Playing Pepper 2015: Boston Red Sox

It’s one of the annual traditions here at C70 At The Bat, our trip around the majors in blog form.  Since 2009, I’ve been asking bloggers from other teams about what’s going to happen with their squad in the coming season.  It’s always fun to see what the opposition is thinking and how optimistic some of their most devoted and intelligent fans are.  This year, the Pepper series is brought to you by Out of the Park Baseball 16, coming soon for PC.  Preorder this outstanding baseball simulation today!

Boston Red Sox
71-91, fifth in the AL East

Last.  First.  Last.  You’d forgive Red Sox Nation (assuming you hold any sympathies for them at all) if they’ve grabbed the oxygen masks and are about ready for the turbulence to subside.  It’s been a crazy half-decade for the folks from Boston, but there’s no reason to think the ride won’t swing upward yet again.  No matter how active the offseason, you can never count out one of the big markets, especially when they are run by a competent group of folks.  And if we’ve learned anything from the San Francisco Giants, it’s that baseball loves its cycles.

Boston is always one team that I can get a good response from with their bloggers and this year is no different.  We’ve got four different folks taking a crack at the questions today, starting with Michael from The Pesky Pole.  Michael’s on Twitter @peskypole6, if you want to look him up.  Going second in the order is Ruben, who writes at the eponymous Ruben’s Baseball and is on Twitter @BaseballRuben.  (Ruben’s also been great about RTing the other Pepper entries, which I appreciate!)  In the three-hole is John Quinn, who writes The Mighty Quinn Media Machine and is on Twitter @TheMightyQuinn.  Finally, my good friend Christine from Boston Red Thoughts rounds out the group.  She’s a great chapter president in the Baseball Bloggers Alliance and Tweets @BostonRedThots.

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

PP: I think the Red Sox offseason was a success and a case can be made that they had the best offseason of any team in the majors. Their major needs were offensive and they addressed that, especially in the outfield. Hanley Ramirez is that right handed power bat that they need, Rusney Castillo has looked impressive and all indications point to him being a regular All Star caliber type of player. Third base was also an issue last year and the Red Sox filled that hole with Pablo Sandoval. I think Pablo is a very good player who landed a superstar contract. My fear is that he will try to live up to that contract instead of just playing his game. Carl Crawford tried to become a home run hitter in Boston because he felt his contract required that. That is always the concern when a player leaves his original organization for the first time and signs a contract that is bigger than what his numbers justify.

The Sox added depth to their pitching staff and this actually started last season during their fire sale. However, the Red Sox will go into the season without a true ace. This is uncharted waters for this organization.This is the first season since 1997 that the Red Sox don’t have that #1 guy in the rotation. The Red Sox did add depth in their rotation. Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson are all quality pieces. I think this bodes well for a successful regular season. I do think you need that ace for the postseason though. It will be interesting to see if the Sox go out and get one before the trading deadline if they appear to be postseason bound.

RB: Last year the team tried breaking in several young players, and too many of them predictably struggled, and the team sputtered offensively. After this offseason, that should not be a problem with Pablo Sandoval’s and Hanley Ramirez’ bats added to the middle of our lineup. The pitching rotation was also overhauled, the only thing that is missing is a bona fide ace. However with the offensive firepower, they will have a chance to win most games, with league average starting pitching. Would it have been better if they had signed Lester or traded for Hamels? Sure. Did they need to? No. They did enough to be able to contend this season, and be set up for future seasons.

MQM: Overall I was happy with what the Red Sox did following their 91-loss season of 2014. They addressed some key issues, especially involving their rotation. As I write this, they have not traded for a number one starter, or signed one as a free agent. But they added some solid starters, innings-eaters such as Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson and Wade Miley. I think they feel this will be a make-it-or-break-it season for Clay Buchholz, to step as a top of the rotation starter. This will be his final year in Boston if he’s not. And I’m glad they avoided James Shields, who I always considered an overrated pitcher. (“Big Game James?” Yeah, right.) The Sox also bolstered the bullpen, bringing in Robbie Ross, Alexi Ogando and Anthony Varvaro. No “sexy” names by any means, but Ogando can be something special if he stays healthy.

