Playing Pepper 2017: Boston Red Sox

Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Boston Red Sox
93-69, first in AL East, lost in the ALDS
Last year’s Pepper

As has become tradition for the Red Sox, they followed up a disappointing 2015 by adding pieces and tearing through the division to again wind up on top.  In the last five season, the Sox have either finished first or last in the division and this team doesn’t look like a cellar-dweller this season.  How far they can get in October, though, is a different story.

To tell that story, we’ve got a lot of great Boston bloggers to talk about the club.  All of these folks (save Nate Brown, a welcome addition to the mix) are veteran Pepper players, but if you aren’t at least following them on Twitter, you probably should get on that.

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

SH: The Red Sox made a huge splash when they traded top prospect Yoan Moncada (and others) to the Chicago White Sox for left-handed ace Chris Sale, which clearly gives them one of the top rotations in baseball. Rick Porcello is coming off a Cy Young year, Sale has four straight top five finishes in Cy Young voting, and David Price has a Cy Young Award and twice was a runner-up. That leaves the back end to All-Stars Steven Wright and Drew Pomeranz, and/or up-and-comer Eduardo Rodriguez. The team also solidified the bullpen with the acquisition of power arm Tyler Thornburg who was excellent for the Brewers last year, posting a 2.15 ERA and striking out 90 batters in 67 innings.

With the trades of incumbent third baseman Travis Shaw to Milwaukee and possible superstar third baseman Moncada to Chicago it looks like the Sox are giving Pablo Sandoval a second chance. He’s slimmed down considerably and seems to be taking his job seriously for a change, but I was hoping for an upgrade at the position. And, of course, I have to wonder who’s going to step in and try to fill the void left by David Ortiz. Free agent signee Mitch Moreland will contribute some pop but his .315 career on-base average doesn’t give me much confidence.

Part of me also hoped they’d sign Edward Encarnacion to replace Big Papi at DH but I don’t mind that they didn’t cough up $20 million a year for him like Cleveland did.

MQM: I thought it was an excellent offseason for the Red Sox. They filled a huge hole in the rotation with the trade for Chris Sale. It now gives the Sox an amazing 1-2-3 at the top of their rotation. They gave up two of their best prospects in Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech, but they have a deep system, and Sale is still of MLB’s best left handers. I am also very glad the neither Andrew Benintendi nor Jackie Bradley was sent in the trade. The trade for reliever Tyler Thornburg gives the Sox another power arm at the end of the game, and it offsets the losses of Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa. I also like the free agent signing of Mitch Moreland, as he is the current Gold Glove winner at first base, and allows the Sox to give Hanley Ramirez more time at DH.

LB: The Red Sox, as soon as the off-season began, were put in a hole, losing David Ortiz. However, they answered the call by replacing what they lost in their lineup with a dominant ace in their rotation. With Chris Sale, the Red Sox now have potentially one of the most dominant rotations in the league. Then they strengthened their bullpen by acquiring Tyler Thornburg. They also sought a defensive need at first base by signing Mitch Moreland. The Red Sox did depart some big names other than David Ortiz, such as Michael Kopech, Yoan Moncada, Brad Ziegler, Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara, Travis Shaw, and Clay Buchholz. But, I do believe with the newly added pieces to the team, the Red Sox in fact did make themselves better. 

BR: No, sort of and maybe.

It’s very difficult for any offseason that involves the retirement of a legend to be considered good. The only way it could have been, is if at some point David Ortiz said “j/k, I’m coming back!” Unfortunately, that did not happen.

There was no way for the Red Sox to be able to replace what David Ortiz meant to this team. Rather than spending a lot of resources to try the impossible task of replacing the hole left in the lineup by his retirement, they improved in other areas. Most notably was the trade for Chris Sale. Our starting rotation now boasts three perennial Cy Young award contenders plus two 2016 all-stars. The acquisition of Tyler Thornburg was an under-the-radar move that will shore up the bullpen, and signing Mitch Moreland to play first base will make Hanley Ramirez the everyday DH. Losing Yoan Moncada for Sale may hurt in the long run, but I am glad they made that move now. Moncada may become a perennial all-star headed towards a Hall of Fame career, but the Red Sox are contenders in the immediate future, and the acquisition of Sale will help them reach the World Series more than having a top prospect with a high ceiling would.

