Playing Pepper 2018: Boston Red Sox

In 2009, before my second full season of blogging the Cardinals, I reached out to other bloggers to other teams to get insights on their clubs.  This year, instead of going through the teams alphabetically, we’ll approach it a little differently, spending a week with each division.  For the tenth straight season, get ready for the upcoming MLB season by playing a little pepper.  

Boston Red Sox
93-69, first in AL East, lost in ALDS
Website | Twitter

Last year’s Pepper

My regular readers, being likely Cardinal fans, could be forgiven if they skipped this entry in our Playing Pepper series.  After all, it’s hard to name another team–well, maybe San Francisco–that’s done so much damage to the hopes and dreams of the St. Louis faithful as the Red Sox.  ’04 and ’13 will likely always sting a bit even if there has been other postseason success around those failures.  The Red Sox are a very interesting team, though, as our great panel will elaborate on in a moment.  After firing a postseason-reaching manager, the expectations are high for this group of players.  Can they deliver?  Read on!

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

Michael: Up until the time they signed J.D. Martinez I was pretty disappointed, especially considering the Yankees added Giancarlo Stanton to an already potent lineup. As I’m constantly reminded, the Red Sox finished last in the American League in home runs last year and they had very little fire power, but they managed to finish sixth in runs scored. It’s not always about the long ball, but Martinez will bring a boom stick to Boston that should fill the void left by David Ortiz.

I was happy to see them bring back Eduardo Nunez who will play second while Dustin Pedroia recovers from knee surgery and gives us another super utility guy to add depth to the roster. Re-signing Mitch Moreland wasn’t exactly a sexy move, but not only is he willing to accept a platoon role at first base with Hanley Ramirez, he signed his contract fully expecting to be a platoon player. The left-handed slugger did almost all of his damage against righties last year and adds pop from the left side of the plate.

Ruben: Until the middle of February, saying it was a slow off-season would have been an overstatement. Other than signing Mitch Moreland (who was our regular 1st baseman last year, so not much of a change there), the only other announcement was with someone named Sam Adams – who I doubt could hit a major league fastball. Anyhow, once spring training got rolling, the Red Sox made some moves that have undoubtedly improved the team. First of all they signed Eddie Nunez, who will presumably fill in for Dustin Pedroia until his activation from the DL, and then will be a super-sub utility player. And then they finally signed JD Martinez – like everyone had been waiting for since November – to be a middle of the order power bat/ DH / 4th outfielder. The Red Sox were sorely lacking in the power department last season, so this was the main area of improvement they needed, and they accomplished that with the best player they could acquire without a trade. 

John: The Red Sox improved where their biggest need was, and that was a power bat in the person of J.D. Martinez. The Red Sox needed him, and he needed the Red Sox, so that deal was going to get done. They also filled an infield need with the return of Eduardo Nunez, who will see plenty of time at second base with Dustin Pedroia’s knee injury keeping him out the first two months of 2018. Even with Pedroia’s return, Nunez will get plenty of playing time around the infield. The Sox have a strong bullpen, but will be without Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright to start the year, but this will give Brian Johnson an opportunity to move up on the Red Sox pitching depth chart. Overall, I think the Sox will top their 2017 total of 93 wins, especially with two of their rivals clearly takes steps downwards this winter (Tampa Bay and Baltimore).

But as big an addition as Martinez is, the addition of Alex Cora as the new manager is probably even bigger. Cora has been a widely respected baseball man going back to his days as a middle infielder with the Dodgers and then the Red Sox. (I remember back in his Sox days that Peter Gammons always called Cora one of the smartest players in the game and would manage a team in MLB one day.) The Sox moved on from John Farrell after five years at the helm of the club, and left with three division titles, a World Series title and two last place finishes. Cora will be under the microscope as soon as the bell rings for the start of the season. The Red Sox are expected to win, so Cora walks in with huge expectations in his first MLB managerial gig. He’s played in Boston before, so he knows exactly what he’s getting himself into.

