Boston Red Sox 2018 season preview: Lineup upgraded, but still some questions
Can the Sox fend off a souped-up Yankees team and win the AL East for the third straight season?
Given all the bandwidth hogged by the New York Yankees and their offseason acquisition of Giancarlo Stanton, it's easy to forget that the Boston Red Sox have claimed back-to-back AL East titles while winning a total of 186 regular-season games over the last two years. As you would expect, the Sox are well positioned to pull off a three-peat in the division. That's not the goal, of course. The goal, under first-year manager Alex Cora, is to make it deep into the postseason for the first time since the team's championship season of 2013. Cora will first be judged by whether the team makes the playoffs. Then he'll be judged by whether he can substantially improve upon the team's 1-6 record in ALDS play over the last two years.
With that scene set, let's dig in ...
- 2017 record: 93-69, first place in AL East (plus-117 run differential)
- 2018 Depth Chart: Click here
- 2018 Schedule: Click here
- 2018 Fantasy outlook:
- Mookie Betts, RF
- Andrew Benintendi, LF
- Hanley Ramirez, 1B
- J.D. Martinez, DH
- Xander Bogaerts, SS
- Rafael Devers, 3B
- Eduardo Nunez, 2B
- Christian Vazquez, C
- Jackie Bradley Jr., CF
See below for more on the current health concerns in the Boston rotation.
Early injury concerns
By all appearances, the Red Sox won't be in full fighting shape for the start of the season. First consider the current state of the rotation ...
- Lefty Drew Pomeranz is sidelined with a flexor strain. He's expected to be ready soon after Opening Day, but anything involving a pitcher's forearm bears careful monitoring. That's especially the case with a pitcher like Pomeranz, who has a history of arm and shoulder troubles.
- Lefty Eduardo Rodriguez, who's got breakout potential, is out until at least the middle of April after undergoing offseason knee surgery.
- Knuckleballer/depth piece Steven Wright is also looking at a mid-April return after knee surgery.
On top of all that, No. 2 man David Price is coming off a 2017 season that was greatly compromised by elbow problems. Unfortunately for Price and the Sox, nothing predicts injuries in a given season quite like injuries in the previous season. Obviously, the Sox in 2018 need Price to be healthy and in solid form. Potentially, the Sox have an edge over the Yankees when it comes to the rotation, but for that to be the case Boston needs near-full loads from Price, Pomeranz, and Rodriguez.
Elsewhere, stalwart second baseman Dustin Pedroia isn't expected to be a go until late May at the earliest because of -- perhaps you've heard this one before -- offseason knee surgery. Can Pedroia come back and produce at customary levels at the plate and in the field after his latest injury and in his age-34 campaign? That's very much left to question. That's why Boston's re-signing of Eduardo Nunez was so critical. He's capable of pinning down second base until Pedroia gets back, and he's also provides a hedge against struggles on the part of 21-year-old third baseman Rafael Devers. Nunez gives the Sox a league-average bat, speed on the bases, and positional flexibility. That's key given their infield situation.
Elsewhere, the Sox haven't gotten a single inning from Tyler Thornburg since acquiring him from the Brewers in December of 2016. Thornburg underwent surgery to correct Thoracic Outlet Syndrome in June of last year, and that's a malady that can end a pitching career. The good news is that Thornburg toward the end of February was able to complete a full side session. He's not going to be ready for Opening Day, but the hope is that he'll recoup enough of his stuff to be a meaningful contributor in 2018. When healthy, he's got swing-and-miss stuff and lockdown potential in the bullpen.
A much-needed addition
Some relevant AL East #facts ...
- In 2017, the Red Sox ranked last in the AL with 168 home runs.
- In 2017, Stanton, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Didi Gregorius -- all members of the 2018 Yankees -- combined for 169 home runs.
