While there has been considerable focus on what the Red Sox don’t have – a number one starter – let’s take minute to review what has been – on paper – a strong off-season.
ESPN’s David Schoenfield pegged the Sox as the most improved team in major league baseball.
While MLB.com’s Jim Duquette places Boston as the number two most improved team, only behind the Padres.
The big moves – adding Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval and Rick Porcello – lead the way, but don’t overlook the smaller “tinkering” acquisitions to build depth.
Remember, team depth was a contributing factor in the Red Sox 2013 World Championship.
Example depth moves are the recent additions of Robbie Ross and Alexi Ogando.
Ross brings another lefty arm to the bullpen. He started – unsuccessfully – last season for the Rangers so expect him to move back to the pen (relievers are typically by definition failed starters).
FanGraphs likes Ross’ upside. And the cost was minimal – Anthony Ranaudo, an oldish pitching prospect with no out-pitch despite a good minor league track record.
The Ogando signing is a classic Red Sox move – throw money (the team has lots of it) at an upside guy.
Ogando brings potentially (if he can put injury woes behind himself) a seventh inning power arm.
And keep an eye on: adding this bullpen depth may be creating a surplus, with reports Boston would consider trading reliever Edward Mujica.
Fronting the Rotation
This coming season presents big opportunities for Porcello.
He heads into his walk-year for free agency positioned to be Boston’s ace.
The Red Sox avoided arbitration with Porcello, settling on a one-year deal for $12.5 million.
Expect both sides to get to know each other a little better before potentially discussing a new, long-term deal (are we ready for Jon Lester Negotiations – The Sequel?).
Does Porcello have the right stuff to lead the rotation?
A major league talent evaluator told ESPN’s Gordon Edes the following about Porcello, “The whole package improved last season. He maintained his stuff all year and threw more quality strikes.”
But still the evaluator added, “For me, he’s a No. 3.’”
That said, some still question whether Boston needs an ace.
For instance, the Steamer projection system has the Sox ranked as the fifth-best starting rotation in baseball.
And a primary reason for this high ranking – starter depth (ah, back to the 2013 winning strategy).
The Nationals landed the biggest fish in the free agent pool, signing pitcher Max Scherzer to a seven year, $210 million deal.
Washington was a 96 win team in 2014 – with an already strong five man rotation.
And this is leading to speculation that the Nationals could move one of their free agents to be (after the 2015 season): Jordan Zimmermann or Doug Fister, both of whom finished in the top ten in the NL Cy Young voting this off-season noted John Tomase.
Expect the Red Sox to check out what’s next for Washington – since either pitcher would fit well in Boston.
Scott Lauber compared Zimmermann to the White Sox addition of Jeff Samardzija, speculating shortstop prospect Deven Marrero and one of Boston’s top lefty pitching prospects – Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriguez or Brian Johnson – could be the starting point for trade discussions.
All three lefties have strong change-ups, a pitch that can make or break a potential major-league starting pitcher writes Brian MacPherson.
Of course, the Nationals may elect to keep all its pitchers and move 15 game winner Tanner Roark to the bullpen – in an effort to win it all for their 89 year old owner Ted Lerner.
Boston may be better off pursuing Phillies lefty Cole Hamels – who is the better pitcher and signed for four more seasons (plus an option year) – than one year rentals in Zimmermann and Fister.
Hitting Coach Has Big Job Ahead
Included among the Red Sox off-season moves was bringing in Chili Davis as the team’s new hitting coach, replacing Greg Colbrunn.
The team upgraded its lineup, adding free agents Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval.
And Buster Olney has picked Boston as having the best MLB lineup (subscription required).
To generate the results to match Olney’s projection, Davis is going to need to help some players return to form from down 2014 seasons.
For instance, Ramirez hit .283 last year; .345 the year before. Allen Craig hit .215 in 2014; .315 in 2013. Dustin Pedroia dipped from .301 to .278. Shane Victorino (in an injury filled season) went from .294 to .268, writes Jason Mastrodonato.
Says Davis, “They know what they have to do. It’s going to be a fight. It’s only January. Anything can happen. I’m sure when we leave spring training we’ll leave spring training with a strong ball club.”
Talent on the Way to Fenway
John Sickels issued his annual off-season grades to Red Sox prospects – reinforcing Boston has got deep talent in the minors.
No surprises in the top tier with OF Rusney Castillo and C Blake Swihart leading the way.
Some of the newer names Sickels likes in the Bosox farm system:
- Wendell Rijo, 2B, who hit .254/.348/.416 in Low-A and stole 16 bases.
- Michael Chavis, SS-3B, Boston’s first round pick in 2014 draft; who Sickels called raw, particularly on defense, but has tools to be above-average on both sides of the ball.
- Michael Kopech, a pitcher also drafted in the 2014 first round; Sickels wrote he is a long way off, will need time but could be a rotation anchor or at least a workhorse.
We are headed to the start of the second full week in January (a little more than a month from pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training). And there are still at least three big starting pitchers on the market – an area of attention for the Red Sox.
