A last-place finish in the AL East is not what was expected from the Boston Red Sox. Not after signing Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval to provide a free-agent jolt to the offense and trading for Rick Porcello to fortify the starting rotation.
But an underwhelming pitching staff, in addition to subpar production from those free agent signings, buried the Red Sox at the bottom of a division that yielded two playoff teams. Putting together an disappointing roster and failing to use minor league assets to trade for proven veteran talent (such as Cole Hamels) cost general manager Ben Cherington his job. With new team president Dave Dombrowski in place, the front office made the bold moves that should have been made a year ago, adding significant talent to the pitching staff and putting the Red Sox in position to contend again.
Depth Chart (As of 3/14)
C: Blake Swihart
1B: Hanley Ramirez
2B: Dustin Pedroia
3B: Pablo Sandoval
SS: Xander Bogaerts
LF: Rusney Castillo
CF: Jackie Bradley Jr.
RF: Mookie Betts
DH: David Ortiz
SP: David Price
SP: Clay Buchholz
SP: Rick Porcello
SP: Roenias Elias
SP: Joe Kelly
CL: Craig Kimbrel
New Faces: David Price, Craig Kimbrel, Roenias Elias, Chris Young, Carson Smith
Departures: Wade Miley, Craig Breslow, Ryan Cook, Rich Hill, Alexi Ogando, Jean Machi
Position Battles: For a team coming off a last-place finish, the Red Sox don’t have many positions up for grabs this spring. Their lineup is pretty much set. One position that might have some competition is catcher, though Blake Swihart is the likely favorite to start. The 23-year-old hit well after getting called up to the majors, batting .274 with a .712 OPS. Had Christian Vazquez not suffered an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, Swihart may not have received that opportunity. Vazquez, 25, is competing for that job but will likely begin the season in Triple-A while he continues to recover. Ryan Hanigan should be the backup, and may get one start per week as Joe Kelly’s personal catcher.
In the outfield, Rusney Castillo, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts should man the three positions. Though the Red Sox would like to see Castillo (.253) and Bradley (.249) hit better and that’s likely why Chris Young was signed for depth. All three outfielders hit left-handed pitching well (even the lefty-batting Bradley), so it’s not an automatic that Young (.327 vs. lefties) will be in the lineup in those matchups. Each of the trio is hitting well this spring too, so no one appears to be in danger of losing a starting position. But if anyone gets hurt, the outfield suddenly looks pretty thin.
So let’s get a bit cute and say that the biggest position battle for the Red Sox this spring will be Hanley Ramirez’s struggle with learning his new position at first base. However, there’s really no other place for Boston to play Ramirez, so that position switch needs to work out. More on Ramirez to come in this preview.
Injury Concerns: Since we mentioned Ramirez, let’s begin with him. Injuries to each of his shoulders limited him to 105 games and 430 plate appearances. Ramirez also suffered hand and foot injuries resulting from freak plays like getting hit by line drives and foul balls that affected him at the plate last season, but having to make fewer throws and crashing into walls less often in the outfield will presumably keep Ramirez healthier.
But any injury discussion involving the Red Sox should probably begin with Clay Buchholz. The right-hander pitched in only 18 starts due to right elbow issues (a flexor tendon strain) that prompted a couple of visits to Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham. This continued the perception that Buchholz, 31, isn’t durable enough to make it through a full season, let alone make 30-plus starts and notch 200 innings for Boston’s starting staff. Only three times in his eight full seasons has he thrown at least 28 starts for Boston. Not having to be the No. 1 starter, along with considerable starting pitching depth, reduces the burden on Buchholz to shoulder a heavy workload. But the Red Sox still need him to be a top two or three in their rotation.
Eduardo Rodriguez hurting his right knee during spring training, one expected to put him on the DL once the season begins, doesn’t help and perhaps puts Rick Porcello higher in the rotation than he should be. But as mentioned, the Red Sox do have starting pitching depth with Steven Wright, Henry Owens and Brian Johnson all ready to take a spot if needed.
Though he no longer has to worry about being the closer, Koji Uehara is coming off a broken wrist and will turn 41 years old shortly after opening day. He’s had a heavy workload since joining the Red Sox, and at his age, there has to be a question as to whether or not he can be expected to contribute 65 or more innings. Adding Carson Smith to the late-inning relief corps might reduce the burden on Uehara, but for Boston’s bullpen to be at its most effective, he’ll need to be a factor as a setup man.
Key Player: David Price wasn’t signed to a seven-year, $217 million contract to be just a guy. The left-hander and 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner was brought in to be the ace that the Red Sox didn’t have in a rotation stocked with third and fourth starters. Price, 30, checks off all the boxes for a No. 1 starter. He’s durable, pitching 200 innings or more in five of the past six seasons. He has strikeout stuff, averaging nearly 10 Ks per nine innings during the past two years (and nine Ks per nine frames for his career). Also important for Boston is that Price has had success facing AL East competition, having pitched seven of his eight seasons in the division for either Tampa Bay or Toronto.
