Winter Report Card: Boston Red Sox
With about a week 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 2013. To see the report cards already published, click here.
Boston Red Sox
2013 results: 97-65 (.599), 1st place in AL East, World Series champions (Hot Stove preview)
Key departures: CF Jacoby Ellsbury, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, SS Stephen Drew*, LHP Franklin Morales, OF Quintin Berry (*unsigned)
Key arrivals: C A.J. Pierzynski, RHP Edward Mujica, RHP Burke Badenhop, OF Grady Sizemore, IF Jonathan Herrera
The defending World Series champions faced an offseason in which four lineup regulars were free agents. They re-signed only one (Mike Napoli) and replaced only one (A.J. Pierzynski, who will take over for Jarrod Saltalamacchia), choosing to fill the other slots (Stephen Drew and Jacoby Ellsbury) from within (Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr.). That may change — Drew is still a free agent and could return, which would shift Bogaerts to Will Middlebrooks’ position at third base — but isn’t essential, as Boston has confidence that its top-five farm system is ready to produce at the big league level. (ESPN’s Keith Law raved that the Red Sox “rival Houston for the best top 10 of any team.”)
The immediate impact will come from Bradley replacing Ellsbury and Bogaerts getting everyday at bats. Bradley forced his way onto last year’s Opening Day roster thanks to a stellar spring training, in which he had a .419 average and 10 walks in 75 plate appearances. He struggled to make contact in the regular season, however, batting .189 with 10 walks and 31 strikeouts in 107 PAs. Bradley is No. 23 on Baseball Prospectus’ list of the game’s top 101 prospects; Law has him No. 51, projecting him to have “plus-plus defense in center with a high OBP at the plate and fringy power.”
Bogaerts, on the other hand, didn’t show the same growing pains. The 21-year-old infielder, who is No. 2 on both BP’s list and Law’s, took over as the everyday third baseman during the World Series and had a .412 on-base percentage in the postseason. Finding steady playing time for Bogaerts is a no-brainer, and though Bradley is a downgrade from Ellsbury, Bradley is the better value choice by an exponential margin, as he’ll make the league minimum for at least two more seasons while Ellsbury is guaranteed $153 million over the next seven seasons by the Yankees. Grady Sizemore is another option in center, though he hasn’t played since 2011; that he got a guaranteed major league deal was curious and suggests he looked especially fit and strong in workouts.
The one significant veteran offensive addition is the lefthanded hitting Pierzynski, who should capably replace Saltalamacchia in the catching platoon with David Ross. Otherwise, Boston returns many familiar faces (David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Shane Victorino, Napoli, etc.) from an offense that far outproduced any other team in the majors in 2013. The Red Sox scored 853 runs — the only club to reach 800 — and led all big league teams in both OBP (.349) and slugging (.446). While Daniel Nava may not have another career year (.831 OPS), one can reasonably expect Middlebrooks not to have another career-worst season (.696 OPS).
Boston enters the offseason with six veteran starting pitchers — Jon Lester, Jake Peavy, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront and Ryan Dempster — from a rotation that ranked fourth in the AL with a 3.84 ERA. That’s enviable depth, which the front office has thus far elected to hold onto. The real luxury is in the wave of highly touted prospect nearing readiness for full-time residency in Boston, a group headlined by Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo, Allen Webster and Henry Owens. The Red Sox will have the ability to break in the youngsters in the bullpen, as the Rays did with David Price and the Cardinals did with Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal, or eventually trade a veteran to either fill a hole or replenish the farm system.
Overlooked this winter amidst the departure of high-profile names in the lineup is that the Sox solidified some low-profile spots, including utility infielder (Jonathan Herrera, acquired from the Rockies) and especially the bullpen. Boston had only three relievers that it really relied on in the postseason — Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow — and seemingly as a result, Breslow faded in the World Series. Mujica was an All-Star with 37 saves and a 9.2 K/BB ratio last season before neck and groin injuries slowed him late in the season. Badenhop is a groundball specialist who’ll provide depth in the sixth and seventh innings. (He’s also a known commodity: compare his eerily similar stat lines from the last two years despite pitching in different leagues.)
Unfinished business: The SS/3B situation, contract extensions for Ortiz and Lester
For as long as Drew remains unsigned, rumors will persist that he could return to Boston on a short-term deal. He was, after all, an above-average hitter who played an exceptional defensive shortstop in the postseason. The Red Sox are better in 2014 with him than without him, but there’s an argument to be made that his return could hurt the long-term development of Bogaerts (by denying him the chance to play shortstop) and Middlebrooks (by relegating him to a reserve role in which he fills in at third base, first and DH).
While Boston hasn’t offered much money to new players this winter, it would be wise to lock up a pair of its own stars, Ortiz and Lester. Ortiz has been vocal (again) this winter about his interest for an extra year, which would keep him in Boston through at least 2015. After a monster ’13 in which he hit 30 homers with a .959 OPS in 137 games — not to mention batting .688 in the World Series, for which he earned MVP honors — Ortiz would seem to be a wise investment even if his production diminishes a little. He has often stated his concerns about his previously perennial lame-duck status, and last season Ortiz, the face of the franchise, was terrific while having the guarantee of an additional season on his pact.
Lester, meanwhile, is also in the final year of his current contract. He only turned 30 last month and has largely been consistent and effective in his six full seasons. The lefthander has made at least 31 starts and averaged at least six innings each year; he had only one clunker, his 2012 campaign (9-14, 4.82 ERA) when the team was awful, but otherwise tallied at least 15 wins with an ERA no higher than 3.75. The club holds some additional leverage given that he has stated a willingness to take a hometown discount to make sure he remains with the Red Sox and in that it has so many pitching prospects on the horizon, which could further help ensure that the extension isn’t prohibitively expensive.
Preliminary Grade: B
The Red Sox should remain an elite team, as any decline in offense ought to be made up by the bolstered bullpen. Boston will have to hope that’s good enough to repeat when so many of the elite teams — both in the division, like the Rays and Yankees, or elsewhere, like the A’s, Rangers and Cardinals — have clearly improved.