Playing Pepper 2019: Boston Red Sox

Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team.  It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams.  We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well.  Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.

Boston Red Sox
108-54, first in AL East, won World Series
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

It’s really getting hard to remember when people felt sorry for folks in the Northeast.  With their football team doing well, from what I hear, and the Red Sox winning four times in 14 years after that little drought they had before 2004, the good times seem to be rolling in Boston, whether folks around the country like it or not.  To talk about the revelry and whether they can make it five in fifteen, I’ve corralled a good group of Red Sox bloggers focusing on the season to come while not forgetting the season that was.

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?

Mike: It was pretty uneventful, although I was happy to see the Sox bring Nathan Eovaldi and Steve Pearce back. Eovaldi did well in 12 regular season games and was fantastic in the postseason, he’s versatile, and when he’s on his game his stuff is filthy. If he can stay consistent, our rotation will be even better than last year. Pearce killed lefties last year and was very good against right-handers. He and Mitch Moreland formed a productive platoon and, if nothing else, he gives the Sox the option of having top prospect Michael Chavis start the season in Triple-A.

I’m not too torn up about them not signing Craig Kimbrel or letting Joe Kelly and Drew Pomeranz walk via free agency. Acquiring reliever Colten Brewer from the Brewers does nothing for me, although the Sox didn’t give up much for him. Jenrry Mejia’s signing was controversial because of his multiple PED suspensions, but he could end up being a wild card at some point in the season.

Nate: Most of the entire 2018 World Championship team except for Ian Kinsler and Joe Kelly are all coming back to defend the title. While Craig Kimbrel probably won’t be returning as well, for the most part the team is all coming back. We also have Dustin Pedroia being added to the mix. The potent offense is still going to be stacked and starting pitching is still intact. There was not much that needed to be done. Sure, they could have added some bullpen arms, but that can always be built upon during the season. I think it was a good and expected off season.

John: I think the offseason went well. The Sox immediately resigned two of the bigger free agents they had, two who were critical to their postseason success in 2018: Steve Pearce and Nate Eovaldi. The offense is coming back almost to a man, one of 2018’s best. Joe Kelly departed to LA as a free agent, and that was expected, as was Craig Kimbrel leaving. Kelly was dynamite in the postseason but struggled in the second half, so I thought the Sox were right to let him walk. Kimbrel’s numbers in the regular season weren’t as dominant as in previous years, and everyone saw him struggle in the postseason. He wasn’t worthy of the six year deal he wanted, so good luck to him on his next team.

Ruben: It was good that they quickly resigned World Series heroes Steve Pearce and Nate Eovaldi. There was nothing bad. I was disappointed to see Joe Kelly leave, but his value was probably at an all-time high after the postseason he had. A lot of the fandom is concerned about our lack of a proven closer, but I think the bullpen will sort itself out.

There’s a fine line between being complacent because you are the reigning Champions, an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, and making changes for the sake of change. In general I don’t like it when teams don’t make any changes, because typically all other teams have done something to improve, so you will have fallen back relative to the competition. But the Red Sox are in a precarious position where their hands are kind of tied as far as making moves go. They don’t have anything of value to trade other than established starting players that they need, or bench pieces which are probably move valuable to the team than what they would get in return, and they can’t afford to take on much more salary.

C70: How has the afterglow of this championship been different than the last three?

Mike: The 2004 season was special for obvious reasons, but it was also bitter sweet because my father passed away in 1987 and didn’t have a chance to see the Sox win a World Series. The 2007 team was the first to win the division and advance to the World Series since the ’86 team, and they extended the Sox’s WS winning streak to eight. The 2013 team was the first to win the WS at Fenway Park since the 1918 squad and guys like Jonny Gomes and Mike Napoli made it a fun ride.

This might sound selfish coming from someone whose favorite teams have won 12 championships since 2001, but I’ve always wanted to watch a Sox team that dominated everyone else much like the ’85-’86 Celtics or the 2007 Patriots before they lost to the Giants. The 2018 Sox were the team I’ve been waiting for all of my life and it was great to see them break a franchise wins record that had stood since 1912. Since then the Sox have had all-time greats, Hall of Famers, MVPs, Cy Young winners, Rookies of the Year, and All-Stars, but it took more than 100 years to win more than 105 games. And it was a fun team to watch.