The Sox added two big bats they needed to add with Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. I like the signing of Panda more, as he’s a proven winner, great teammate and a good clubhouse presence. But he needs to get off to a good start, otherwise his weight will become a focus of discontent for sure. I’ve never been a big fan of Ramirez, and have no idea if he can handle left field. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now. They have a crowded outfield right now, but by the end of spring, that is sure to change. We’ll see if Shane Victorino and Allen Craig are healthy.

BRT: Did they do what they needed to do? As far as the offense, I think the Sox did well getting Pablo Sandoval and getting back Hanley Ramirez back into the fold. Now, they just have to hope the robust Panda doesn’t become a thing, and that Hanley can stay healthy. As far as pitching? Ugh. No. They messed up the Jon Lester deal from the moment they thought they could lowball him last year. THEN then traded him. I really think they wanted the appearance of trying to get him back, but they were totally fine with him not returning, something I am less than happy about. Because a rotation anchored by Clay Buchholz makes me more than a little sick to my stomach. I like Justin Masterson, a lot, but I do not like his 7-9 record, with a 5.88 ERA for the 2014 Campaign. And Wade Miley with his 8-12 records with a 4.34 ERA? Actually Joe Kelly and Rick Porcello are the only potential member of the starting five that doesn’t make me aggravated. And look! They both had winning records in 2014! (6-4 4.20/15-13 3.43) But are they enough? I’m not sold…

I think I am going to call this the “We’ll see” season…

C70: What do you expect out of Joe Kelly and Allen Craig this season?

PP: Joe Kelly is slated as the #5 guy in the rotation and I think he is going to excel there. I don’t think many teams have a guy with Kelly’s abilities at the bottom of their rotation. The issue will be his durability. He has yet to throw more than 124 innings in a season.

Allen Craig is a man without a spot right now. The outfield is loaded. Hanley Ramirez is slated for LF. Rusney Castillo is slated for CF and then you will have a battle in RF between a very motivated veteran in a contract year in Shane Victorino and the future in Mookie Betts. Unless there are a ton of injuries I don’t see Craig getting any significant time in the outfield. Then there is first base, Mike Napoli is the starter and I think Napoli is due for a big year. He has battled sleep apnea for year and it was so bad last year that he would have to be taken out of games because he was so fatigued. He had major surgery in the offseason to correct the structure of his face which will allow him to get quality sleep. All reports are that the surgery is a success and he feels like a new man. Craig appears to be on the outside looking in.

RB: Unlike Mr. Kelly’s own prediction, I don’t think he’ll quite win the Cy Young Award this year! I do admire his confidence and attitude however. And I think he’ll be a solid member of the rotation. Most depth charts have him as the #4 or 5 guy in the rotation, but I expect he’ll be no worse than the de facto #3 by the end of the season. I’m convinced he’s the guy Ben Cherington wanted when he sent John Lackey to St. Louis last season.

As far as Allen Craig, I think he was someone whose salary the Red Sox had to take on to receive Joe Kelly. He was a superb player, but suffered a foot injury in September 2013, and he’s never been the same since. There is some hope that he can return to his pre-injury numbers, but I think it’s foolish to count on that. I think he will bounce back somewhat from the .128 he had for the Red Sox after they acquired him, but he is no longer a star. And on a team with the outfield depth which Boston now has, there is no room for him as a starter. I expect he’ll have some pinch hitting appearances, and may play some first base to give Napoli a rest, but his main role on the team is as injury insurance. Anything he provides offensively will be a bonus.

