Division Preview: Boston Red Sox

I wrote the season preview for the Red Sox last year. Here’s what I had to say:

Things are looking up in Boston, but it’s still unclear if they’ll be able to compete with the dominant forces in the AL East. As with any team, a lot of their success will depend on health. They have several injury-prone hitters who will need to stay relatively healthy in order for this team to eclipse the .500 mark. At worst, they’ll probably finish in 4th place ahead of the Orioles. They should remain competitive with the Yankees, Rays, and Blue Jays, but are probably the least likely to make the playoffs out of those 4 teams.

What actually happened:

Swing and a miss. The Red Sox outperformed everyone’s expectations last year and ended up coasting to the AL East title. From there, they went on to win their third World Series title in the last ten years. Pretty much everything went right for the Sox: Everyone in their lineup and rotation was both healthy and productive; John Lackey had an unexpected bounce-back season; and Koji Uehara had one of the best reliever seasons we’ve ever seen. On top of all that, guys like Daniel Nava, Mike Carp, and Jose Iglesias were surprisingly good in supporting roles. All in all, the Boston ended the season with 97 wins — teid for the most in baseball — and finished 5.5 games ahead of the Rays and 12 ahead of the Yankees. The Red Sox were a power-house and the rest of the division never stood a chance.

Notable New Faces:

A.J. Pierzynski: The Red Sox brought in Pierzynski to replace Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who seemed to have fallen out of favor with the Red Sox after a disappointing post-season performance. Pierzynski’s nothing special, but has a solid bat for a catcher and should keep the spot warm until Christian Vazquez and/or Blake Swihart is ready to take over in 2015.

Grady Sizemore: Sizemore was brought in to battle with Jackie Bradley for the center field job. Sizemore hasn’t been healthy in years, so its impossible to know what he’s capable of these days.  Even if he does manage to stay on the field, its hard to imagine him being of much value — he hasn’t had a truly great season since George Bush was in office. But who knows, maybe he has something left in the tank.

Edward Mujica: Mujica is a solid reliever and will be part of the crew that will set up for Uehara this year.

Burke Badenhop: Badenhop’s another solid relief option who willl slot behind Uehara, Mujica, Junichi Tazawa, and Andrew Miller to make Boston’s bullpen one of the strongest in baseball.

Jonathan Herrera: Aquired for Franklyn Morales, Hererra will probably serve as the Red Sox utility infielder this year. Herrera’s a glove-first player who has experience at second, third, and shortstop.

Dalier Hinojosa: In the midst of their playoff run, the Red Sox quietly signed this 27-year-old Cuban right-hander to a minor league deal. He’ll start the year in the minor leagues, but could pitch his way into the team’s bullpen plans in the second half.

Key Losses:

Jacoby Ellsbury: The loss of Ellsbury is easily the biggest blow for the Boston. Jackie Bradley’s a decent prospect, but he probably won’t come close to filling the void — not this year at least. Ellsbury’s a bonified 4+ win player and the Red Sox are definately a worse team without him.

Ryan Dempster: After a strong 2013 campaign, Dempster announced he wasn’t going to pitch in 2014. Pitching depth is always a good to have, but the Red Sox look to be pretty set in that department.

Stephen Drew: The Red Sox really seem committed to handing the shortstop gig to uber-prospect Xander Bogaerts. The Sox don’t really have a backup plan at short, but are still letting Drew languish in free agency.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia: Salty really scuffled in the playoffs last year and was benched in favor of backup David Ross for the final three games of the World Series. Replacing him with Pierzynski is probably a lateral move.

Matt Thornton: Thornton was aquired from the White Sox in July and spent the second half of last season working as a LOOGY out of Boston’s pen. Thornton was expendable with lefties Andrew Miller and Craig Breslow already in the mix. He’ll serve as the Yankees’ primary lefty this year.

Andrew Bailey: After two injury-plagued seasons and surgery on his shoulder capsule, Boston’s erstwhile closer signed with the Yankees last month. He’s unlikely to pitch until 2015.

Joel Hanrahan: Like Bailey, Hanrahan was once a dominant closer, but is currently rehabbing from injury. Hanrahan’s still a free agent and is just now starting to throw for teams following last year’s Tommy John Surgery.

