Playing Pepper 2023: Boston Red Sox

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

Boston Red Sox
78-84, fifth in the AL East
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Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Rich Hill (1.8)
Top hitter by fWAR: Xander Bogaerts (6.1)

You know it’s a tough division when you are within shouting distance of .500 and still wind up last.  Boston probably didn’t expect that, being how the Orioles have been the last few years, and I can’t imagine they liked it much even if the up-and-down nature of the team didn’t make it all that surprising.  Are they going back up this year?  Let’s see what their fans say!

C70: It has been an eventful offseason for the Red Sox. What’s your opinion on it and where the club stands going into 2023?

John: To say that I was simply enraged that the Red Sox lost Xander Bogaerts to free agency is a great understatement. He should never have reached free agency, as the Red Sox should have locked up their unofficial captain last year during Spring Training. And it looked like Rafael Devers was next in line to walk out the door, either by trade or free agency. But management saved an open revolt by the fans by locking up Devers to a long term deal, essentially making him the “David Ortiz of the 2020s” for the Red Sox. I actually liked the way the bullpen was rebuilt, bringing in veterans Kenley Jansen, Chris Martin and Joely Rodriguez, which enables Garrett Whitlock to move to the rotation. Tanner Houck‘s role for this season will depend on where he needed most. Masataka Yoshida is a big wild card, coming over to play left field from a successful career in Japan. I like the under the radar pickup of Adam Duvall to play center, as he’s coming off an off-year but has a good glove. Justin Turner will be the full time DH (as well as playing first and third on occasion), and he still looks like he has some pop in his bat and brings a good reputation in the clubhouse to whatever team he’s played for.

Matthew: The off-season was fine. You could see the plan in action, acquiring players who have upside (Kenley Jansen, Masataka Yoshida, Justin Turner, Chris Martin (no, not that one), Adam Duvall, and Adelberto Mondesi), to supplement the roster. They did manage to sign Rafael Devers to a long-term deal as well, something which, given the team’s recent history with star players, was anything but a given. With all the new faces, some have compared this squad to the 2013 World Series-winning Red Sox, who, following a very disappointing 2012 season, brought in a bunch of veterans with upside in a similar play. The difference though is that the 2012 team had a stronger and better core than this 2023 team does. This team is really two superstars short of being a World Series contender, and (oddly) the two spots where they need the most help are right field and shortstop (cough Mookie Betts cough Xander Bogaerts cough).

The big failure of the off-season was the mishandling of the Xander Bogaerts situation and the subsequent failure to plug the hole left on the roster after his departure to San Diego. There are legitimate reasons to not want to give Xander Bogaerts an 11 year, 20 Bizilionty-gillion dollar deal, but they wouldn’t have needed to do that A) if they’d extended him years earlier, like they had numerous chances to do, or B) if they’d not given him the opt-out (and paid up the contract to do that) in the first place. That’s all dirty water under the bridge now though, and truly, of all off-seasons, this one was the one to lose your star shortstop because there were many star shortstops on the market. Aldelberto Mondesi was not one of them, but that’s the guy the Red Sox settled on. It seems they’re waiting for top prospect Marcelo Mayer, but he’s in A-ball and also a prospect, so there’s no guarantees there. It would have been nice if they’d made a play for someone who can hold down the position for the next few years, but it seems the team is in ‘plug the hold until Mayer shows up’ mode.

In the end, they held serve during the off-season. Jansen, Martin, and Joely Rodriguez should help stabilize one of the worst bullpens in the game, Turner can replace JD Martinez (probably) at DH and help in the field periodically if necessary, and if they’re right about Yoshida, he should be able to lessen the blow of losing Bogaerts. There are going to be a few guys playing out of position with Adam Duvall in center field and Enrique Hernandez at shortstop, but both grade out well in those spots, and the organization has enough depth that they have options if either falter.

The buzzword surrounding the team is “competitive” and they should be that. It’s not a super high bar to reach, but it’s clearly what they’re aiming for.

Mike: It was a mixed bag so I’ll start by grading it a C- for now. Losing Xander Bogaerts was especially painful, not only because he’s been one of the best shortstops in MLB over the last eight years but because he’d been a member of the Red Sox organization since he was a teenager. Many believe Boston was smart not to offer what the Padres did to keep their home grown shortstop, but a lot of us also believe the Sox could have kept Bogaerts in carmine hose had they offered him a five-year deal at $25 million per before his contract expired. But I digress. I expected them to bring back Nathan Eovaldi—they didn’t—I figured J.D. Martinez wasn’t coming back—he isn’t—and I was hoping they’d resign Michael Wacha—they didn’t. Instead, Chaim Bloom brought in a stable of relievers, and veterans to fill holes—Justin Turner, Adam Duvall, Corey Kluber, and Japanese star Masataka Yoshida.

C70: Chris Sale has pitched in 11 games over the last three seasons. What are the chances he’ll stay healthy this year and, if so, what can he contribute?

