Winter report card: Boston Red Sox
With less than a month before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012, and I’ll revisit and adjust their grades to account for late-winter deals as spring training begins.
Boston Red Sox
2012 Results: 69-93, 5th place in AL East. (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: IF Mike Aviles, RHP Aaron Cook, IF Ivan DeJesus Jr, 1B James Loney, RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka, RHP Mark Melancon, RHP Vicente Padilla, OF Scott Podsednik, OF Cody Ross, OF Jerry Sands, 3B Danny Valencia
Key arrivals: RHP Ryan Dempster, SS Stephen Drew, OF Jonny Gomes, RHP Joel Hanrahan, 1B/C Mike Napoli, C David Ross, RHP Koji Uehara, OF Shane Victorino
Aided by a summer blockbuster in which they unloaded some $270 million worth of future salary commitments on the Dodgers, the Red Sox began remaking their roster even before they completed their worst season since 1965. While they’ve been very active this winter, signing seven major league free agents, they’ve exercised considerable restraint in doing so. Among those seven, only Victorino (three years, $39 million) received a commitment of longer than two years or more than $30 million, though Napoli originally agreed to the same deal before a hip issue forced the two sides to tear that up and settle for an incentive-laden one-year contract with a base salary of $5 million.
The total commitment to those seven players is only around $100 million, so the team’s 2013 payroll should wind up around $150 million, well short of last year mark ($175 million) as well as this year’s luxury tax threshold ($178 million). Meanwhile, of the two trades the team has made, one of them was — that of Aviles to Toronto — was in exchange for new manager John Farrell, who can’t help but be an improvement upon the departed Bobby Valentine.
Stepping into the remade lineup are Napoli, Drew, Gomes and Victorino, none of whom is a superstar, and three-quarters of whom are coming off subpar seasons by their own standards. Napoli, 31, will primarily play first base; he’s coming off a year in which he hit .227/.343/.469 with 24 homers in 417 plate appearances and missed five weeks due to a quad strain. Those numbers were well off his career line (.259/.356/.507, mostly compiled in the less favorable hitting environment of Anaheim), but the on-base and slugging percentages approximate what the Red Sox received from the departed Adrian Gonzalez, post-trade replacement Loney, and the rest of the team’s first basemen (.289/.337/.459). Drew, 29, signed a one-year, $9.5 million deal after hitting just .223/.309/.348 following his returning from a severe ankle injury, though his bat gained a bit more life after an August trade to the A’s. Given that Boston got just a .241/.278/.365 showing from its shortstops (primarily Aviles, with slick-fielding Jose Iglesias and Pedro Ciriaco also involved), he should be an upgrade as well, even if he can’t quite reach his career numbers (.265/.328/.433).
The outfielders are a bigger concern. Gomes, 32, hit a potent .262/.377/.491 with 18 homers in 333 PA for the A’s last year, and parlayed his one-year, $1 million deal for 2012 with Oakland into a two-year, $10 million deal with the Sox. He’ll take over leftfield duties, where the Sox got a mediocre .267/.332/.411 line from the departed Carl Crawford and his fill-ins. The problem is that the Red Sox see Gomes as a full-time player despite his hitting just .220/.302/.390 in 756 PA against righties over the past three years, with defense that’s been nothing to write home about either. If switch-hitting Daniel Nava (.261/.369/.399 in 374 PA against righties in 2011-2012) takes some of the load, that could help, but it all smacks of a fairly makeshift plan. Meanwhile, the switch-hitting Victorino, 32, has major platoon issues as well; he has hit just .244/.311/.390 in 1,366 PA against righties over the past three years, and was at .229/.296/.333 in 472 PA against them last year. That shortcoming will be more glaring given the higher offensive demands of rightfield, but the team’s longer-term investment in him appears to be a hedge against the likely departure of Jacoby Ellsbury, who’s in his final year before free agency and unlikely to stick around given a strained relationship with the Boston brass. Victorino could eventually wind up back in centerfield to bridge the gap to blue-chip prospect Jackie Bradley.
The addition of David Ross via a two-year, $6.2 million deal gives the Sox plenty of flexibility behind the plate; he’s the Practically Perfect Backup Catcher, above average with both bat and glove; last year, he hit .256/.321/.449 with nine homers in 196 PA and gunned down 44 percent of would-be base thieves. His presence could allow the Sox to deal Jarrod Saltalamacchia and break in Ryan Lavarnway at some point.
Hanrahan, who was acquired from the Pirates in exchange for the disappointing Melancon, roster-fillers DeJesus and Sands and minor league pitching suspect Stoly Pimental, will take over as closer. He’s earned All-Star honors over the past two years with Pittsburgh, and last year saved 36 games while striking out 10.1 per nine, but his walk and homer rates both ballooned well above his career levels. His arrival bumps the disappointing Andrew Bailey (7.04 ERA in just 15 1/3 innings) back to a setup role or frees him for a future deal once he demonstrates some fleeting combination of health and closer-caliber performance.
Speaking of fleeting health, the 37-year-old Uehara has avoided the disabled list in just one of his four stateside seasons, and reached 50 innings as a reliever just once in the past three years; last year, he was limited to 36 innings due to a lat strain that cost him over two months. When he’s healthy, he misses plenty of bats (11.4 strikeouts per nine out of the bullpen) but keeping the ball in the park has sometimes been a problem.
Unfinished business: Rotation situation Last year, Sox starters ranked 12th in the league in both starter ERA (5.19) and quality start rate (44 percent). Among the eight pitchers who made more than one start, only Franklin Morales had an ERA under 4.56, and he made just nine starts. Jon Lester (4.82) and Clay Buchholz (4.56) were both subpar; the former’s conditioning has drawn concerns, while the latter still hasn’t reached 30 starts in a season during his career. Matsuzaka, Cook and Josh Beckett , who combined for 50 starts of 5.90 ERA ball, are all gone, but thus far the only addition to the rotation has been Dempster. The 35-year-old righty, who signed a two-year, $26.5 million deal, is coming off an uneven season in which he was lights out with the Cubs (2.25 ERA with 11 quality starts out of 16 turns) but bombed with the Rangers (5.09 ERA with just 7 quality starts out of 12) after a deadline trade. As good as he’s been since returning to the rotation in 2008 (3.74 ERA and 8.2 strikeouts per nine while averaging 199 innings a year), there’s concern about how well his stuff will play in the AL East and in Fenway Park.
A rotation of Lester, Buchholz, Dempster, Felix Doubront and John Lackey, who is coming off November 2011 Tommy John surgery after a 6.41 ERA that season, doesn’t look contender caliber unless everyone pitches up to their pre-2011-2012 potential. The good news is that Farrell spent 2007-2010 as Boston’s pitching coach, and probably has a better shot than most of helping the holdovers recapture their previous form. Furthermore, in Saltalamacchia, Ellsbury and Bailey, the Sox still have significant trade chips to get deals done if they so desire.
Preliminary grade: B. The Sox have been active this winter, but one can read their uneven work as a recognition that 2013 may not be their year. Still, they retain pieces that could help them bolster a contending bid if things break right.