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Previewing the AL East: Boston Red Sox

The defending World Series champions hope to make it two in a row with a largely unchanged roster.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

These Boston Red Sox are annoying for many reasons. The biggest reason is because, well, they are the Boston Red Sox. They are a division rival, and one that got the better of the Orioles last season. Not so long ago, we made jokes about “The Curse of the Andino.” That now feels like a cruel, distant memory.

The Orioles lost 16 out of 19 games against Boston last season. That’s an almost unimaginable level of ineptitude, but the 2018 O’s achieved it just the same. Considering the amount of talent that the two sides possess heading into 2019, a similar outcome may be inevitable.

Additions and subtractions

It’s been a quiet off-season for the Red Sox. Their only major moves have been re-signing a couple of their own free agents. World Series MVP Steve Pearce agreed to return to Beantown on a one-year, $6.25 million dollar deal. Likewise, Nathan Eovaldi is coming back on a four-year pact worth $68 million.

The team did clean house a bit and allow a few aging veterans to leave via free agency, including Brandon Phillips, Drew Pomeranz and Ian Kinsler. The most notable losses, however, came in the bullpen. Joe Kelly, who was virtually unhittable last postseason, signed a three-year, $27 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. And Craig Kimbrel, one of the best relievers in baseball history, hit the open market and has remained there all winter. There are no signs that the 30-year-old will be getting the contract he wants anytime soon.

Starting rotation

A team can never have enough pitching, and that’s even true for the defending World Series champions. The Red Sox are expected to return the same five starters from the end of 2018: Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez.

For Sale, he will take the Red Sox as far as his left shoulder allows him to. He hit the injured list twice last season with inflammation, and there were starts where his fastball barely reached 90 mph. Of course, it didn’t really matter as he remained dominant and may have even won his first Cy Young had he made a few more starts.

Price bounced back from an injury-plagued 2017 to put up some nice numbers in 2018 (16-7, 3.58 ERA, 122 ERA+ 2.7 fWAR, 4.4 bWAR). On top of that, he exorcised his postseason demons, pitching to a 3-1 record, a 3.46 ERA and a .194 opponent batting average over six appearances.

The rest of the rotation is solid, but unspectacular. Porcello is as dependable as they come. He’s going to throw around 185 innings and maintain an ERA under 4.50, a useful tool in any rotation. Eovaldi is being counted on as a full-time big league starter. He’s always had the stuff to shut down opposing lineups, but has yet to put together a truly dominant season. Perhaps the Red Sox have solved something for him. And Rodriguez is perfectly steady when healthy. The lefty is yet to throw more than 137.1 big league innings in a given year, though, and he has hit the injured list each of the last two seasons.

The bullpen

This is their most obvious weakness. The group was middling a season ago with a 3.72 ERA and 4.05 xFIP. There were serious concerns about Boston’s bullpen heading into the playoffs, but then they kicked it up to high gear and became one of the team’s keys to winning the World Series.

They have now lost two of their best bullpen arms (Kimbrel and Kelly) from the staff that put up those numbers. The relief corps is now led by a cavalcade of right-handers. Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Brandon Workman, Heath Hembree and Hector Velazquez will all play a role to varying degrees.

Barnes struck out a ridiculous 14.01 batters per nine innings last season. Expect him to step into the closer role. The rest of the staff, as major league bullpens often are, will be mixed and matched.

It was a bit surprising to not see the Red Sox more heavily pursue a high-profile reliever this off-season, but they clearly believe they can get by with what they have. That said, they will almost surely make a trade or two to bolster this group before the end of the summer.

The lineup

Last year’s Red Sox led the majors in runs scored, hits, doubles, batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentage. They were the best offensive team in baseball, and they return every key member of that lineup from a year ago.

It all starts with AL MVP and professional bowler Mookie Betts. The 26-year-old led the league with 129 runs scored, a .640 slugging percentage and won the AL batting title (.346). They follow that up with another MVP contender, J.D. Martinez, who put together an impressive .330/.402/.629 batting line of his own last year.

Those two get most of the attention, but what makes the Red Sox lineup so formidable is its depth. Xander Bogaerts is one of the best hitting shortstops in the league. Andrew Benintendi contributes at the plate and on the bases. A platoon of Pearce and Mitch Moreland at first base allows them to match up against any pitcher.

Rafael Devers is a former top prospect that has disappointed up until now (career .254/.311/.449), but he is just 22 years old and still has plenty of time to develop. The other question mark in the lineup is Dustin Pedroia at second base. The former MVP still plays the game with as much energy as ever, but he’s 35 years old and starting to have more frequent injury troubles. It may be time to pass the baton to Brock Holt or someone else altogether.

The defense

Are advanced defensive metrics your thing? Well, the Red Sox ranked sixth in MLB with a 26.3 defensive rating as a team, seventh with a 25.3 UZR, and 23rd with -26 defensive runs saved.

If Gold Gloves are more your thing, the Red Sox have two reigning winners at their position, Betts in right field and Jackie Bradley Jr. in center field, plus former Gold Glovers Pedroia and Moreland.

Defensive ability is a difficult thing to quantify. Overall, the Red Sox look to be solid. The outfield of Benintendi, Bradley and Betts is well above average, and there are spots in the infield (Bogaerts at short, Moreland at first) that are impressive as well. But there are gaps in ability. Devers doesn’t look to be a whiz with the leather at the hot corner and Pedroia is slowing down at second base.

The projections

PECOTA: 90-72
FanGraphs: 94-88
Bovada O/U: 94.5 wins

The Red Sox are going to be pretty good again this year. But the roster is slightly less talented than it was at the end of last season. The bullpen has glaring issues that the front office has yet to address. In a division with the revamped Yankees and the pesky Rays, that could be enough to keep the defending world champs out of the playoffs altogether.

On the other hand, a fully healthy Sale and an increased role for a few emerging relievers could more than make up the difference of losing Kimbrel and Kelly in the ‘pen. Whatever happens, expect Dave Dombrowski, Boston’s president of baseball operations, to be aggressive in taking care of any weaknesses that emerge throughout the season.