John: I believe Chris Sale will be super motivated to have a big comeback season. Can he stay healthy? I wish I could answer that question, but only he can.

Matthew: I’ll answer the second part first. If he’s healthy, he can contribute a lot. We’ve seen, both last season and this spring that his stuff is still there. He can still pump in the occasional 95 mph fastball, the wipeout slider is still there, and in contrast to 2019, the changeup appears to be back. If he’s healthy, he’s a top of the rotation pitcher. Now to the first part: what are the chances he can stay healthy? Probably not great, Bob! He’s missed so much time with so many injuries, but I guess if you’re looking for a silver lining, you could say that most of the injuries weren’t arm related, just random stuff, like a pinky breaking on a comebacker, or hurting himself falling off a bike. True, there was a Tommy John surgery mixed in there somewhere but by now that was years ago, and he should be fully recovered.

It sounds a bit nuts to say, but I think there’s a pretty good chance he gives the Red Sox 150 or so innings of well above average pitching. Am I putting actual money on that prediction? Uh, no.

Mike: I don’t think any member of Red Sox Nation believes Sale will ever give us 30 starts and/or 200 innings like he did in 2017. In fact, we’ll be holding our collective breath every time he takes the mound. He’s looked promising in spring games and hit 97 on the gun at least once, but he’s always one pitch away from an injury that will force him to miss most of the season. I’m expecting the worst but hoping for the best.

C70: What do you think is the biggest weakness of this team and do you think the club will address it during the season?

John: The Red Sox are taking a big gamble in the middle infield, as Kike Hernandez appears to be the regular shortstop, while Christian Arroyo will get more playing time at second. Can either player play regularly at either position? We’ll see. I like the addition of Adalberto Mondesi from Kansas City to play either position, but he’s coming off knee surgery and figures to miss the first month of the season. Marcelo Mayer is the shortstop of the future, but he’ll open the season in the minors, and I don’t think the club wants to rush him to big leagues until he’s ready.

Matthew: The biggest weakness is the health of the starting rotation. The projected rotation was (note the use of the past tense) Sale (as discussed above), James Paxton, Corey Kluber, Garrett Whitlock, and Brayan Bello. Three of those five are already hurt and expected to miss the opening day, and of those three none are Chris Sale. Paxton has, if it’s actually possible, pitched less than Sale over the past two years, Whitlock is coming off off-season hip surgery (always a good sign), and Bello was shut down in camp with forearm soreness (speaking of good signs). So it’s a fragile group to say the least.

In contrast to previous seasons, they do have some youth who can step in and hold down the fort, in theory. Nick Pivetta has been a serviceable fourth/fifth starter the past two years. Kutter Crawford has looked great during the spring and could give the team some innings (and yes he does throw a cutter). Tanner Houck has bounced back and forth between the pen and the rotation but is capable of seeing a lineup twice before he turns to dust. They can make it work, probably, but there is definitely a scenario where the entire pitching staff falls apart and the team is left high and dry well before the trade deadline.

Mike: Starting pitching. Their rotation is held together with Scotch tape, rubber bands, bubble gum, and question marks. Because of injuries, Kluber hasn’t been an effective starting pitcher since 2018 when he finished third in American League Cy Young voting; injuries have held James Paxton to only six starts since 2019 and he’ll begin the season on the Injured List; and you already know how I feel about Sale. When your expected top three starters already have one foot on the Injured List, it’s hard to get excited. Prospect Brayan Bello has struggled with injuries this spring as has Rule 5 stud Garrett Whitlock, both of whom are expected to join Paxton on the IL. That leaves “workhorse” Nick Pivetta, inconsistent but promising Tanner Houck, and not-so-promising Kutter Crawford to fill out the rotation. Yikes. 

C70: What rookie (or player with limited MLB experience) will have the most impact on the 2023 season for the Red Sox?

John: Triston Casas will be the full time first baseman, and all eyes will be on him. He impressed in his brief time with the team in 2022. Brayan Bello looked terrific for the Sox as a starter last September, but they are being careful with him this spring. He stays healthy, and he will make a lot of people sit up and take notice. I was also impressed with Zack Kelly in the bullpen last season, and he should vie for a position this season.

Matthew: There are two who are technically rookies, but one of those stretches the definition. The first is actual rookie and top prospect Triston Casas. He’s huge and has power befitting his size. He’s also extremely patient at the plate, something the Red Sox have lacked in recent seasons. Last season in limited time he walked at 20 percent clip. The only question about Casas has ever been whether he’ll make enough contact for everything else to work, but that’s not ever been the problem some worried it might be during his time in the minors, nor during his brief cup of coffee at the end of last season, nor during the spring where he’s been crushing the ball (and walking). Put it this way, I expect him to be in the running for AL Rookie of the Year by season’s end.

