To be the man, you gotta beat the man. This law of sports was put forth by wrestler Ric Flair. It is no less true in other sports today, and it applies especially to the Orioles, because if they’re going to be the man, they’re going to have to beat the man in the form of two different baseball teams: The Red Sox and the Yankees. Like every year, they will see a lot of the AL East.
It is the division defending champion Red Sox under our microscope today. Although the Red Sox were one of the worst power-hitting teams in MLB, with the fewest home runs hit in the AL, they rode to a 93-69 record, exactly what was expected under the Pythagorean win-loss calculation from their +117 run differential. It’s amazing what having good starting pitchers will get you. The Orioles should try it some time.
Additions and subtractions
What’s remarkable for the Red Sox is how little their roster changed compared to last season. They have lost almost no one from that 93-69 team, with their biggest departure being Doug Fister, the worst of their starters by ERA over his half-season of games. Take him out and you’re looking at middle-inning relievers Fernando Abad and Blaine Boyer going elsewhere. If these departures harm the Red Sox, the rest of the AL East will be celebrating.
With few holes to fill, the Red Sox were among the long-dormant teams during this free agency period, waking up only in late February to sign 30-year-old outfield slugger J.D. Martinez to a contract that could run for five years and $110 million.
“Everyone” kind of knew they would do this all along, since Martinez was perhaps the only power hitter available and the Red Sox really needed some power. Martinez has combined over the past four seasons to bat .300/.362/.574. I bet he’s looking forward to seeing Orioles pitching 19 times this year.
Though this was a stable unit and a big plus for the team last year and nearly everyone is still with the team, the Red Sox have some injury problems to resolve as the season begins. Drew Pomeranz is battling forearm tightness, with Eduardo Rodriguez recovering from knee surgery he had over the offseason.
With Chris Sale, Rick Porcello, and David Price ahead of them, who really cares, though? Sale has five straight top 5 Cy Young finishes. Actually, he may be the only real sure thing. Porcello stepped back a bit in 2017, bitten like many pitchers were by the home run bug. Porcello’s 4.65 ERA and 200+ innings would have been welcome in the Orioles rotation, though the Red Sox are probably hoping for better.
That leaves Price, who no one doubts is good, but he only started eleven games last year. At age 32, can he get back to the kind of workload he handled as a younger player?
Craig Kimbrel had a 0.681 WHIP last year. Wow! He’s always been good, but he hadn’t touched that level of good since 2012. If that version of Kimbrel shows up again, every late lead is safe.
Well, maybe not. The setup squad behind Kimbrel looks to be Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes, decent relievers who are in the vein of Brad Brach compared to Zach Britton. Anything less than flawless can still mean some blown games. Still, the Red Sox bullpen had a 3.15 ERA last year, and the four guys who threw more than 50 innings are back.
I mentioned above that the Red Sox had the fewest home runs in the AL, which is rather surprising given the stadium they play in. Nonetheless, they scored the sixth-most runs in the AL - 42 more than the Orioles did. The Sox walked a lot, stole some bases, and hit a lot of doubles. That gets runs across.
Everybody is back and Martinez is added to the mix. The Sox will be hoping that players like Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley, and Xander Bogaerts make more like it’s 2016 than 2017. These fellows did not capitalize on the Year of the Homer. They’ll also be looking for a full season from Rafael Devers, who had a nice two month debut last year as a top 20 prospect.
When you think about how much ground the Orioles need to make up in the AL East and how many things need to go perfectly right for them to compete, it’s really daunting to also think about the fact that the Red Sox probably underachieved significantly at the plate last year AND they signed Martinez.
If enough of their guys bounce back to what they’re capable of doing - and they weren’t even BAD last year, like, say, Mark Trumbo - then it likely won’t particularly matter whether things go better for the Orioles sluggers or not.
It helps your pitchers look good if your defense is also good, a goal on which the Orioles have given up in recent years. The Red Sox have a multiple Gold Glove winner in Betts. They have Christian Vasquez handling most of the catching duties, who threw out 42% of runners last year and rates well in framing metrics. That’s a good start. They’ll have Dustin Pedroia, who can still field in his mid-30s, back from knee surgery in June.
- PECOTA: 89-73
- Fangraphs: 93-69
- Bovada O/U: 91.5
The projections can always be wrong. The people who make educated guesses based on history and instinct can be wrong. Sometimes things just don’t work out for a baseball team. Maybe that will happen to the Red Sox in 2018, and maybe everything will go right for the Orioles, and then they will only have to worry about the fact that Giancarlo Stanton got traded to the Yankees.