Topping the list is Max Scherzer.
There’s a lot of speculation on teams in the hunt for Scherzer but no concrete reports of team offers.
This week’s reports center on the Cardinals as a potential landing spot for Scherzer.
Those same reports have St. Louis also eyeing Cole Hamels – another of the big three pitchers.
The Cards’ (and Boston’s) options: Is it better to shell more money and years for the free agent Scherzer or trade talent to get Hamels whose annual salary is currently less than where is Scherzer expected to end up and only has four years left on his contract (while Scherzer is expected to be in the six or seven year range)?
Boston is on Hamels’ no trade list – so most likely it would require the team to pick up Hamels’ option year in order to land him in a deal.
And then we have James Shields – the last – and oldest – of the big three.
While there appears to be a spot still open at the top of his team’s rotation, Red Sox GM Ben Cherington said back in December they weren’t actively engaged in the starting pitching market.
Could things change – yes, but that’s unlikely.
The Jon Lester sweepstakes showed the price for quality pitching is higher than ever.
And it appears that prices are outside the comfort zone for Boston – at least so far in this off-season.
Red Sox in Luxury Tax Land
One thing to note in any potential pursuit of a high priced starter, the Red Sox overall team salary is currently trending past the luxury-tax threshold of $189 million.
Team payroll as constituted now has pushed past $193 million, which would be an all-time high for Opening Day — well beyond the $175 million with which they started the season in 2012, writes Brian MacPherson.
Owner John Henry has said the team would go above the luxury tax threshold under the right circumstance (meaning: if the Red Sox were contenders, not building).
So adding salary would more likely be a mid-season move – giving ownership time to assess where the team stands – rather an off-season decision for a team that finished in last place in 2014.
Of course – Boston could shed some salary, like high-priced Shane Victorino ($13 million next season), to make room for additional acquisitions.
On Victorino – he would probably first need to demonstrate that he is healthy before gathering any trade interest.
Waving White Flag in Tampa Bay
The Rays traded middle infielders Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar to Oakland, a move that appears to signal the team plans to retool – not contend – in 2015. (And another demonstration that A’s GM Billy Beane sees the top value of prospects is in trading them – as the team dealt top prospect Daniel Robertson.)
Zobrist was a cornerstone of the now-gone Joe Maddon Era – as the team works to get younger and cheaper.
Tampa Bay’s expected middle infield: Logan Forsythe at second and Asdrubal Cabrera and Nick Franklin at short.
That’s good news for the Red Sox in 2015.
MLB.com’s Richard Justice sized up eight MLB teams which have taken the biggest leaps forward this off-season.
And the Red Sox – along with the Blue Jays – are the AL East teams that made the list.
Justice writes Boston appears capable of going from worst to first again after adding Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to the lineup and Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson to the rotation.
Justice continues the Red Sox may not be done yet – with pitchers Max Scherzer and James Shields still on the free-agent market.
John Tomase also likes Boston’s direction, writing, “it’s hard to ignore the similarities to 2013 as the Red Sox prepare for what they hope will be another bounce-back season.”
Cole Hamels Market
Peter Gammons reviewed what the Phillies could expect as a return in a Cole Hamels trade.
And the history of what teams have received when trading their “aces” shows deals with heavy prospect packages are no sure things.
So one can understand why Philadelphia is taking its time in making a trade – especially because there is always a market for top starters.
Boston beat writer Pete Abraham shared some interesting Red Sox predictions. Noteworthy ones included:
- Look for the Red Sox to acquire one more starter – but not a big-name pitcher like Hamels. The need is definitely there with some rotation question-marks (starting with Clay Buchholz).
- Don’t look for Koji Uehara to lead the Red Sox in saves. Abraham sees the 40-year old coming off a down season as a risk.
- Shane Victorino gets traded in Spring Training. Not a big surprise here. Figure Victorino needs to show he is healthy before he has any trade value.
This off-season has brought a much-needed makeover to the Red Sox.
A transformation needed not only to shake off the team’s 2014 last place finish – but to break the bust-boom cycle of two cellar spots in the last three seasons. (Although the 2013 World Championship worked out pretty well.)
Alex Speier took a look at Boston’s alterations and sees the team headed on the right path.
The big theme is building the team around personnel in their prime – which Speier positions as offensive players “between the ages of 25-30, while starting pitchers most frequently make their impact between the ages of 24-29.”
Look at Boston’s key acquisitions this off-season – all of them fit within those ranges except Hanley Ramirez (an elite player who falls just outside the range).
The other acquired player beyond his prime is Ryan Hanigan – a backup catcher who the Sox got for an under-performing player, Will Middlebrooks.
The article calls out another major lesson learned from last year, “as the season unfolded, the team discovered that its view of how pre-prime players would perform had missed the mark.”
Says Boston GM Ben Cherington, “The offensive degree of difficulty, the difference between Triple A and the big leagues, seemed to be bigger than it used to be. That player making the jump to the big leagues or maturing in the big leagues seems to be facing an even stiffer task than they might have five or six years ago.”