The other rookie who isn’t really a rookie but is really a rookie (but really isn’t) is Masataka Yoshida. The Red Sox brought him over from Japan during the off-season. In Japan, he hit for power and walked a ton, more than he struck out. Supposedly his bat to ball skills are off the charts and while the power might not fully translate, the on-base skills are supposed to. The Red Sox better hope so because he doesn’t project to help a lot in the field or on the bases where his defensive skills are suspect at best and his speed is, well, not great. If he hits, fantastic. If he doesn’t, pitchers will challenge him, his walk rate will plummet, and Boston will be left with a $100 million part time DH.

That said, I’m optimistic about both players mentioned above. If spring training means anything (it doesn’t), both have looked like the good versions of themselves, which the Red Sox badly need from both if they have hopes of competing this season.

Mike: I don’t consider Yoshida a rookie, considering he faced professional pitching in Japan for seven years, albeit not the quality of pitching he’ll see in the majors this year. So I’m going with Triston Casas, who will be the Sox’s starting first baseman and potential leadoff hitter, at least in certain situations. His plate discipline is already big-league level and he’s been tearing the cover off the ball in spring training, slashing .389/.450/.639 as of this writing. That said, we’ve seen this movie before with Bobby Dalbec in the lead role. Dalbec might be the best spring training player I’ve ever seen, only to disappoint us when the regular season bell rings. I have more confidence in Casas, though, and think he’ll contend for the AL Rookie of the Year Award.

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

John: A lot of things have to go right for the Red Sox to compete in the AL East in 2023. They will have to get solid comeback years from Sale, Corey Kluber and James Paxton in the rotation, as the Sox will have to pitch their way to a successful season. I think they will surprise people, and I think they can win 85 games. I think it will fall short of a playoff berth this coming year, but the club is at least pointed in the right direction.

Matthew: The best case is probably winning a Wild Card spot. I mean, if you play out a million simulations maybe there’s one or two where they win the AL East but I think realistically they’re aiming for a Wild Card spot and then a chance at making some noise in the playoffs like they did in 2021.

Most likely? It’s such a competitive division and though the new more balanced schedule will help the Red Sox out (fewer games against Tampa, New York, and Toronto can’t hurt!) I do think they’re likely to fall short in their playoff bid. I’ll call it at around a .500 record, but, if the team gets lucky with injuries and manages to stay very healthy (they’re not off to a great start there, but still), then I do think a Wild Card spot is quite possible.

Mike: Best case is Sale, Kluber, and Paxton—or at least two of the three—catch past lightning in a bottle and form a multi-headed monster at the top of the rotation, followed by the best of Pivetta, Houck’s breakout season, and Crawford pitching to an ERA south of 5.00. The bullpen led by new closer Kenley Jansen, fellow free agent signees Chris Martin and Joely Rodriguez, and last year’s surprise John Schreiber is as good in high leverage situations as they look on paper. Casas proves me right; Christian Arroyo ably mans second base until Trevor Story returns from elbow surgery; Rafael Devers continues to build his Hall of Fame resume, Kike Hernandez proves he can be a productive every day shortstop, Yoshida does his best Hideki Matsui impression; Duvall is closer to the 30-homer, 100-RBI guy than the 15-homer, 50-RBI guy; Alex Verdugo takes the next step in what’s been a good but not 2019 Baseball Prospectus top-20 prospect good; and 38-year-old Turner keeps Father Time at bay.

Worst case: the Big Three at the top of the rotation spends more time on the IL than on the bump; Pivetta keeps being “meh”; Crawford pitches to his career 5.90 ERA; Bello and Whitlock struggle with injuries all year; and Houck continues to prove that he’s a better reliever than starter. The bullpen, despite an overhaul continues to be Boston’s Achilles heel; catching misses Christian Vazquez more than expected; Casas follows the path of Dalbec/Michael Chavis/Will Middlebrooks; Arroyo gets hurt (again); Devers gets pitched around because there’s no other offensive threat; Hernandez plays shortstop like someone who’s played only 100 games at the position in nine seasons; Yoshida resembles Kaz Matsui (5.3 career WAR) rather than Hideki (21.2); Duvall can’t stay healthy or does but posts his typical sub-.300 on-base average and less-than-expected power; Verdugo’s OPS+ drops for the fourth straight season; Turner’s body remembers it’s 38 and isn’t supposed to perform like it used to.

Most likely: Each of the Big Three spends time on the IL but gives the Sox enough quality starts and innings to give the rest of the AL East nightmares; the back end is pedestrian but helps the bullpen rest often; the improved bullpen takes heat off Bloom, who has taken slings and arrows since he was brought to Bostin in 2020. Catching is weak; Casas is one of the top rookies in the league; Arroyo/Story are okay but nothing special; Devers is an All-Star and MVP candidate; Hernandez ends up back in center field; Yoshida shows flashes of brilliance but is league average; Duvall proves to be a free agent bust; Verdugo is a 105 OPS+ hitter; Turner is a welcome addition at the plate and in the clubhouse. If this team finishes above .500 I’ll be pleasantly surprised, but I expect a continuation of last year’s sub-.500 performance.

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