Pedro Beato: Just your typical fringy reliever. He won’t be missed.

Quintin Berry: He earned a ring serving as the team’s pinch runner in the playoffs, but he’s just minor-league fodder. Speed is his only tool.

Ryan Kalish: Kalish was a very promising outfield prospect four or five years ago, but injuries have completely derailed his career. He didn’t even make it into a game for the Sox last year.

John McDonald: Holy crap, he’s still playing!?

Health:

Clay Buchholz: Buchholz was dealing with “shoulder fatigue” in the playoffs last year, which caused his velocity to dip into the high 80′s from his usual 92-93 range. His velocity seems to have come back this spring, but is something to keep an eye on.

Mike Napoli: Last offseason, Napoli was diagnosed with avascular necrosis in his hip, which basically means his hip bone is deteriorating due to a lack of blood supply. It didn’t seem to bother him last season, but could be a factor going forward.

Old Players: Aside from the guys mentioned above, the Red Sox don’t really have anyone in particular with serious injury concerns, but they do have a slew of players over 30. Players like Ortiz, Pierzynski, Shane Victorino, Lackey, and Jake Peavy are all getting up there in age.

Strengths:

Pitching: Top to bottom, the Red Sox pitching staff looks pretty awesome. I’d say it rivals the Tigers’ staff for the best in baseball. Jon Lester, Buchholz, Lackey, Peavey, and Felix Doubront all profile to be above-average starters this year. Beyond their front five, Chris Capuano, Brandon Workman, Steven Wright, John Ely, Rubby De la Rosa,  Allen Webster, Matt Barnes, and Anthony Ranaudo could all probably pass as back-end starters. Their bullpen is also rock solid:. There aren’t really any weak links among Uehara, Tazawa, Mujica, Miller, and Badenhop.

Tried and True Veterans: Boston’s team is filled with players with proven track records of success in the majors. Guys like Dustin Pedroia, Victorino, Ortiz, and Lester have been consistently good for years now. Odds are, they’ll be good again in 2014.

Impact Prospects: To supplement those veterans, the Red Sox have plenty of young guns who are just about big-league ready. Bogaerts, Bradley, Vazquez, and Garin Cecchini could all see time in Boston’s lineup this year. The same goes for Workman, Ranaudo, Barnes, Webster, and Henry Owens on the pitching side. At least one or two of these guys will make a big impact as soon as this year.

Weaknesses:

Outfield: With Ellsbury’s departure, the Red Sox are a little thin in the outfield. Bradley and Sizemore are unknowns in center field and the team’s collection of left fielders — Daniel Nava, Jonny Gomes, and Mike Carp — are all defensively-challenged platoon players. Bryce Bentz, Corey Brown, and Alex Hassan have all performed well in the high minors, but don’t have any substantial big league experience.

Infield Depth: The Sox are in pretty good shape on the infield with Pedroia, Bogaerts, and Will Middlebrooks, but don’t have a heck of a lot behind those guys. All of Jonathan Herrera, Brock Holt, and Brandon Snyder would all be out of their element if thrust into an everyday role. Cecchini may be ready to step in at third by the end of the summer, but for now, the Sox have no backup plan if someone gets injured or Bogaerts proves he isn’t quite ready. This makes the non-signing of Stephen Drew all the more puzzling.

Season Outlook:

Although, they lost some key pieces from last year’s World Series team, the Sox should be able to fill those gaps with impact prospects. Bradley, Bogaerts, and Workman can all be very productive players in 2014, even if they are downgrades from Ellsbury, Drew, and Dempster.

I hate to say it, but Boston looks a heck of a lot better than the Yankees right now, even after the six or eight win swing from the Ellsbury signing. It’s not clear if the Red Sox are the favorites to win the AL East this year — that distinction probably belongs to the Rays — but Boston looks primed for another 90+ win campaign in 2014.

That being said, the talent gap between the Yankees and Red Sox isn’t huge — and can certainly be washed away with just a few injuries or unexpected breakouts. As the Red Sox and Blue Jays proved last year, pre-season projections aren’t always entirely accurate.

About Chris

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights either watching or thinking about baseball. He's also an occasional user of the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell
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