The only major question mark on the team is 3rd base. A lot of hope is being placed on Pablo Sandoval coming back from injury and returning to his previous playing level. But if he falters, our hot corner options are limited. It would have been nice to sign someone as an insurance policy, but realistically it would be a waste of resources if Sandoval bounces back, or if it was someone acquired cheaply probably not much better than the in house options. So, signing a star third baseman or trading for Todd Frazier probably wasn’t realistic. You can’t have a backup above average player at every position in case your starter doesn’t pan out, so overall I’m happy with the moves they did make.

BRT: While the Sox did make it to the dance, they did not get very far, being swept by Cleveland in the ALDS. Dave Dombrowski identified the needs of the ball club, then went out and acquired players to fill those holes. The Sox needed a starter, and he got one of the best in the game: Chris Sale. Unfortunately, he comes with a lot of baggage, so my concern is it will prove to be a distraction. I think if he comes out strong, and the Sox win right off the bat, it will help, as winning covers many ills. However, if he or this team struggles to find their way, I am hoping his penchant for drama does not rear its ugly head…

Mitch Moreland is a Gold Glove first baseman who hit 22 homers last year, so while I think he will see most of the first base work, he can also DH or pinch hit. And if things get really bad, he can always jump in and pitch an inning, just like he did for the Rangers in 2014…

Overall, I think it was a very good off-season for the Red Sox. We’ll see when the games begin…

C70: 2017 starts the post-David Ortiz era. How different will that be for you and for the team?

SH: One of the great joys of being a Red Sox fan was watching Ortiz day in and day out, and not just on the field but off. He put up Hall of Fame numbers in Boston for 14 years and his clutch hits are legendary. I thought Carl Yastrzemski was the best clutch hitter in Red Sox history, but Big Papi was the most amazing clutch hitter I’ve ever seen. One of my fondest memories was my first game at Fenway Park after I moved back to Boston in 2014. It was April 9 against the Rangers and Ortiz blasted a go-ahead three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth to lead the Sox to a 4-2 win. But that’s nothing compared to what he did in the postseason during his career.

As for the team, they’re obviously going to miss his bat in the middle of the order, but they’re going to miss him in the clubhouse as well. He knew how to keep the team loose and he knew when to get serious and get on his teammates if they weren’t playing well. I still think Dustin Pedroia is the heart, soul and sparkplug, but Papi brought those same qualities to the table.

MQM: There is simply no replacing David Ortiz. He is the greatest clutch hitter in team history and a sure Hall of Famer. He went out in 2016 on his own terms, and I have great respect for him for that. Big Papi’s departure will be felt by everyone, but it will be up to the guys in the middle of the order, Hanley Ramirez, Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts to pick up the slack. The Sox have put together a very good young team that will just get better. We will also see if Pablo Sandoval can return from the shoulder surgery and return to form. He’s lost a lot of weight and so far management is happy with his progress. Dustin Pedroia now becomes the “grand old man” on the Sox, and I’d love to see him officially become the team captain.

LB: I grew up watching David Ortiz. I will never forget what he meant to the franchise and the intensity he brought to big moments. I will never forget David Ortiz’s 2004 ALCS Game 4’s homerun. But then there are a handful of unforgettable home runs Ortiz has hit. That is just the type of player he is. He is irreplaceable. I think the Red Sox organization realizes that, which is why I admire what they did this off-season. They could have replaced the DH with several power hitting free agents this offseason like Edwin Encarnacion, Mark Trumbo, Jose Bautista, or even Mike Napoli, however they settled with re-establishing their pitching and focusing on improving in other areas besides going all in on offensive production. The team has lost a huge part of who they have been for years, and lost a great mentor for youth. It is going to take some time for the team to grow without him. However, with how this offseason turned out and the team the Red Sox now have, I feel like they will be able to make that quick adjustment. The biggest adjustment may be with the fans.

