The Red Sox Are Good, And They Could Be Great
Even though they only signed Mitch Moreland as their sole major league free agent acquisition, the Boston Red Sox are the winners of the offseason, at least for those trying to win now. With the trade for Chris Sale, Boston is the best team in the American League. And it isn’t close.
Let’s a take a brief look at their roster. Both ZiPS and Steamer released their projections for the 2017 season, and here’s a rough overview of what, after averaging them together, each major position player looks like:
There are caveats abound because these don’t account for depth chart changes, nor do they account for positional changes throughout the year; this is just a way of gauging how good each player slated into each position on the roster is. In this case, the Red Sox are one of the best in baseball.
With Sale atop the rotation, they basically have four pitchers who are three-and-a-half wins or better over a full season—the question is obviously whether Pomeranz, for example, can last over a full year. Clay Buchholz was shipped out to the Phillies, so there isn’t as much rotation insurance. This was done for good reason, though, because the front office wanted to get under the luxury tax cap.
On paper, this is a good team. Is it a great team, a team that is generational in talent? That is unclear, and it really depends on a few variables, largely out of even their own control: how good will their depth be?
Their depth, in fact, is prolific: Aaron Hill and Brock Holt in the infield, as well as Brock Holt, Rusney Castillo, and Chris Young in the outfield. Young is likely worth a win and still mashes left-handers; Castillo is a complete unknown and hasn’t done well; and Holt has been a league average player with regular playing time.
Then there’s the bullpen, which is shakier. There’s no more Junichi Tazawa or Koji Uehara, so they’ll have to rely heavily on Craig Kimbrel. They have Tyler Thornburg, Carson Smith, Joe Kelly, and then an array of mediocre depth: Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, Roenis Elias; they could fill in as swing men or high leverage depending on the situation, but only Smith, Kelly, and Thornburg profile best for that job. Smith underwent Tommy John surgery last year, so he’s an unknown as well.
Overall, that leaves this team as good and possibly great, with holes lower in the bullpen and at third base. That’s not Cubs-level good, but it’s damn near close. There’s a big difference with the Cubs, though: the division in the East is much better.
Strength of competition, for better or for worse, plays a big role in how well a team does; this isn’t to diminish what the Cubs did, but it’s much easier when you can play the Brewers and Reds a ton throughout the year. The Red Sox will have to face the Yankees, Orioles, Blue Jays, and Rays for much of their schedule, and only the Rays could be considered a “bad” team by whatever metric you use there.
But by the eye test, the Yankees, Orioles, and Blue Jays are above-.500 teams, and they have to play them 44 times this year. That’s a lot! There’s still a lot of variance as to how good these teams will be, but the point remains: if these teams average a .510 winning percentage throughout the year, that’s a very difficult time for a quarter of the year.
So, you have all of this input. Do depth pitchers perform above their median projection? Do opposing teams perform below their median projections? Is Pablo Sandoval a viable player? All of these are valid questions, and to be the team they seem to be on paper, everything needs to break in a positive direction for all of these questions.
And I’ll be clear: if that happens, this could be one of the best teams of the modern era. The Cubs are certainly up there (as likely the best), as well as the 2009 Yankees. This team could be among them.
The other interesting aspect is the departure of David Ortiz. Part of what made the Red Sox truly elite was actually an intangible quality, the ability to hit at an elite level in high leverage situations. In the postseason, Ortiz hit .289/.404/.543 (144 wRC+) over a large sample—369 plate appearances. And in the regular season, he hit .289/.397/.541 (132 wRC+), which is still lower than his average output! That’s something that is irreplaceable, and he’s a player that is literally once in a generation; you could only say that Ted Williams is of a similar caliber hitter, to be frank.
This is a new-look franchise. David Ortiz is the final link to the 2004 miracle season, and now the team boasts a new core of Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Jackie Bradley Jr. They may not be your last-generation Red Sox, some of the best teams ever, but if all goes well, they’ll be close.