So the Red Sox needed power, and they needed an upgrade at the DH spot. They got all of that in a huge way with the addition of J.D. Martinez. Martinez is coming off a 2017 season in which he batted .303/.376/.690 (166 OPS+) with 45 home runs in 119 games for the Tigers and then Diamondbacks. Since joining the Tigers before the 2014 season and reconstructing his swing, Martinez has put up an OPS+ of 149 and averaged 40 homers and 39 doubles per 162 games played. He's established himself as one of the top power hitters in the game today, and he's precisely what Boston sorely needed. Yes, Martinez has a history of injuries, and he's 30 years of age. For the near-term, however, he projects as a real needle-mover for the Sox. As targeted additions go, Martinez was an excellent one who ups the Sox's chances of fending off the Yankees in 2018.
The Hanley question
One of Cora's challenges in his first season on the job will be using Hanley Ramirez properly. Martinez has dislodged him from the DH spot, which means he's going to see time at first base. How much time remains to be seen.
In an ideal world, Ramirez would form the right-handed half of a first base platoon with Mitch Moreland. Neither is a frontline regular these days, but such an arrangement would put each in a good position to succeed and help the team contend. However, Ramirez has seen much more time at first during spring training than Moreland has. That at least raises the possibility that Ramirez will be the primary.
The concern is that Ramirez is going into his age-34 campaign and is coming off a 2017 season in which he put up a OPS+ of 95. That's not adequate for a player who adds negative value in the field and on the bases. But is there hope for a rebound at the plate?
To get an idea of this, we'll turn to an advanced metric called expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA). xwOBA grows out of wOBA, which assigns proper value to every possible offensive event that happens while a batter is at the plate. Those proper valuations of singles, doubles, homers, walks, etc., distinguish wOBA from more traditional measures like AVG, OBP, and SLG. Also, for simplicity wOBA is scaled to look like OBP, which means that, say, .400 is elite and .290 is pretty poor. For instance, Babe Ruth is the all-time leader with a patently absurd wOBA of .513.
All of that brings us back to xwOBA, which is an estimation of what a hitter's wOBA should be based on things like exit velocity off the bat and launch angle. xwOBA attempts to strip away luck -- bad or good -- and defensive play from wOBA and identify a hitter's baseline skill. It's useful for getting an idea of how a hitter figures to perform in the near-term future. Basically, if a hitter's xwOBA is significantly lower than his wOBA, he's probably going to come back to earth at some point. There's some evidence that slower players tend to underperform relative to their xwOBA and faster players tend to overperform, but even so xwOBA has utility. On the other side of things, if a hitter's xwOBA is quite a bit higher than his wOBA, then better days are likely ahead. Here's more on wOBA, and here's more on xwOBA.
Anyhow, Ramirez in 2017 put up a wOBA of .328, but his xwOBA checked in at a much more respectable .351. That 23 point difference between his xwOBA and wOBA is the sixth-largest of any player to log at least 400 at bats last season. That divide raises the possibility that Ramirez still has some productivity left in him. If that's not the case, though, then Cora needs to be willing to reduce his role.
The B's must get A's
Let us discuss three core Sox players whose surnames begin with the letter "B." Specifically, let's note that Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley all suffered varying levels of decline last season ....
2016 OPS+, WAR
2017 OPS+, WAR
Particularly notable is the offensive decline, as measured by OPS+, that all three players endured last season. Overall, all three players were at least useful, but the drop-off from 2016 is broad-based. Particularly concerning is Bogaerts, who put up a wOBA of .331 but an xwOBA of just .283. His problems when it comes to generating quality contact at the plate are becoming more of a concern. In that sense, the 2018 season will be a big one for Bogaerts. Betts is such a great defender and base-runner that he can be a valuable contributor even when he's not raking. When he hits, though, he's an MVP contender, as was the case in 2016. The Sox in 2018 need something closer to the 2016 versions of all of these guys.
Speaking of core contributors with surnames that start with the letter "B," we can perhaps expect Andrew Benintendi, with his rookie season out of the way, to take further steps. It's easy to forget that Benintendi entered last season as the consensus top prospect in baseball and the overwhelming favorite to win AL Rookie of the Year honors. Then Aaron Judge happened. Still, Benintendi showed skills in 2017, and he's just 23 years of age. Don't forget about him and his lofty ceiling.
Give it a "too close to call" in the AL East. It's looking like a classic struggle between the Yankees and Red Sox, and much will be determined by the health of the Boston rotation. The runner-up in this one looks like a strong bet to host the AL Wild Card Game.
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