MQM: Well, I have to like Joe Kelly’s confidence, as he himself has already predicted he’ll win the AL Cy Young Award for 2015. I honestly don’t know if he’s a top of the rotation pitcher, but he’s young and will be given every opportunity to prove himself. Allen Craig had a terrible last two months of 2014, as he was injured, so expectations of him for 2015 are rather low. I think the Sox will showcase him in Spring Training to show other teams he’s healthy and can play regularly. I would bet he will be traded before the season begins to fill another need, unless someone goes down in the spring.

BRT: I like Joe Kelly. He has a good vibe about him, I think he is a great teammate, and he is only 26. But I am concerned about his high walk count, and the fact he has never pitched more than 124 innings in his career. So we’ll see.

I don’t know what to make of Allen Craig, although I do love that his nickname is The Wrench. He’s never played a full season, and has only hot 500 AB’s once (in 2013) which was his best season with a .315 BA. And then his BA dropped a 100 points in 2014, as he was dealing with that foot/ankle injury. Supposedly it will no longer be an issue. Again, we’ll see…

C70: Has it been tough following the roller-coaster of this team over the past few years?

PP: A World Series title sandwiched between two last place teams has definitely been different. Even though the 2012 and 2014 teams finished in last place and had horrible seasons they had very different vibes about them. It was embarrassing and depressing being a Red Sox fan in 2012. The Sox just came off one of the worst collapses in baseball history, Theo Epstein bolted for the Cubs, Francona was “fired” and then personal information about him was leaked by the organization, Bobby Valentine was the manager. The confidence in the organization was real low. The baseball people weren’t running the team anymore. It was a clown show. 2012 played out just like everyone feared. It was awful to watch. The 2014 team just had a bad year. Everything that went right in 2013, went wrong in 2014. They couldn’t stay healthy, guys who had great years in 2013, struggled in 2014. The Sox went with a youth movement and it didn’t work out. The offense was anemic and clearly they weren’t a great team. Despite that, you still had the glow of the 2013 team and you felt the future was bright. It is not a model that teams are going to sign up to follow, but the two last place finishes have enabled the Red Sox to build up depth in their organization. Eduardo Rodriguez is a left handed pitcher in their organization, he is rated as the 3rd best in the organization and 29th best in all of baseball. He is projected as a top of the rotation type of guy in the very near future. The Red Sox acquired him last year from the Orioles for Andrew Miller. The Red Sox don’t make that trade if they are having a great season. That was just one move of many. Is it tough? Going through it is tough, but the Red Sox are in better shape now because of those two last place teams.

RB: The way 2011 finished was heartbreaking and a shock. 2012 was not a very likable team starting with the manager, but after the Punto trade and Bobby V’s dismissal at the end of the season, there was at least optimism that it would be fun to follow the team in 2013. Of course, winning the World Series that year was that much sweeter because of the pain of the previous two seasons. In spite of finishing last again in 2014, the team was a lot of fun to watch. Seeing the prospects develop and the team setting up for the future was very enjoyable, and I’m now optimistic that the Sox have a solid core for the next several seasons. And regardless of whether they finish last again, or win it all, it will be fun to continue to follow them.

MQM: Sure has. I’ve been a fan of the Sox since 1977 and haven’t seen anything like the last few seasons. Two last-place finishes sandwiched in-between a World Series championship. 2014 was tougher than 2012 in some ways, as the 10-game losing in May basically killed the season and the Red Sox never recovered, where as in 2012 they were still in the playoff hunt until early August. But on the other hand, there was a championship flag flying over the Fens last year, and in 2012, Bobby Valentine was sitting in the manager’s office all year. So both years had good and bad.

