Boston Red Sox 2017 season preview: World Series hopefuls have questions to answer
Boston will be looking to repeat as AL East champs but make a deeper run in the postseason
The Red Sox last season snapped a run of two straight last-place finishes and rose to the top of the AL East once again. Helping them toward that goal was David Ortiz, who authored one of the great final seasons in baseball history, and trio of young performers -- Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley Jr. -- who all seemed to gel at once. As well, Rick Porcello finally put it all together and won the AL Cy Young for his troubles.
In the playoffs, though, the Sox busted out in the first round, and that prompted team honcho Dave Dombrowski to undertake a very active offseason. The Sox traded for Chris Sale at great cost and also swung a deal for Tyler Thornburg in the bullpen. By signing Mitch Moreland, Boston freed up Hanley Ramirez to replace Ortiz at DH. As well, the Sox also cleared a path for top prospect Andrew Benintendi to be the every-day left fielder in 2017. On paper, the Sox are in the discussion for best team in baseball going into this season, but even if they do repeat as champs of a tough and deep division, they’ll be judged on how far they go in the playoffs.
Now let’s take a deeper look at what’s ahead for the 2017 Red Sox ...
What will they get from David Price?
The Red Sox of course inked the decorated lefty last offseason at a cost of $217 million over seven years. Price struggled to start his Boston tenure, but in 2016 he wound up leading the majors in innings, while posting a strong 114 ERA+ with typically excellent command indicators. The skills are still there, but this spring has raised health concerns. Elbow issues -- a strained flexor mass, to be specific -- have laid up Price, and it’s not certain when he’s going to be able to take the mound for game action. Right now, it’s looking like he’ll miss all of April, and it’s of course entirely possible that even that uncertain time-table will be altered.
This leads to a series of questions when it comes to the Red Sox’s biggest investment. When will he rejoin the rotation? Will this injury lead to more serious troubles down the line -- troubles requiring, say, Tommy John surgery? Will Price’s effectiveness be compromised upon his return? Will he still be a workhorse? And so on. To be sure, the Sox have the roster strength to withstand even the worst-case scenarios when it comes to Price. Even after trading away Clay Buchholz, they still have some rotation depth, and that costly trade for Sale looks especially sage right now. All that said, injuries can and probably will happen elsewhere in the rotation (Drew Pomeranz is part of it, you know). More to the point, the Sox are all-in on 2017, and Price’s tenuous status works against their goal of winning the World Series. On this front, the weeks ahead will be telling.
How much will they miss Big Papi?
The long-time Boston DH and or warrior-poet of course retired after a thunderous final season. In 2016, Ortiz batted .315/.401/.620 with 87 extra-base hits and 333 total bases. Surely, Ortiz’s absence will be a dominating one. To replace Big Papi, the Sox, as noted above, will shift Hanley Ramirez to DH and install Mitch Moreland as the primary first baseman.
Moreland figures to provide a substantial defensive upgrade over Ramirez at the position. As well, the Sox will likely in essence platoon Moreland with Chris Young, who will either see time at first or DH against lefties, thus allowing Ramirez to slot in at first base. That’s a sound arrangement. Moreland ran some reverse platoon splits last season, but that’s almost certainly a fluke driven by small sample size. He’ll likely get back to being slightly above average against right-handed pitching, or, stated another way, adequate by positional standards. Throw in his defensive value, and he’s a useful roster component.
Much will depend upon Ramirez’s ability to stave off age-related decline, as he heads into his age-33 campaign. He enjoyed a strong bounce-back season in 2016, but he’s another year older and is looking like the kind of player/body type who might not age well. As well, this will be the first time that Ramirez logs a majority of his PAs at DH. For whatever reason, most players experience an offensive decline when they see DH duty. Ramirez thus far hasn’t had that happen, but he’s also logged just 155 PAs at DH in his career. In those ways, it’s Ramirez and not Moreland who may be the most critical piece when it comes to lessening the “Papi deficit,” at least insofar as the numbers are concerned. Obviously, the Sox aren’t going to replace Ortiz’s numbers, but it’s on Moreland, Young, and most of all Ramirez to turn it into a soft landing rather than an utter collapse.
Should we believe in Pablo Sandoval again?
As you’re aware, Sandoval’s going into the third year of a five-year, $95 million deal with Boston that has thus far been an utter boondoggle from the club standpoint. In 2015, Sandoval endured the worst offensive and defensive performance of his career, and last season he was limited to just three games because of a major shoulder injury -- an injury that eventually required surgery. Even so, the Sox put some tacit faith in Sandoval by trading away other third base options like Travis Shaw and Yoan Moncada. Sandoval at the same time showed a renewed dedication to conditioning this offseason. By now you’ve probably seen this widely circulated image from earlier this offseason ...
Backing that up is Sandoval’s spring training line of .370/.382/.704 with four homers in 17 games. Obviously, you should never read too much into camp stats, but consider a “soft” piece of evidence in Sandoval’s favor. Yes, we’ve been through this before with Sandoval, as his weight has fluctuated going back to his early Giants days, but the regular dispatches from Florida suggest he’s more committed than ever. The Sox obviously need him to be, and we’ll see soon enough whether Sandoval’s seeming renewal manifests itself when the games count.
- Dustin Pedroia, 2B
- Andrew Benintendi, LF
- Mookie Betts, RF
- Hanley Ramirez, DH
- Mitch Moreland, 1B
- Xander Bogaerts, SS
- Jackie Bradley Jr., CF
- Pablo Sandoval, 3B
- Sandy Leon, C
Also keep in mind what figures to be a fairly strong bench: Brock Holt, Chris Young, Christian Vazquez, and likely Josh Rutledge. When needed, Blake Swihart can be called up to provide depth at catcher and in left, and first base prospect Sam Travis is close to being ready.
Obviously, Price would be near the front of the line under normal circumstances, and the Sox are hoping that by May he’s back in his usual spot. Even without Price, though, you’ve got reigning the AL Cy Young winner and the dominant Sale at the front end.
- Closer: Craig Kimbrel, RHP
- Setup: Tyler Thornburg, RHP; Joe Kelly, RHP; Robbie Ross, LHP
- Middle/long relief: Matt Barnes, RHP; Fernando Abad, RHP; Robby Scott, LHP
Kimbrel saw significant decline last season in terms of run prevention and walk rate, so he bears monitoring. If Kimbrel slips up, then Thornburg is probably the next closer option, but he seems likely to open the season on the DL with shoulder/trap issues. As expected, Joe Kelly’s stuff played up in a relief role, and he could be in line for more high-leverage opportunities.
SportsLine projection: 93-69 (first place in AL East)
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