BR: The last time Boston entered a season without David Ortiz was 2002, when the nation was still reeling from 9/11, and the Yankees had been to five World Series in the previous six seasons. Meanwhile the Red Sox had been to four in the past 84 years – losing them all. Since then, Big Papi has led Boston to three Championships (their only ones since 1918) and it would be an understatement to say that has changed what it’s like to a Boston Red Sox fan.

For me, it will be different not being able to think that no matter how far down the team is, if we can just get Ortiz an at bat we still have a chance of winning the game. The team will obviously miss his offense as well as his leadership. I expect Dustin Pedroia (amazingly at only 32 he’s now the oldest player on the 40 man roster) will do his best to fill that leadership role.

BRT: It’s certainly going to be weird! Big Papi was such a force for the Red Sox, and contributed so much to the team’s identity for so long, there is no way that won’t be missed. I can’t even count how many times he put this team on his back and carried them, with not only his big bat and clutch hitting, but with his leadership. I think the Sox will be OK, but I think the DH spot will be filled by more than one player, at least for now, as they are pretty big shoes to fill, and there is really no one that I can think of that can (or should) step into a full-time DH role. I think Hanley could get there some day, but right now, I think he needs more to do, at least some of the time, so he doesn’t fall into some of his bad habits again. And having a couple 1st basemen who hit well is always on the wish list. 

C70: What’s the thinking on Craig Kimbrel? A bit of an off year or the beginning of a decline?

SH: I think people have been too hard on Kimbrel. Yes, he posted a career-worst 3.40 ERA and yes he was booed off the field in his first Fenway appearance when he gave up a three-run BOMB in the top of the ninth to Baltimore’s Chris Davis on April 11 (I was there and it was ugly), but his ERA is inflated by five unacceptable appearances (two or more runs allowed in an inning or less). In those five abominations he allowed 15 earned runs in only 2 2/3 innings (50.56 ERA), including two games where he surrendered four runs without recording an out. Obviously we’re not allowed to subtract those from his record, but in his other 51 appearances he pitched to a 0.89 ERA. So, yeah, it was five terrible outings that inflated his ERA.

His 14.1 K/9 was his best since 2012, he held batters to a .152 average, which is below his career mark of .157, his 94% save percentage was a career high, and most of his other numbers were in line with the rest of his career. There are things he could have done better—fewer walks, for example—but I don’t think he’s in a decline at all and I expect his ERA to rebound with fewer self-destructions in 2017.

MQM: It’s hard to say if this is the beginning of a decline for Craig Kimbrel. It may have just been a year of adjustment to Boston for him. He was very good after he had knee surgery in July, but there were games when he simply couldn’t find the plate, and his walk totals just exploded. The Sox made a wise move bringing in Tyler Thornburg, who has experience as a closer in the past. If Kimbrel struggles early in 2017, I’m sure the wolves will be howling at his door.

LB: I think Craig Kimbrel should remain the closer to begin the 2017 season. He is still one of the better closers in baseball with a superior 14.1 K/9 rate. His main issue was his control. We have seen pitchers come to Boston in their first years and struggle, then pick it back up their following season, like Rick Porcello. It is very likely that Kimbrel can loosen his nerves and return to his old self. It would be one thing if his velocity has decreased, as speed is not something you can necessarily fix. However, control is something you very much can work with and improve. Nevertheless, if he is truly on the decline, the Red Sox have plenty of options to remedy his potential struggles with Joe Kelly, Carson Smith (when he is back from injury), Robbie Ross, and Matt Barnes.