Nate: For a while the Red Sox off-season was looking bleak and quiet, with the biggest acquisition being the re-signing of Mitch Moreland and Eduardo Nunez. However, that took a quick turn, as the front office was able to make a huge splash, signing JD Martinez. Last year, Martinez spotted a slash line of .303/.376/.690, with 45 HRs and 104 RBIs. He is the power hitter that the Red Sox needs, especially if they want to keep up with the New York Yankees. He is the ‘mythical’ David Ortiz replacement the team required. However, even with the offensive addition, the team’s success will come down to its pitching and positive regression from last season’s underperformers, which I think is going to happen.

Christine: While it was hit or miss as to the extent the Sox improved over the offseason, the signing (finally!) of JD Martinez after weeks and weeks and weeks of speculation, firmly moved the needle to “very much so”. The 30-year old slugger, who looks to fill the DH position that has been lacking since David Ortiz’s retirement, had a triple slash of .303/.376/.690 in 119 games during the 2017 campaign. This is even more impressive, as its split among two different leagues–the AL Tigers, and the NL Diamondbacks. Usually players need a bit of time to get acclimated. Let’s hope he brings that adaptability to the Sox, who need a big bat in the lineup. And that the 5-year, $110 million contract isn’t about 2.5 years too long…

C70: It’s David Price’s third year with the club. What are your expectations for him this season?

Michael: Shut up and pitch. Price isn’t the Cy Young candidate Red Sox Nation hoped we were getting and his run-in with Dennis Eckersley really soured me on him. I was never a big fan to begin with, but it’s all about the laundry and I want him to do well. I honestly don’t know what to expect. He battled a balky left elbow last year and tossed a career-low 74 2/3 innings, but when he returned he was brilliant out of the bullpen, throwing 15 1/3 scoreless innings in his last seven appearances, including two in the ALDS. If he’s more like the 2016 Price, albeit with a lower ERA, than the 2017 Price he’ll be a solid complement to Chris Sale.

Ruben: He is very motivated and determined to show Boston fans what he can do. He showed a glimpse of what he’s still capable of in the playoffs last season when he threw 6.2 scoreless innings in relief against the high powered Astros offense. If he remains healthy, I think we’ll see more of that this year, as he silences his critics.

John: I fully expect a strong bounce back year for David Price. He was strong coming out of the pen late last year, and he has a lot to prove to the club, as well as the fans. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a Cy Young-caliber season in 2018. He and Chris Sale will be a devastating 1-2 punch in the rotation this year.

Nate: I have always been a Price believer on the field. His off the field banter and the way he approaches the media is an entirely different story. Over the last two seasons he is 23-12 with a 3.84 ERA, 1.201 WHIP, 8.6 H/9, 9.0 K/9 and a BB/9 of 2.2. Even though he was out with a left elbow strain for the majority of last year, he does not have that bad of a stat line over the last two seasons by any means. However, with a 7-year $217 Million contract, a ‘not that bad’ stat line is a tough phrase to be okay with. He has shown he is committed to the team and is willing to do what it takes to bring the team success, even if it means coming out of the bullpen like at times during late last season and the short stint in the playoffs. I will continue to have high expectations for Price in hopes that he has some continued positive regression and shows glimpses of his 2012, Cy Young award-winning self. He has also been vocal about these hopes as well coming into spring training.

Christine: On paper, David Price hasn’t been terrible. In 2016 he was 17-9 with a 3.99 ERA in 35 starts, and in 2017, despite being limited to 16 starts, had a 6-3 record with a 3.38 ERA. But then you look at his postseason performance over 10 seasons when the team he was with managed to make the offseason–and its 2-8 with a 5.03 ERA, including his 0-1, 13.50 ERA performance with the Sox when they played Cleveland in 2016. And then you look at the big drama thing surrounding him and Eck last season which, depending on who you ask, was completely justified–or completely unwarranted…And then there is the SEVEN-year, $217 million contract–for a 30-year-old who, while a 5-time All-Star and a Cy Young Award winner, sucks out loud in the postseason…