So gone from the plan are Middlebrooks and Jackie Bradley Jr. – although Xander Bogaerts is still a big part of the team at shortstop.
And two other inexperienced players – Mookie Betts and Rusney Castillo – are expected to have starting roles.
So the shift reflects more about the Red Sox confidence in specific personnel than an organizational move away from bringing young players into the lineup.
Closer Look at Prime Age
Speier had a companion article that more closely examined what is a baseball player’s prime age.
The piece presents an array of data that shows the ages of 25-30 are bunched closely enough to a peak plateau “to suggest a period in which players are most likely to perform at something close to the height of their abilities — the so-called prime years.”
The Red Sox have reshaped their starting rotation but most experts still see a void at the top.
Max Scherzer is the top free agent pitching prize – but his asking price is seen as beyond where Boston would go.
Next in line (among remaining free agent starters) is James Shields.
And Jim Bowden sees the best fits for Shields as the San Francisco Giants and Red Sox (insider subscription required).
Bowden views Shields as able lead the staff (a void created when Boston dealt Jon Lester) and mentor the team’s young starters.
While Shields would be a solid short-term addition to Boston, I just don’t see the Red Sox willing to go the number of years (probably five) that Shields will command at age 33.
Looking Ahead to 2015
Red Sox SS Xander Bogaerts generated such high performance expectations prior to last season that it was not hard for him to disappoint – even though he was only 21 years old.
The Sox didn’t help by juggling Bogaerts between SS and 3B during the season.
But expectations were higher than a .240 avg., 12 HR and 46 RBI.
Chalk it up as a learning year – and look for improvement, with ESPN’s Christina Kahrl calling for Bogaerts to be among the 2015 breakout hitters.
Kahrl is projecting Bogaerts to hit 50 extra-base hits and writes “his stardom begins now.”
Other AL East breakout candidates from Kahrl: 3B Manny Machado, Orioles and OF Michael Saunders, Blue Jays.
Kahrl also selected her picks for breakout pitchers – AL East players (no Red Sox made the list): Michael Pineda, Yankees, Drew Smyly, Rays, Kevin Gausman, Orioles, Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays and Nathan Eovaldi, Yankees.
Interesting five of the ten breakout pitchers are from the AL East.
Red Sox Prospect All-Stars
MiLB.com reviewed last season’s top performers position-by-position among Red Sox minor leaguers.
All the usual suspects made the list – Blake Swihart, Mookie Betts and other top prospects.
A couple of other interesting players to watch:
- 2B Sean Coyle, who played at Portland. Often compared to Dustin Pedroia – Coyle is 5-foot-8 – Coyle is MLB.com’s fourth-ranked second base prospect. He has pop – 16 HRs last season, but he has been injury-prone in his career. Look for Coyle to be traded in a deal to add a starter at some point.
- OF Matty Johnson, who played at Salem. He stole 40 bases last season. Think how speed was a differentiator for the Kansas City Royals and you can see how Johnson could carve out a major league role for himself in the future. The Sox got Johnson from the independent Frontier League in 2010.
The Red Sox have rebuilt their rotation this off-season by adding Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson – players that provide upgrades over the back-end of the rotation but don’t necessarily fill the hole created when Jon Lester was traded last season.
They join Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly on the starting staff. And knocking on the door are youngsters Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo and Brandon Workman.
But while Boston may have depth – the team does not anyone who could be classified a number one starter.
Is no ace, no problem for the Sox?
The Red Sox seem to think so. Says Boston GM Ben Cherington, “Once Opening Day is gone, the whole No. 1 starter thing kind of is overrated.”
Adds Masterson, “The ace category is always more of a fan/media type of thing.”
And the accomplishments of the Orioles and Royals during the 2014 season reinforce those beliefs.
Evaluating Red Sox Rotation
Two keys to keep in mind in evaluating the Sox starting staff.
One, there is still plenty of time to go before Spring Training and there’s a #1 starter – Cole Hamels – potentially on the market.
MLB.com’s Jim Duquette places the Red Sox as the odds-on favorite to acquire Hamels from the Phillies.
Boston has the young talent that Philadelphia would undoubtedly ask for – the question is would the Red Sox give it up for Hamels.
Holding out for a big package is the biggest card Philadelphia GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has as he tries to rebuild the Phillies.
Two, as Cherington says, “rotations are rarely static.”
The Red Sox have internal options to bolster the five starters – with Barnes, Ranaudo and Workman (and maybe Steven Wright) in the first wave.
Sox prospects Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriguez and Brian Johnson are in the second wave – players who with a little more seasoning in the minors could make major league debuts in 2015.
And don’t forget, teams with free-agents-to-be like the Tigers (David Price), Nationals (Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister) and Reds (Johnny Cueto) all could be looking to make in-season, Lester-like deals in 2015.
The Red Sox approach may be – let’s see what kind of team we have in 2015 before making a decision on whether to invest in a short-term pitching asset or add more building blocks for the future.