BR: I might be one of the few Red Sox fans who doesn’t think Craig Kimbrel had an off year at all last year. I think he had two bad appearances that made his numbers look bad. One of them was against the Yankees when, protecting a 3-0 lead, he loaded up the bases, walked in a run and then got pulled before his replacement gave up a walk-off grand slam. Kimbrel has a reputation for not pitching well in non-save situations. The game above, however, was a save opportunity. The other bad outing he had was on July 5th against the Rangers, when he came in down 3-2 and again gave up 4 runs without recording an out. Maybe that was where his reputation for not being dependable in non-save situations came from, but I think that’s just a small-sample-size / confirmation bias conclusion. Anyhow, other than those two outings, his season was in line with his career expectations.

I think he’s every bit as good as a pitcher as he’s always been, but it’s unrealistic to expect him to go an entire season without giving up a run or blowing a save, which is why the Boston media soured on him early on.

BRT: It is rare when a player, especially a pitcher, doesn’t have a learning curve of some kind to overcome when he switches leagues.  Sometimes it’s a small impact, and others, not so much.  I think Kimbrel’s struggles FELT worse than they actually were—he only had 2 blown saves in 33 tries, batters were limited to a .152 BA against him. and he did make the All-Star team for the 5th time.  Yes, the uncharacteristic walks (30) and the wild pitches (6) were concerning, but he is only going to be 29 in May, and chose not to pitch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, opting to take advantage of the full 6 weeks of Spring Training with the Sox.  I think he has the right attitude, and wants to work through any of the issues that may be keeping him from being the dominant closer he was in the National League, and I think we will see an improvement in 2017, rather than a further decline.

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

SH: I’m not sure how “unheralded” he is considering he’s one of the top prospects in baseball, but I don’t know how many people are aware of Andrew Benintendi and how impressive he is. He had a cup of coffee with the Sox last year and reminded a lot of us of Fred Lynn, both at the plate and in the field. I told my buddy Chad Finn of the Boston Globe that Benintendi has “batting title written all over him” (yes, that was a name drop) and he agrees. In two minor league seasons at A and AA he put together a full season’s worth of stats—570 AB, 106 R, 178 H, 38 2B, 16 3B, 20 HR, 107 RBI, 26 SB, and more walks than strikeouts. His minor league slash line is .312/.392/.540.

More important, though, is that in his 34-game MLB audition he hit .295/.359/.476 and those numbers were even better before he suffered a knee injury while running the bases. Fortunately it wasn’t serious and he returned to the lineup after a three-week hiatus, but he was wearing a knee brace and wasn’t as productive in his last 37 at-bats. Still, he looks like the real deal at the plate and his glove in left field is already major league worthy. With him, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts in the outfield a ball might never hit the grass again.

MQM: Reliever Carson Smith returns from Tommy John surgery by mid-season, and it will be interesting to see if he can bounce back quickly. He put up excellent numbers as a setup man in Seattle, and most Red Sox fans don’t know much about him. He could be an excellent addition around the trade deadline. It was also be interesting to see what the Red Sox do with their catching situation. Is this the year Blake Swihart goes back behind the plate and has a breakout season? 

LB: Most people are going to say that the player to watch is Pablo Sandoval and see if his offseason workouts and weight loss will translate into our everyday third baseman. However, the player I am keeping my eye on this season is Christian Vazquez. He may only be hitting a career .233/ .293/ .308, however his defensive talents behind the dish are legit. Known for buying his pitchers strikes and his career 44% caught stealing rate is extremely valuable and something you can trade for the lack of offensive production, especially with the plenty of offense the team has without him. He is behind Sandy Leon at the moment and the team has announced they will be returning Blake Swihart back to catching (another player to watch). Vazquez does not have a guaranteed spot on the squad, but it will be fun to keep an eye on him during spring training and the remainder of the year.

BR: While the obvious answer here might be Andrew Benintendi, I don’t think he can be considered unheralded anymore, after what he showed at the end of last season, and being ranked the #1 overall prospect by MLB.com and ESPN’s Keith Law among others. I think Tyler Thornburg and Carson Smith can both make huge improvements to our bullpen this season. Also, Joe Kelly might have found his niche, and that will give us a solid three-headed monster to fill the gap between the starters and Kimbrel in the fall. With all the talk about the strength at the top of the rotation, and the offense our youngsters provide, a shutdown bullpen may be the difference maker in the fall. 