So, I guess this is just a very roundabout way of saying: I expect him to be exactly who he is. A decent hurler during the season (if he stays healthy), who will give the Sox 200 innings, and 15-17 wins. But I would not rely on him in the postseason, where I think he has had ample opportunity to prove himself. Of course, its baseball, and anything can happen–I just don’t think there is any great mystery to David Price. I think he comes up big in small places, not the other way around…and, unfortunately, in no way worth the money the Sox are paying him… He’s a $10-12 million a year player, tops—if he stays healthy.

C70: What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Michael: That they’re still so young. Mookie Betts has gotten MVP votes in his last three seasons, but he just turned 25 in October; Xander Bogaerts is starting his sixth season and he’s the same age as Betts; Andrew Benintendi is in his sophomore season and turns 24 in July; Rafael Devers turned heads with his power in his cup of coffee last year and he’s only 21. Only the Twins and White Sox have younger everyday players, and if Blake Swihart continues to hit the way he has early in spring training the Red Sox could get even younger.

Ruben: The payroll is VERY close to the de facto limit. A lot of smaller market teams assume that the Red Sox (and Yankees and a few others) can always just throw money at a problem, and buy whoever they need, should a need arise. To an extent that’s true, but I think people are overlooking just how strained the Red Sox ability to make any roster upgrades could be this year. They have blown past the $197 Million limit where they have to pay a 20% tax on every dollar they are over, as well as the $217MM with its 32% luxury tax penalty. It’s just money, and John Henry has lots of it, so these limits shouldn’t bother any Red Sox fan. But they are very close to $237MM and at that point not only is there a 74.5% tax to pay on any additional salary, but there are draft pick and slot bonus penalties which need to be avoided at all costs. Although the Boston bench has several players capable of filling in for the short term, if there is a serious injury to a key player, the Red Sox may not have the financial room to acquire a replacement, and that could easily torpedo the season.

John: The strong tandem behind the plate. Christian Vazquez opened a few eyes with his strong arm and defense, and continues the handle the staff very well. He showed a bit of a stick last season, and he maybe on the verge of taking over the number one catching position. Sandy Leon had a bit of a fluke year with the bat in 2016 and came down to earth in 2017, but continues to throw out runners well above league average. The wild card in this whole thing is Blake Swihart. He’s out of options, and the Sox have to decide what to do with him. I hope they carry him and use him as a utility player, and use him behind the plate on occasion. He’s off to a good start this spring, which makes the brass’ decision even tougher.

Nate: I think something that may go overlooked going into this season is just how big of a transformation Andrew Benintendi has made. His first full season with the Red Sox he batted .271/ .352/ .424 with 20 Home Runs, 90 RBIs, and 20 Stolen Bases. Coming in second place in Rookie of the Year voting, Benintendi had a great first year with the club. However, he came into this spring training already showing that he is ready to continue growing his impact with the team. Last year the 5’10” left fielder was 170 lbs., now he is walking into camp at 190 lbs. Hopefully this will add more power to his offensive production. However, I am not entirely sure where this bulking will lead Benintendi overall. He states he still has to put in work towards his agility, but I definitely think it’s something that is underrated during the blockbuster news of JD Martinez and can turn out to be a huge plus for the club. 

Christine: The Red Sox had a bunch of its important pieces missing in 2017, either due to injury, or under performance. 2016 Cy Young Winner Rick Porcello TANKED last year going from 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA to 11-17 to an ERA a run and a half higher (4.65). Dustin Pedroia was limited to 105 games last season (down from 154 the previous year) and will still probably miss the first 3-4 weeks of the season due to the knee surgery he had in the offseason. Hanley not only missed a bunch of games due to injury, his season production in hitting and base stealing was down from 2016. The Sox only had Carson Smith from September on in 2017, as he recovered from the Tommy John surgery he had in 2016. This year he should be completely recovered and back at full strength. Brock Holt was limited to 64 games due to the vertigo he suffered for a good portion of the season. The point is, the Boston Red Sox are a very, very good team who still managed to do well, despite the extensive injuries to many of their key players. It’s always a challenge to keep healthy over 162 games (and more if you get to the dance), but if the Sox can minimize the damage, their ability to be successful will only increase…

C70: Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Red Sox to do well?