Nate: The 2018 Red Sox were something special. It was an unforgettable year. They started the season with their foot on the pedal and never let up. Every day you listened to Boston sports talk radio or went on social media, the voices of the doubters were always present. The amount of pressure that was put on the team, the way they dominated the regular season by winning a franchise record of 108 wins, then cruised through each round of the playoffs, made for an unforgettable run. Everyone who wasn’t a Red Sox fan was waiting for the team to fail and slow down, which never came. The adversity they dealt with and the way they dominated the entire season, including playoffs, was something special and unique to this team.

John: All four championships in this century have had a different feel to them. 2004 was the team finally getting the elusive title and will always be the best remembered one, especially the way the Red Sox did it. 2007 was one where the Sox led from start to finish during the season and reinforced that 2004 was no fluke. 2013 has been the most unexpected one, after the Bobby Valentine disaster and the Boston Marathon bombing that April. This one from 2018 comes from the best Red Sox team of all time, and the best MLB team of the 21st century so far. They are so loaded that a repeat title isn’t just possible, it’s almost expected in 2019.

Ruben: Somewhat more stressful. The way they dominated most of the season, and rolled through the playoffs, it almost would have seemed a disappointment if it culminated in something less than a Championship. But they benefited from some luck and timely moves and their record was probably better than their talent would indicate. So expectations for this upcoming season are unrealistically high. Instead of enjoying the offseason as much I did the previous ones, I’m bracing for the almost inevitable disappointment that I’m afraid the 2019 season will bring. 

C70: Mookie Betts had an incredible 2018. Can he reach those levels again this season?

Mike: That’s a great question with no obvious answer, although I don’t see why he can’t come close. By most measures he had a career year, but it wasn’t historic—his 2018 OPS ranks 129th on the all-time list and his OPS+ ranks 128th. On the other hand, his games played, plate appearances, and at-bats were his lowest since his rookie season, so his numbers could have been even better with his typical number of plate appearances. I tend to think his 2016 and 2018 campaigns are closer to the real Mookie Betts than his 2017 season was. He’s only 26 and I won’t be surprised if he continues to put up 2018 numbers or better, especially considering the most similar players through his age 25 season include Duke Snider, David Wright, Manny Ramirez, Carl Yastrzemski, Jack Clark, and Jim Rice.

Nate: AL MVP Mookie Betts had a great season last year. He had a slash line of .346/.438/.640 with 32 bombs, 80 RBIs, and 129 Runs. Also winning Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, and the Heart and Hustle award, the sky is the limit for Betts. Alex Cora already came out saying he would be hitting in the 2-hole. If he can put up last year’s numbers as a leadoff hitter, I don’t think there is any reason he can’t put up the same numbers this year and with more RBIs. While he may not reach the same level in each offensive category, there is little doubt in my mind that he won’t bring his elite offense, defense, and great base running back for another excellent season.

John: I don’t see why not. Mookie is a perfectionist and expects bigger and better from himself in 2019. He moves out of the leadoff spot this year, so we’ll see if his power numbers increase.

Ruben: Mookie Betts was 25 years old last season, turning 26 during the playoffs. Players with similar starts to their careers (as per Bill James’ similarity scores shown on Baseball Reference), include Duke Snider, Manny Ramirez, and Carl Yastrzemski. Typically young players keep developing and peak between 26 and 30 years of age. This is a long-winded way of saying, yes, I think he can not only reach the same levels, but even improve on them. 

C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?

Mike: Obviously, it’s going to be tough to top 108 wins again, but I don’t see any reason they can’t reach 100 again and win the division. That said, I’ve seen predictions and projections that have them winning anywhere between 89 and 95 games, and almost all have the Yankees winning at least 95 with Fangraphs having them at 98-64. We’ll see.

Nate: I think the Red Sox will still be on top of the AL East come October. By no means will it be easy. The Yankees had solid off season moves bringing in DJ LeMahieu, Troy Tulowitzki, Adam Ottavino, and James Paxton. Then you have Tampa Bay who I believe is going to be a solid team. The AL East will be a tough division to take. However, I think this Red Sox team has what it takes and will win it for the 4th year in a row with a record of 98-64.

John: I see the Red Sox taking the division again, winning at least 100 games in 2018. The Yankees maybe the “sexy pick” to win the AL East, but as I said last year, the team that pitches better will win it. And I’m sure many pundits will pick New York over the Sox. And it seems like whenever that happens in recent years, the Red Sox surprise everyone.