BRT: (Editor’s note: Christine skipped this question due to time constraints.)

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

SH: Despite the loss of Big Papi I’m going to predict a 95-67 season and first place finish. Adding Sale to the rotation, having a healthy Eduardo Rodriguez (knock on wood), and a full season of Andrew Benintendi should make up for the void.

MQM: The Sox won 93 games and the division in 2016, and I expect them to top that in 2017. They’ll take the East this year with 95 wins. The Blue Jays will give them the most problems, but Toronto has slightly regressed. The Orioles and Yankees will fight it out for third, and the Rays are still the bottom team of the division.

LB: My prediction for the 2017 Red Sox is a record of 94-68. I also believe they will win the AL East again with the Blue Jays finishing right behind them.

BR: Injuries and other unexpected events always make this a challenging question to answer with any level of confidence. However, for the first time in about ten seasons, I am confident in predicting a division championship this year. Not necessarily because they have improved, but I don’t see any other team in the division that can seriously challenge. If everything breaks right for the Red Sox, they could potentially win 100 games for the first time in my lifetime, but that is not likely. However, it would take a lot of things to go wrong simultaneously for this team to fall much short of 90 victories, and I believe that will be more than enough to take the division. If I need to pin down a specific number, I’ll take 93 wins and winning the division by six games. 

BRT: I think they will win the division again, especially due to the upgrades that were made in the off-season.  I believe the Sox will win 97 games, and make it to the World Series.  My prognostication skills are pretty bad, so that is about as far as I will go in terms of predicting.  However, we all know that baseball is a fickle mistress and anything could happen (and usually does), but I do like their chances going into the season.

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Red Sox and why?

SH: Carl Yastrzemski. He was mostly past his prime when I first started rooting for him, but he was my dad’s favorite player so he became my favorite player. He epitomized everything I appreciate about certain athletes in that he was talented, but worked hard at his craft and was more about winning games than personal accomplishments. He always said he’d trade his MVP Award for a World Series title. Whether that’s true or not he was a monster in the postseason and played his ass off in an effort to win a championship.

MQM: I became a Red Sox fan in my youth because I was a Carl Yastzemski fan and he will always be my favorite. He will be closely followed by David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia from this generation. They both were heavily responsible for bringing championships to Red Sox Nation, and they made my life in New York City so much more bearable!

LB: My favorite Red Sox player of all time was an eight time All-Star, Cy Young Award winner three times, Hall of Famer, Pedro Martinez. I grew up watching Martinez dominate the game from the mound during the steroid era. Every time you look back on names that meant the most to the Red Sox franchise, I think it’s safe to say that Pedro’s name definitely comes up. I’ll never forget his antics and the dominance he brought to the franchise.

BR: Jim Rice, Jim Rice, Jim Rice. I could write a whole website on this (actually, I already did). Short version is that as a youngster I saw him play for the Red Sox and thought that despite him winning an MVP and getting constant all-star recognition he was underrated. He was a good baserunner and had a good outfield arm, but had an unwarranted reputation as a slow and poor fielder. I helped lobby him to get elected into the Hall of Fame, and glad I was at Cooperstown when he finally got inducted.

BRT: I discovered my love of the Red Sox rather late in life, if you can consider the early-teen years late. I was never really interested in baseball before then, and living in Northeastern Pennsylvania, a team that was 6 hours away was probably not a super logical leap. However, my parents were big baseball fans (my Dad has a life-long love of the Cleveland Indians; my mom was a “scream-at-the-television” Yankee fan.), so they took me and my sister to Fenway Park when we were young, and I was hooked. I loved a number of players from that era: Jim Ed, Freddie Lynn, and of course, Yaz, but the player who will always be my favorite is Carlton Fisk. I don’t know why, but my admiration for him has never wavered, to the point where I will never call Ivan Rodriquez “Pudge”, there will only ever be one, as far as I am concerned…

Appreciate all the insight from these Boston faithful.  It would seem a good year to be a Red Sox fan!

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