Michael: I’m going with Chris Sale, mostly because the rest of the rotation is one giant question mark in my eyes. Sale’s the stopper, the guy who puts an end to a losing streak before it even starts, and the one pitcher in the rotation who has a chance to dominate every start. Price used to be that guy and might be again if he’s healthy and focuses more on pitching than being a [donkey]. Drew Pomeranz was much better than I expected last year, but he needs to show me something similar this year before I trust him. Rick Porcello is all over the place and you never know what you’re going to get—he went from leading the league in wins to leading it in losses. And Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright have shown flashes of brilliance, but are always banged up.

Ruben: There are several players whose performance range can be predicted with a strong degree of confidence. Guys like Chris Sale, Betts, JDM, Kimbrel, whom you know (barring injury) what you’re going to get from them – they’re either going to be very good or great. There are others with a wider range of probable outcomes, but the lineup can be shuffled around and they can be replaced if they slump (such as Hanley), or not much is being expected of them anyways (any of the catchers). The player for whom there is no apparent replacement if he declines is Xander Bogaerts. If he bounces back from a disappointing 2017 campaign, then he’s another bat in the middle of a lineup that suddenly looks very strong. But if he has a long stretch like last summer (.198 with 3 HRs in July and August), then the Red Sox offense could be very disappointing.

John: Tough question. On offense, I would say that is Mookie Betts. He is now the heart and soul of the Red Sox offense, and his numbers were slightly below his near-MVP season of 2016 last year, and I expect him to have a season closer to what he did two years ago. Pitching-wise, I would say that is Craig Kimbrel. He was simply outstanding in 2017, but whenever you have a closer struggling through a miserable season, that can mean big trouble. I don’t expect a big regression for him in 2018, but we’ll see if he can match what he did last season.

Nate: Picking only one player that must perform for the Red Sox to do well is a tough question. There are a handful of players that need to perform in order to meet success. We need Chris Sale to be himself, Rick Porcello to at least be somewhere in between his 2016 and 2017 season, Pomeranz to continue being reliable, E-Rod to understand his true potential and continue to grow and so on. However, I think a big part of the team’s success will come down to Mookie Betts. He will start off the season in the lead off spot and manning right field once again. His success in the top of the order will help trickle success down the entire order. How he approaches being the lead off man will help dictate the team’s batting order and the team’s offensive approach for the season. 

Christine: This is always a tough question for me, at least since David Ortiz retired, because there is any number of players on this Red Sox ballclub that could put this team on their backs and carry them for weeks on end. This is what Big Papi did for more than a decade… But if I had to narrow it down to one, I guess I will go with one of the more obvious choices: Chris Sale. With a 17-8 record with a 2.90 ERA in 32 starts in 2017, he was undeniably the Sox Ace (especially in a season where Rick Porcello did a 180 from his Cy Young caliber season of 2016). There is no doubt the Sox would have fared far worse if not for Sale’s consistent wins every 5 days. He also made his 6th consecutive All-Star game and got as close as he ever did to a Cy Young, coming in second to Cleveland’s Corey Kluber. And he will turn 29 a couple days before Opening Day. While he is projected to have a couple less wins than 2017, the Sox need someone who can come in and give them wins and innings, and occasionally stop slides when they occur. And I think Chris Sale will be that guy. And if he isn’t–the success of the Red Sox’s 2018 season just got much MUCH harder…

C70: What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

Michael: Even though the Yankees will most likely bludgeon the competition into submission I still like our chances to win the division. The addition of Martinez strengthens a line-up that averaged 4.85 runs a game last year and puts Moreland in a platoon role where he belongs. I expect Benintendi and Bradley to be more consistent, and I’m hoping Devers continues to hit while improving his defense. Despite the questions I mentioned about the rotation, the starting staff could be among the best in the league, and the bullpen is very good and will get better if Carson Smith can stay healthy. Once Craig Kimbrel gets the ball the game is all but over. I see no reason why they can’t win at least 90 games again this year.