BRT: Yes, and not for the reasons you might think. I am not like some fans who if their team doesn’t make it to the World Series it’s a failed season. I want them to be a team where they play the game right, and it is fun to watch. Many of us said at the beginning of 2013 that if the Sox could be a LIKABLE team again, we could live with 80 wins. And they blew that up and won the World Series. But this year I just could not watch, it was painful, not only because they lost so much, but management made questionable moves (keeping Clay Buchholz, getting rid of Andrew Miller to name two), and was just soul sucking.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

PP: The obvious pick is Mookie Betts just like Xander Bogaerts was last year. That didn’t work out too well. I am going to go away from the obvious and pick Rick Porcello. It will be interesting to see if he gets the Opening Day start. He is the de facto ace and I think that he may just embrace that role and finally find the consistency he has been lacking so far in his young career. The talent is definitely there.

RB: There are huge expectations for future “first ballot Hall of Famer” Mookie Betts and Red Sox Nation is justifiably excited about seeing what he can do over a full season. And I am too, but he’s only had about 200 major league plate appearances at the age of 21, so there’s a good chance he may hit a slump and not quite be the superstar everyone is expecting just yet. After being similarly hyped last season, Xander Bogaerts struggled most of the year, until September when he finished very strong. I expect him to continue to make strides and have a breakout season this year.

MQM: No question the one player that will be expected to greatly improve will be Xander Bogaerts. It was a real struggle for him at times in 2014, with moving positions and the expectations many had for him in 2014. But now he is at shortstop to stay. Improvement both at the position and at the plate are expected. If he struggles again, I’m sure the calls to move Hanley Ramirez back to shortstop will begin.

BRT: This is where I used to predict a monster season for Ryan Kalish. But alas, he is no longer with the Sox, having been non-tendered before last season. I’d like to see Dustin Pedroia, Shane Victorino, and Mike Napoli be the leaders (on the field and off) they were in 2013. And I am also interested to see how the Yoan Moncada signing shakes out. So there are a lot of puzzle pieces still to fit, so again, we’ll see…

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

PP: I think the Red Sox win 90 games and win the AL East. The AL East is not bad but it isn’t great either.. There are no bad teams but there are also no great teams. I think the Red Sox will be good and are built for the regular season. They have question marks like all teams but I think they have less questions than the rest of the teams in the AL East.

RB: 88 Wins. Enough for first place in the suddenly mediocre AL East. But don’t expect them to go far in the playoffs.

MQM: I think the Red Sox can once again win the AL East, as it is not a strong division heading into 2015. (“Worst to first to worst to first?”) It looks like a three-team race, with Baltimore and Toronto. The Orioles look to me to have slipped back a bit this winter, and Toronto made some very interesting moves. New York and Tampa Bay will be fighting it out to see who stays out of the cellar. I see the Sox winning 90 games and taking the division.

BRT: I think they will bounce back. Perhaps not to a World Series finish, but I think at least to the dance. They will win the AL East with 90 wins.

C70: What do you like best about being a Red Sox fan?

PP: The importance of the Red Sox is what I like most about being a Red Sox fan. Every game is an event, every transaction is analyzed to death. It is like 162 straight Saturday afternoons in the world of SEC Football.

RB: Not living in the New England area, I often run into someone wearing a red “B” on their hat and that gives us an instant connection, and an excuse to start talking with a stranger. I suspect running into someone in Boston wearing Red Sox gear and saying “Hey, what a coincidence, I’m a Red Sox fan too!” would seem a little strange or even creepy. But 2500 miles away from Fenway, it’s a great icebreaker. I’ve made many lasting friendships with people who I met solely because they too were fans living far away from their team.

MQM: I live in New York City, so whenever I run into Sox fans down here, it’s always cool to get acknowledgment from fellow fans “behind enemy lines.” And of course, it’s a source of pride to say that my team was the first team to win three titles in this century, and are one of only two so far to have done it. And the fact that the other isn’t the New York Yankees.

BRT: [Christine told me she skipped this one because there were too many things and not enough time!–C70]

Thanks and appreciation goes out to all of these fine bloggers.  And let me tell you, there’s no doubt you are going to enjoy Joe Kelly.  (Just don’t try to have a standoff with him.  Man’s a pro.)

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