Ruben: I don’t think they can top what they did last season. I believe their win total will drop into the mid 90s, and they will be in a fight for the division all season point. Ultimately I see them falling short and losing in the first round of the playoffs. 

C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?

Mike: Who will our closer be? Of all the candidates the Sox have as of this writing, I trust Matt Barnes the most and think he has the stuff to be a dominant closer. His K/9 has improved every year since he was a rookie in 2014 and it topped out at an impressive 14.0 last year. And he held opposing batters to a .322 slugging percentage last year, allowing only five homers in 62 appearances.

Nate: One of the biggest questions heading into the season is who is going to take over in the closer spot. With Kimbrel most likely not returning, which reliever is going to step up? There are a handful of options. Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier both are possibilities. Each proved they can perform in baseball’s biggest stages while shutting down Major League’s bests. Then you have Tyler Thornburg. He hasn’t show much of anything during his time in Boston, but don’t sleep on his 2016 season with Milwaukee where he pitched 67 innings, 2.15 ERA, 90 K’s, and a WHIP of 0.940. If (a big “IF”) he can find this type of season again, he could be a massive asset for the team. While obviously still unknown at this time, I do believe the answer can and will be found amongst one of these three relievers.

John: Two big questions: who will play second base and who will be the closer. Dustin Pedroia appears to be healthy and ready to go. If he runs into any problems, the Sox have Brock Holt and Eduardo Nunez, who the Sox will use as the two utility players, to back him up. Closer is up for grabs. I’m not sure about Matt Barnes, as you never know which pitcher shows up when he pitches. Alex Cora says he has an idea of what he’ll do, and might even go with matchups instead of one solid closer. I have total faith in Cora, and know he’ll make the right decision.

Ruben: I asked my readers this, and they all said the bullpen. Personally, I’m less worried about that than I am about Chris Sale. If he continues to be his dominant usual self when he’s healthy that’s great, but if his injuries limit his effectiveness or time on the field, there’s a big dropoff in replacing him with a number 6 starter. 

The other big question I have is will Dustin Pedroia be healthy, and if so does carrying both Eduardo Nunez and Brock Holt on the bench become redundant, and is that a luxury that can be afforded? There is also Tzu-wei Lin, Marco Hernandez, and Michael Chavis waiting in the minors, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of the bench players traded if Pedroia is injury free enough to at least play some of the time.

C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?

Mike: Watching the kids grow up together has been very satisfying and I expect it will remain so. Rafael Devers (22), Andrew Benintendi (24), Eduardo Rodriguez (25), Betts (26), and Xander Bogaerts (26) have yet to reach their prime, and Blake Swihart (26) is still in the mix. If the Sox can keep this young core together and prospect Michael Chavis eventually joins them, the offense will be in good hands for a long time.

Nate: I will always find joy and never get bored of watching this offense go to work. Last year the team’s offense was a powerhouse. Not necessarily in terms of the long ball, but in both approach and production. The team ranked 1st in runs, 1st in hits, 1st in RBI’s, 1st in Average, 1st in OPS, the list can go on and on. They led in almost every offensive category you can think of. It was what brought me the most joy last year, all season long.

While the same offensive threats are still coming back, and others who still are showing signs that they are continuing to grow (i.e. Rafael Devers and Jackie Bradley Jr.), there is little doubt in my mind that what brought me so much joy last year will be returning for round two this year. (Side note: Jackie Bradley Jr.’s offensive breakout year has arrived.)

John: Listening to announcers call the Red Sox “the defending World Series Champions” all year, especially from their rivals in the Bronx!!

Ruben: Unlike some previous incarnations of the Red Sox, where you could see teammates did not support each other and some players weren’t very likeable, this is a very likeable bunch which makes them easy to root for. I love watching the young guys smiling and having fun, and the sense that the rest of the players are all rooting for them.

Last year it seemed out of place watching a Red Sox team have a deep playoff run without either Pedroia or David Ortiz. If Pedroia is healthy I will enjoy watching his competitiveness on every single pitch in every single game. That was the one thing I missed last year.

Given that two of those four championships have come at the expense of the Cardinals, I really should find these guys more aggravating than I do.  Instead, they are classy folks willing to give us some thoughts on the World Champions.  My thanks to them all!

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