Ruben: I picked the Red Sox to win their division with 93 games last year, and that’s exactly what they did! (I know, I know…. something about blind squirrels and nuts). Anyhow, in spite of the Yankees having seemingly improved in the off-season, I’m predicting the Red Sox to repeat as division champions, needing only 91 wins. 

John: I would love to see the Red Sox finally eclipse the 100-win mark in the regular season for the first time since 1946. I think that is possible, but I see them around 97 for 2018, with another AL East title. Can they get to the World Series? Houston looks as good as they did in 2017, so it will be tough.

Nate: Optimistically, I see the Red Sox finishing up 94-68 and taking down the AL’s top wild-card spot. 

Christine: As my prognostication skills are legendarily bad, take my predictions with a grain of salt, but this team, if everything goes their way, has what it takes to win 98-100 games. But, as we know in baseball, reality often gets in the way with injuries, some players underperforming, and some overperforming. Based on that, I say they will win 89 games, and a Wild Card. We all know anyone can win in a short series, so if the Sox can keep it together, they could get to the World Series. But I am not going to predict beyond that…

C70: What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

Michael: Is there any under-the-radar guy who might make an impact this year? I asked this only because if I nail it I’ll look like a genius, but if I don’t I went far enough out on a limb that I shouldn’t get too much grief. I think Hector Velazquez could be a valuable member of the pitching staff as a spot starter/reliever, especially with Wright and Rodriguez on the shelf. He’s a much better reliever, though, so that might be where he shines if given the opportunity.

Ruben: Which player do I wish the Red Sox still had on their roster? Adrian Beltre. He had a great stint in Boston in his one year here in 2010. That offseason, the Red Sox instead of trying to re-sign him, opted to trade for Adrian Gonzalez who would play first base, and move Kevin Youkilis across the diamond to third base, where Beltre had been. Beltre eventually signed with Texas for 6/$96, while AGon got a 7/$154 deal from Boston. Unfortunately Youkilis was a much better defensive first baseman than he was at the hot corner, and Gonzalez left Boston prior to his 2nd year in the infamous Nick Punto trade. Since then, Boston has had difficulty filling the position, using Wil Middlebrooks, Travis Shaw, Pablo Sandoval, and Aaron Hill among others. Rafael Devers looks like he may be there to stay now, but one wonders how much better our infield defense and lineup would have been with Beltre there the past seven seasons.

John: What? No questions about the “Behemoths to the South?” You know, “The Little Engine That Could”, New York Yankees. Sure, they are a concern, with another banger in the middle of their order in Giancarlo Stanton. But I am still of the opinion that pitching and defense wins championships, and I think the Red Sox are still better than New York in both departments. It will be a dogfight all year between the two rivals, and expect both teams in the 2018 postseason.

Nate: One question that had been a hot topic, but has died down over the past few months is how Alex Cora will perform as the Red Sox Head Coach? It’s one that I have enjoyed discussing all off-season. John Farrell left the team in a midst of turmoil and a very negative clubhouse atmosphere. It will be interesting to see how Alex Cora takes on this group and reshapes the culture of the team. It’s a question that can only be answered over time. His familiarity with players, a youthful voice, and once playing for the same team in a town that is known to have one of the most critical fan bases and media will hopefully help him manage this team. However, like I said previously, only time will tell.

Even if we still hold some animosity, it’s always good to check in with Boston.  My thanks to everyone who spent the time to keep us posted on the squad and look forward to an interesting AL East battle yet again!

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