His presence in spring training has already made an impact, giving the starting rotation a leader and someone who welcomes the role and expectations of being a No. 1 starter. There are no questions as to whether or not he’ll be Boston’s ace; he’s been that guy since the Rays drafted him No. 1 overall in 2007. Price is a potential 20-game winner and Cy Young Award winner every season, and is the best pitcher in the AL East, if not the entire league. The Red Sox will be much improved — and a playoff contender — simply from his addition.
Underrated Asset: If Ramirez doesn’t work out at first base, that creates a significant disappointment and roster dilemma for Boston. But the team does have insurance at the position, a player who arguably earned a starting nod this season, if not for the need to put Ramirez somewhere on the field. Travis Shaw had a strong rookie season, batting .270 with an .813 OPS, 10 doubles and 13 home runs in 248 plate appearances. He provides a left-handed power bat that the lower part of the lineup could use.
Shaw, soon to be 26, has mostly played third base during the spring, trying to show enough versatility for John Farrell to play him at multiple positions. (Left field is also a possibility.) Unfortunately for him, the Red Sox have major financial investments at first base, third base and left field, so those players are going to receive first consideration over Shaw. However, he’s crushing the ball in Grapefruit League play, notching a triple-slash average of .522/.560/.870, making it difficult for Farrell to keep him out of the lineup. Playing those three positions might enable Shaw to play two or three times a week, which makes the Red Sox a better team.
Burning Question: Will moving Hanley Ramirez to first base salvage Boston’s $88 million investment?
The Red Sox absolutely had to make Ramirez a first baseman, since he was a disaster in left field last season. He cost Boston 18 runs more than an average defensive player at that position and was charged with -19 Defensive Runs Saved. Ramirez had to move to another spot on the field and first base was the only viable place for him (even if, as mentioned above, it keeps a worthy Travis Shaw out of the lineup).
The hope is that a presumably easier defensive position will keep Ramirez healthier and allow him to focus more on his hitting, which provided far less offense than the Red Sox needed from him. Ramirez had one of the worst seasons of his career, batting .249 with a .717 OPS, 12 doubles, 19 homers and 53 RBI. (The seasons in which he put up worse numbers, Ramirez played in fewer than 100 games.)
Perhaps this is selling Mookie Betts short, but Ramirez shouldn’t have only one more home run than him. The Red Sox expect at least 20 home runs from him, if not close to 30, considering he’s now a first baseman. With three years and $66 million remaining, Boston obviously needs far more production from him. And if he can’t provide that expected offense, Ramirez will be a highly-paid bench player with a virtually untradeable contract, sitting behind Shaw.
Best Case Scenario: Can the Red Sox once again jump from worst to first, as they did from 2012 to 2013 and winning a World Series championship? At the very least, another last-place finish doesn’t appear likely with the improvements made to the starting rotation and bullpen. But the AL East looks to be a cluster, with the Red Sox battling the Yankees, Blue Jays and Orioles for a division title and/or wild-card bid.
If Price pitches to his usual standards, Buchholz stays healthy, and one of Boston’s young starters emerges into a bonafide major leaguer, the Red Sox should have the best pitching in the division and that should be what helps them break away from the pack. Of course, that pitching could be wasted if Ramirez and Sandoval don’t produce as expected. Additionally, Bradley needs to hit like he did in August and Castillo needs to show more improvement. With that, and everyone staying relatively healthy, the Red Sox could be the best team in the division.
Worst Case Scenario: Price flopping like Boston’s last two high-priced free agent signings would be a disaster, one from which the team likely wouldn’t recover. If Buchholz pitches fewer than 20 starts, Porcello continues to give up more than 10 hits per nine innings, and neither Owens nor Johnson develops into a major league-caliber starter, it’s going to be another long season in Boston. It could be even worse if Uehara shows his age and Junichi Tazawa pitches poorly again. Suddenly, the bullpen would be a big weakness again, even with the additions of Kimbrel and Smith.
Of course, the season will be even more brutal if Ramirez and Sandoval continue to put up paltry numbers and struggle defensively. (How will Ramirez adjust to having to scoop up tough throws and hops at first base?) If Bradley also hits badly and Young needs to play close to full-time, that’s another obstacle the Red Sox won’t overcome.
Realistic Prediction: Though the Orioles appear to be improved, the Yankees have a strong roster (if its aging players stay healthy), and the Blue Jays are surely being overlooked and underestimated after losing Price to Boston, the Red Sox should be contenders for the AL East title, if not one of the league’s wild-card spots. The rotation is undoubtedly better with Price, as is the back end of the bullpen with Kimbrel. Ramirez and Sandoval can’t be much worse than they were last season, so improvement seems inevitable along with a young core of talent that should continue to develop. A 15-game jump in the standings doesn’t seem impossible if everything comes together as expected.