lots of variance, and its performance is something that could either make or break the season. The Sox’ powerful offense provides some wiggle room in that regard, but not enough to allow fans to breathe easy. I see the 2016 Red Sox winning 89 games, good for third place in the AL East.
BttP Podcast 49: An NL Central Show
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